I’ve been thinking for the last several weeks about spoilers. I couldn’t quite get my mind in gear yesterday to write a post, but when I woke up this morning and read and commented on Nymeth’s thoughtful post on the topic, I realized that I had the beginnings of a post in her comments. So I’ll be fleshing that comment out here.
Some of you probably saw the story about that study that said spoilers actually enhance reading. It was amusing to think about, and I know that for a lot of readers, like Jenny, knowing the end in advance is preferable. But a lot of people prefer to be surprised. Some people prefer it so much that having a book “spoiled” in any way does literally spoil the experience. Some will declare that “A Watched Plot Never Spoils,” and others will prefer a “Tabula Rasa” approach to their reading.
In my usual manner, I have sympathies with both positions. In general, I don’t have a strong opinion about spoilers. I don’t make any big effort to avoid them, but I don’t usually get upset if I happen upon one. If some sort of twist or mystery is important to the book, I’d prefer not knowing how it’s resolved, and I have been known to get upset about people matter of factly giving that kind of thing away, but it’s not likely to “spoil” the book for me. A lot depends on the book. (And as Nymeth said in her post, the world “spoiler” itself could be hyperbole, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an element of truth to it.)
The thing that I find interesting—and challenging as someone who writes about books—is that what constitutes a spoiler seems to vary from person to person. I’ve known some people who don’t want to know anything about what happens in a book, so a discussion of a plot development after the first chapter or two would seem spoilery to them. And then there are the plot points that seem obvious to a lot of readers, but may not be obvious to everybody. Is it a spoiler to mention who ends up together in a romance novel? Or to mention a plot development that occurs around the halfway mark? For me, no; for another, maybe.
And classics are a whole other thing. There are events in books that are so often talked-about that it’s hard to imagine someone not knowing about them. (The big death in Little Women was “spoiled” in an episode of Friends, for heaven’s sake.) Still, there are always going to be people who have missed those references. And then there’s historical fiction. Is it a spoiler to mention who won a particular battle, or which of Henry VIII’s wives got the axe?
Plus, even though people think of spoilers in terms of plot, plot isn’t the only thing that could be spoiled. What about characters? If a seemingly flat stock character develops layers late in the book, would that be a spoiler? Or theme? If a book that seems to be about one thing turns into a book about something else, is that a spoiler?
Of course, in the blogging world, we have the spoiler warning as a way to get around all this. If you think you might be giving something away, post a warning. Seems simple, right? Except that for some, sharing any details about the book at all would constitute a spoiler. (One wonders what such readers want from a blog post—opinion only? Whether the blogger liked it? But that’s boring without something explaining why and how the blogger liked it. That requires details.) If, to satisfy the extremely spoiler averse, I were to start any post with plot details with a spoiler warning, just about all my posts would need a warning. Frankly, that seems silly—and it’s no help at all for readers like me who are only concerned with avoiding spoilers involving secrets that the author is clearly trying to keep hidden. (The twist in Fingersmith or the identity of the killer in a mystery.) See, not so simple!
My usual approach, for what it’s worth, is to allow myself a free hand with events in the first third to one-half of a book. I’ll discuss the premise, the central problem, the growing conflict, and whatnot without any warnings at all. If I’m discussing events late in the book, I’ll try to be vague. I might discuss what works and what doesn’t about the resolution without saying what happens: It was too tidy, or left too many loose ends, or came out of the blue. If I want to discuss the resolution in detail, I’ll add a spoiler warning or at least mention that I’m discussing events late in the book. (Which approach I take often depends on how detailed or how important the developments I’ll be revealing are to the overall book.) Sometimes, too, I’ll discuss events in isolation, without explaining much about how they relate to the overall story. If, for instance, I’m discussing the language, the quote I choose may or may not come late in the book, but it usually won’t reveal any big secrets. If it does, I’ll mention it.
This is an area where I think it’s easy to state a clear and basic rule: Don’t spoil, or if you do, post a warning. I’ve seen people state firmly that this is one of the absolutely most important rules of blogging and that not following it is an inconsiderate violation of basic courtesy. I’m not a fan of blogging rules in general, and even if I agree with the sentiment behind this one (I certainly don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience); I don’t think a no-spoiler-witout-warning policy is as easy to apply as this baldly stated rule would imply. For my part, I try to be considerate, but I know it’s impossible to please everyone. I do what seems reasonable to me and hope for the best. That’s all any of us can do.