Thursday, June 20, 2024

Do Spoilers Really Spoil?

The latest issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER includes an article exploring whether advance exposure to spoilers actually makes the experience of reading a book or viewing a movie (the author mainly discusses films) worse, neutral, or better:

Savoring Uncertainty

The author, Stuart Vyse, starts by analyzing the difference between stories that provide a "clear resolution" and those that end with ambiguities unresolved. He notes, "Given the chaos of everyday life, it’s understandable that people are drawn to stories that make sense and provide closure." He links this tendency to a wish to believe we live in a just universe, offering the TV series LAW AND ORDER as a typical example. There I think he's absolutely right. The traditional detective novel is the most moral of genres. It promises that problems will be solved, questions answered, justice served, and criminals punished. In rare cases when the criminal escapes the grasp of the law, it's because the detective has determined his or her crime was justified. Vyse contrasts the traditional formula with the "noir" subgenre, in which ambiguity reigns, morality comes in shades of gray, and justice is far from guaranteed.

He then discusses the connection, if any, between enjoyment of ambiguity and tolerance of spoilers. He also goes into the definition of a spoiler, which can vary according to the individual experiencing it -- e.g., someone who's naive about the particular genre, such as a small child -- and to what extent the information constitutes "common knowledge." We'd all probably agree that the prohibition on spoilers has run out for mentioning that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, for example. For a century or more, certainly since the first movie adaptations came out, everybody has known Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inhabit the same body. The phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has become proverbial. When the novella was first published, however, that secret came as a shocking revelation near the end. Upon the original publication of DRACULA, readers who ignored reviews could have picked up the novel without suspecting the Count's true nature. Nowadays, even elementary-school kids know "Dracula" equals "vampire."

Vyse cites research on whether spoilers decrease appreciation for a work, increase it, or have no effect. Results of various studies yield different answers. I've noticed tolerance for spoilers ranges from the zero-tolerance of fans such as one of our children, who avoids even book cover blurbs if possible, to my own attitude, sympathetic to a comment I read somewhere that a story capable of being "spoiled" by knowledge of what happens isn't worth spoiling. I admit exceptions of course, such as knowing the killer before the big reveal in a murder mystery (on first reading, at least) or works in which the climactic twist is the whole point of the thing, such as THE SIXTH SENSE. I don't at all mind knowing in advance whether a major character will live or die; in fact, I sometimes sneak a peak at the end to relieve the stress of wondering. When the series finale of FOREVER KNIGHT aired, I was glad I'd read a summary before viewing the episode. When I actually saw the devastating final scene, having braced myself for the worst allowed me to feel it wasn't quite so bad as other fans had maintained. Having reread many of my favorite books over and over demonstrates that foreknowledge of the plot doesn't bother me. With that knowledge, I can relax into the pleasure of revisiting familiar characters.

In one of C. S. Lewis's works of literary criticism, he declares that the point of a startling twist in a book or any artistic medium isn't the surprise in itself. It's "a certain surprisingness." During subsequent exposures to the work, we have the fun of anticipating the upcoming surprise and enjoying how the creator prepares us for it. In a second or later reading of a mystery, for example, we can notice the clues the author has hidden in plain sight. We realize how we should have guessed the murderer and admire the author's skill at concealing the solution to while still playing fair with the reader. (Along that line, I was astonished to hear Nora Roberts remark at a convention that she doesn't plan her "In Death" novels written under the name "J. D. Robb" in advance. How can anyone compose a detective story without detailed plotting? She must have to do an awful lot of cleanup in revision.)

Learning the general plot of a novel or film prior to reading or viewing doesn't "spoil" it for me. I read or watch for the experience of sharing the characters' problems, dangers, and joys, discovering how they navigate the challenges of the story, and getting immersed in their emotional and interpersonal growth. Once the "narrative lust" (another phrase from Lewis, referring to the drive to rush through the narrative to find out what happens next) has been satisfied by the first reading or viewing, in future ones we can take a while to savor all the satisfying details we didn't fully appreciate the first time.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt

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