This article was written by Andrew Blackman.
If you read book reviews online, you’re probably aware that many people really hate spoilers, and that many reviewers, in response, avoid discussing key plot points, particularly the ending. But do spoilers really spoil your enjoyment of a book? They don’t for me, and I hope by the end of this post to have convinced you to liberate yourself from spoiler-fear too.
Why spoiler fear matters
This is not just a pet peeve of mine. It has a serious effect on the quality of book reviews and literary discussions. Fear of spoilers inhibits discussion of the most interesting part of a book: the ending. This is the part where a novelist usually comes closest to revealing to us what he or she is really trying to say, but it’s often the part that gets missed out. We’re so afraid of spoiling someone’s enjoyment of the book, in other words, that we end up spoiling our book reviews instead. Some people take refuge behind a “spoiler alert”, losing readers along the way, but many people just avoid the discussion altogether.
Why spoilers don’t really spoil
Fear of spoilers is unnecessary. In reality, most people read a book review for one of two reasons: either they are considering reading the book and want to know whether it’s worth it, or they’ve already read the book and want to know what other people think about it. In the second case, spoilers are clearly no problem, and in fact a discussion of the ending may be exactly what the reader is looking for. It’s the first case that usually bothers people. If I reveal a key plot point, won’t it spoil that person’s enjoyment of the book when they come to read it?
In short, no it won’t. It’s usually at least several days, and sometimes weeks or months, before a reader of a book review actually buys or borrows the book and gets around to reading it. With eBooks that time could be shorter, but it’s still unlikely to be immediate. The memory of the alleged “spoiler” will have started to fade.
The significance of context
More importantly, the details of plot revealed in a book review often mean little or nothing out of context. Here’s an example. In Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, there’s a twist right at the end, and it is revealed that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother, and so the young Adrian is Veronica’s brother, not her son, as Tony had assumed.
My bet is that if you haven’t read the book, that sentence meant nothing to you. I just revealed the main plot twist in one of the biggest books in recent years, and yet you’ve probably forgotten it already. You could read the book right after reading this post, and your enjoyment would not be spoiled in the least. The reason, of course, is that you don’t have any context. The names Adrian, Tony and Veronica mean nothing to you, and so you have no interest in what they’ve done. This is why novelists spend several hundred pages showering us with apparently unnecessary details. They are giving us the context in which to create meaning and hence to care.
In any case, even if the spoiler is somehow memorable, I think it only truly spoils a small number of books. A very simple murder mystery in which the only interest is in finding out the name of the killer would indeed be marred by knowing in advance that it was Bob. But most books are not like that. Most books are about far more than a simple plot twist. I’m sure that, like me, you re-read books all the time and, far from considering them “spoiled”, you often get more out of them with each new reading.
Why spoiler-laced reviews are better
So what would happen if we all stopped worrying about spoilers? In my opinion, literary discussions would get a lot more interesting.
Here’s some evidence for that, again involving The Sense of an Ending. Usually when I review books on my blog, I am careful not to give away the ending. But last year, in response to reader questions, I deliberately wrote about the ending of The Sense of an Ending (with a spoiler alert, of course!). The response was overwhelming. Most of my book reviews get 5 or 10 comments, maybe 20 for a popular book. This post got more than 250 comments. Many of them were mini-essays in themselves, and spawned long discussions in which further details were teased out. While that post is not my best piece of writing, it does (when combined with the comments) provide a much richer analysis of the book than any of my more traditional, spoiler-inhibited efforts.
I’ve also noticed the liberating effect of spoiler-free discussions with my own novel, On the Holloway Road. One of the best conversations I’ve had about it was with a reading group at a north London library, all of whom had read the book and so were free to talk without fear of spoilers. They went straight for the ending: Why was it so bleak? Why did none of the characters seem to have moved forward? Couldn’t I have given them a little more redemption, a little more hope? The same questions often come up when readers email me or talk to me individually. Yet in all the printed and online book reviews, I don’t remember the ending being mentioned once, and a lot of interesting discussions are stillborn as a result.
So consider this post as my pro-spoiler manifesto. On my blog this year, unless anyone can convince me otherwise, I plan to include in my book reviews whatever details I want, including twists, surprise endings, red herrings and dei ex machina. I won’t reveal surprises just for the sake of it, but I will make sure I’m not inhibited from discussing the more interesting parts of a book simply by fear of spoilers.
Do you care about spoilers? Let me know if you can think of a good reason why we should worry about them. Otherwise, please join me in my spoiling revolution!
Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), in which Neil dies in the end. His next novel, A Virtual Love, is out in April.
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