Suspense and Spoilers

There is a conversation going on at Book Chase about readers who like to flip to the end of a novel to find out what happens versus those who prefer to be held in suspense until the end. The latter definitely dominate the litblogosphere, to the point where there is an unwritten rule that the endings of books, even classics, are not to be revealed. The only way out of this stricture is to prominently post spoiler alerts, and risk having your post ignored by anyone who is reading or planning to read the book in question. This is such a universal point of netiquette that even Wikipedia did it right after the last Harry Potter book was released.

This idea that a book is “spoiled” if the ending is known bothers me. I enjoy a good plot twist as much as the next person, but to me a book should have a lot more going for it than an exciting plot. The point of reading a novel shouldn’t be just to find out “what happens,” but to find out what the author is trying to convey though plot, setting, characterization, diction, imagery, and everything else that goes into a story. If knowing the end makes a book less enjoyable, then it probably wasn’t a very good book to begin with.

Case in point: Daniel Deronda. I know how it ends. I’ve seen the BBC adaptation umpteen times (it’s one of my favourites). Far from spoiling the book, knowing how it ends is adding to my enjoyment of it. I am able to pick up on all the foreshadowing that I’m certain I would have missed otherwise. Even though I know the ending I am still in suspense about exactly how Eliot is going to get me there, and how she is getting me there is far more interesting than the bare plot outline. It’s impossible to say whether I’m enjoying my first reading of Daniel Deronda more than if I hadn’t know the plot, but it’s hard to imagine enjoying it more while being in the dark about where it’s going. Suspense is fun, but minor fun compared to the other pleasures of a masterfully crafted novel.

Another case in point, which many of you will be familiar with: Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it many times, and I seem to enjoy it more each time. I pick up on more details, and grow more and more amazed at Austen’s skills. A person who only read it once, enjoyed the happy ending, and then moved on, would be missing most of what the book has to offer. Life is short; why read books that aren’t good enough to reward multiple readings?

The unhappy consequence of the notion of spoilers is that it prevents us from writing anything substantial about the novels we read. We are limited to giving hints and tastes and previews, never a full discussion of an entire book. The blogosphere gives us a place to take our reading public, and then tells us that we can’t talk about anything beyond chapter 1. How perverse! Why do we tolerate it? I say, let’s spill the beans!

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15 comments on “Suspense and Spoilers

  1. Cam says:

    I must confess: I am one who frequently skips to the end. But, I usually only find myself doing so if the book hasn't completely captured me in the first 50 pages. If the ending seems expected, I'm likely to toss the book. If the ending isn't what I might predict, then I will read some more. This is a rather plot-driven way to determine if a book is worth my while, but if it has captivated me in the early pages, it is because the writing is good. If it isn't, what else is there beside the plot?
    I rarely post spoilers, and it drives me crazy when people post 'SPOILER' all over a review. If your going to write a credible review, you can do so without giving so much away that nobody would want to read the book.

  2. Imani says:

    I have often posted what many would consider “spoilers” in my sorta-kinda reviews but, to be honest, I don't like to know too much about a book before I read it. My preference is not limited to the issues of spoilers though: I often just like to approach a book with few preconceptions. Most of the time I have only a faint notion of what a book is about when I buy it. I work with vague ideas and instinct.
    I do the same with movies — just a good poster and a weird description is enough to get me to the arthouse. I went into Dogville without a clue as to who anyone involved was (even the director) except Nicole Kidman. I saw Sarabande with the faint idea that the director was famous some place.
    It's not a principle that I think needs to be upheld by the world in general. Once I suspect a reviewer's telling me more than I want to know I start to skim. It's less about spoilers and more about how I approach things in general. And I change it to suit the text or film.

  3. RfP says:

    I understand why being “spoiled” can be frustrating, but a strict no-spoiler convention makes even less sense for blogs than for newspaper reviews.
    Blog posts are often about older books, so the ending's likely to be spoiled already. And unlike newspaper reviews, blog readers are often looking for a place to discuss the book *after* they've read it. Disallowing discussion of the ending seems silly.
    Even so, I agree one can *usually* write a review without giving away too much. My compromise so far is that if I feel it's necessary I'll discuss plot twists, but I hide the “spoilers” so you have to click to see them. And the comments are open season. Anyone who's really anti-spoiler is asking for trouble by reading too much online!

  4. Mella DP says:

    A review can be written without spoilers; many other worthwhile forms of criticism and analysis can't, or may be severely limited if they are. I think the fuss comes because lots of people have lost the notion of consuming media for other than entertainment. In US culture at least, pleasure has been the primary aesthetic for several generations, and pleasure has become equated with entertainment.
    Of course there are books (or movies) in which either the shock or the anticipation of the resolution are meant to be part of the reading (or viewing) experience. And of course people discussing works of that sort should be sensitive to that, when it's genuinely the case. But even then, there should be a statute of limitation. Telling someone the end of, say, The Sixth Sense while it was still in theaters would have been petulant; but tiptoeing around the ending of Citizen Kane in 2007 would be silly. And the “mystery” of the ending of a 200-year-old novel with five film adaptations definitely shouldn't be sacrosanct.

  5. cat says:

    I think it is important to mark any information that provides information a reader would want to find out for themselves. I do not read the end of a book before the middle or the beginning and apparently the majority of people agree with me.
    I do see your point that a reader can appreciate a journey through a book even knowing the end of the plot. I myself have read “Pride and Prejudice” many times and love it every time. However, had someone told me the end before I read it, it would have cheated me out of my first read. People who want to read for forshadowing, or to see how the author unfolds the plot knowing the ending, can do so the second time through the book. Or they can choose to ignore spoiler alerts. I, however, enjoy that first read, where everything is new and exciting, just as much as subsequent reads.
    Additionally, someone can tell you what happens at the end of the book and you still may not know if the book is good enough to merit reading. The end of the plot may make no sense without the development in the middle.
    Anyway, I don't mind if others want to know how things end, but I still think that surprises should be possible for those that want them.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. You present diverse points of view but most of you agree that one can write a review without spoilers. But what if the goal is not to write a standard review, which is essentially promotional, but to actually discuss the book? What if I want to talk about Darcy's letter to Elizabeth or St. John's proposal to Jane Eyre or Hetty Sorrel's infanticide? Those are important turning points and no serious discussion of those books would be complete without them. Are we here to talk about books, or are we here just to sell them to each other? I wonder.

  7. びっくり says:

    I think spoilers for movies should be strictly forbidden. This is only because the writing in movies has become so bad that they have nothing else other than their surprise endings. They will purposely create conflicting facts to further increase the surprise (hoping we ignore the conflicts afterwards); because what could be more surprising than something that has been proved impossible?
    Certainly a critical discussion of a good book would need to divulge key points of development. But this type of discourse is generally something for people who have read something and have deep interest in it. It would be hard for someone to discuss Darcy's letter without understanding the difficult history with Elizabeth.
    I sometimes get frustrated when hunting for a movie or TV show synopsis on the net. My friends will be talking about something, assuming that anyone 'culturally literate' would understand, and I, desiring to keep up with what's going on, might go home to read up on how Janeway found Six of Nine. As I stumble around finding spoiler-free write-ups I feel like crying. I think a synopsis should freely convey the main points of the story, including spoilers.
    Interesting post, as always: I hope you win the blog award.

  8. verbivore says:

    I have to agree with your comment that reading is about so much more than the plotted blow-by-blow of the storyline – so much more! And I am really passionate about re-reading. Something changes with each read, real literature's gift to the reader.
    Thinking about it, I probably give way too much away in my reviews because of this bias.

  9. Stefanie says:

    I think it depends on what the book is. If it's the latest thriller in which all that matters is plot, then giving away the ending is just plain mean. However, if you're talking about Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations or Mrs. Dalloway, then I think it is okay to “spoil” the book because these books are more than their plots.

  10. Sarah says:

    I used to hate the idea of reading the ending first, but I've discovered that lately, I come to a certain point (usually the middle of a novel), where I feel so wrapped in plot movement that I can't actually sit back and enjoy the writing. Now, in some books that's not a bad thing if the writing is so-so, but I actually feel some relief at finding out the ending so I can get lost in the writing without the suspense pushing me forward at too fast a pace.
    I often wonder, though, if that's why I never get around to posting my reviews of books…I don't necessarily want to spoil it for others, but I don't always find something rewarding in writing too generally about a book that I've read (so my laziness kicks in and I do nothing).

  11. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting post. I agree with your distinction between reviews that are promotional and criticism or whatever you want to call it that tries to look at the book as a whole. I write both at different times, and I'm not sure what my criteria is for choosing how I write about a book, now that I think about it. But I like the idea that writing that looks at the whole book is more interesting, more in-depth. I don't have a problem with giving away endings, but I do feel like I should post a spoiler alert — if only because I don't want to annoy people! I may turn away some readers who don't want the plot details given away, but I might attract readers who would like a discussion of the ending.

  12. wil says:

    Generally, I'd prefer not to know the plot/ending of a book before I read it through the first time. But like you said, there's far more to a good book than the plot/ending. A good book can be reread with pleasure many times.
    As for book reviews/discussions, I'd stick to the convention of adding a spoiler warning before discussing major plot twists and endings. I fully agree with Bikkuri – sometimes you want a full plot synopsis, including spoilers. So, I don't think you need to shy away from spoilers – include them if you like, just add a friendly warning.

  13. Sylvia says:

    More good points. There is certainly a diversity of opinion and practice out there. I think I have to side with those who say that classics, at least, are fair game. There may be a few readers who will take Macbeth off their reading list if I happen to mention the loophole in the witches' prophesy, but I don't imagine it would stop the serious reader.

  14. Matthew Wood says:

    I Agree

  15. […] to my post on spoilers, do visit Dorothy’s blog for Vladimir Nabokov’s view on why reading a book for the […]

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