29 April 2005

Spoiled Again!

After I wrote about The Assassination of Richard Nixon recently, BionOc took me to task for revealing major plot points of the movie without providing a spoiler warning. Our discussion is there in the comments on the post, but I wanted to elevate it to its own post, because I think the various viewpoints are important ones to some of what I've been trying to accomplish with The Mumpsimus.

There are lot of reasons to be in favor of spoiler warnings. Particularly for reviewers of mystery novels. There are very few reasons that any rational human being would be against some form of spoiler warning. In fact, I've even used them occasionally myself, as BionOc pointed out.

But in general I dislike spoiler warnings. I have a few reasons for this odd belief, but the important one is that spoiler warnings raise plot above other elements of a narrative. I like plot, and tend even to prefer stories that contain some sort of plot to stories that don't, but it's rarely what I read a book for or watch a movie for, it's seldom what determines whether I am impressed by a work or not, and it's not usually what I remember about a particular story. Therefore, to me, any commentary on a particular work contains spoilers -- spoilers about characters, language, viewpoint, imagery, etc.

None of that, however, would be reason enough to avoid spoiler warnings here at The Mumpsimus, because I realize most people value plot more than I do, and are disappointed when reviewers reveal major plot points. As I've thought about it, I've realized that my quest is even more ridiculous than I already knew it was, because I was hoping that my intentions would be clear from my actions, from the general avoidance of spoiler warnings, but that's silly. Realizing this, I've decided that I will soon put up a link at the top of the site to this post as a "statement on spoiler warnings".

One thing I particularly liked in BionOc's comments was: "I think it's fairly safe to assume that most reviewers in the mainstream press don't share your principled reluctance to privilege plot, especially given that plot is generally all they can fucking talk about." The latter part of that sentence is a particularly important one. The tendency to devote 90% (or more) of a review to describing the plot of the work in question is idiotic. It does a disservice to most writers, particularly the good ones.

So the lack of spoiler warnings here (with occasional exceptions) is a deliberate act, not an oversight, but not intended to cause major angst, either. I am simply trying to show that there is life beyond worrying about the plot all the time, and that plot is neither greater nor less than other important elements of any narrative which get mentioned all the time without warning.

22 comments:

  1. Hmm.
    I used to hate spoiler warnings too.
    What changed my mind was Frank McConnell's introduction to the Sandman trade 'The Kindly Ones'. Because, for various valid but irrelevant reasons, I was living under a rock at the time the individual episodes came out I didn't know how the story ended. I read the introduction, chomping at the bit, raring to go. Then I screamed when Frank said, "Dream dies at the end. Sorry to bust your bubble, but this is a tragedy...so you should know"
    I could not believe it, and since that time I've stopped reading introductions/prefaces until I've read the book.
    As a direct result of that I've come to value spoiler warnings.
    Not to elevate plot beyond its 'normal' importance, but to recognize that it is an integral part of the narration, a part that we, the readers, would like to enjoy just as much as the allusions, the language, the imagery and so on.
    That said, I don't mind the revelation of SOME (or even most) plot points. As long as something critical like the death of Morpheus is left out I'm not bothered.
    I should also say that I saw The Assassination of Richard Nixon after reading your review and still enjoyed it.

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  2. Matt, I hope I made clear that I absolutely respect your position, and admire your trying to formulate a rigorous philosophical approach to this.

    I'm struggling to hammer out a working spoiler theory that, though I suspect somewhat philosophically incoherent, does address the actual experience of people-in-general interacting with fiction-in-general.

    I keep coming back to the notion that narrative, while I agree it's no more important than other elements like characterization, political viewpoint, &c., is nonetheless qualitatively, experientially different. And different in a specific way such that plot spoilers, in general (working theory!), interfere with the experience of narrative more, and more negatively, than 'spoilers' about other aspects of a work.

    From a purely narrative perspective, fiction is definitionally the deliberate juxtaposition/sequencing of events, ordered as the author intends the reader or viewer to experience them. Therefore, becoming aware of any event outside of that order disrupts the inherent experience of the narrative (as the author intended, anyway, a contentious point I know but for the sake of argument).

    Of course you could argue that the author equally intends characterization, &c. to unfold in the way s/he has laid it down, and you wouldn't be wrong. But from the viewpoint of general experience, I think it would be disingenuous to claim that we-in-general respond with as much rage to a review that reveals 'there is a fascinating female Marxist protagonist' as we do to one that says 'the protagonist is killed by the gay ex-Mafia hitman'. Not that we shouldn't, but we don't.

    And with great respect to your attempt to change that, I think it's also worth our time to try and formulate a way of engaging with things as they currently stand for a great number of readers, or risk being patronizing. Dunno, maybe I'm pandering, but it's something I see in myself.

    Ideally, we would know absolutely nothing about a work going in, but again on a practical level, not really workable IRL. Unless we each had someone who knew us so intimately we could trust them to pick our culture for us blind, which I suppose is an idea. Anyone up for the experiment?

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  3. I'm in agreement with you Matt. Only in a few cases (mystery novels are a good one, read Agatha Christie's "Roger Ackroyd" knowing the (very surprising) ending and it just wasn't very thrilling a read) would I use a spoiler warning (though I'll be damned that I did in my last review of the new Harry Mathews novel).

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  4. Hi Matt. Just fwiw, your planned 'Statement on Spoiler Warnings', an initiative I vehemently support, in presumably warning that in what follows all spoilage is fair, could of course be viewed by some unkind souls less as not-a-spoiler warning than as the MACK DADDY of spoiler warnings. An uber-spoiler warning. The Great White Whale of spoiler warnings, spuming in a sea of narrative. I'm just saying. Thar she blows.

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  5. derikb and Matt,

    But if you make exceptions for things like detective novels, aren't you gutting your position? Or are you excluding those kinds of fiction as unworthy of un-plot-privileging? Is the idea that plot is so paramount--or other literary elements so vestigial--in detective fiction, that your rules don't apply? That smacks of genre-ghettoization, which I imagine you would oppose, Matt.

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  6. No offense intended, but honestly, this sounds like an attempt to rationalize knowingly harming other people. You don't deny that having key plot elements revealed can ruin the reading experience for most readers; it seems to me that therefore common decency should trump idiosyncratic literary theory.

    I'm not a fan of spoiler alerts myself, but they are almost always preferable to spoilers.

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  7. Let's see, working backwards:

    *I don't agree that it is a justification of harm, because I think the supposed harm is, with some exceptions, overrated.

    *Many types of mystery novels (and certain other types) are more about the plot and the revelation of the mystery as anything else, which is why I think they're a valid exception. It's not a ghettoization of a type of writing so much as an acknowledgement of certain things that make it different from the majority. But not always. I actually read a couple of Jim Thompson novels knowing the entire plot beforehand, and enjoyed them nonetheless. But if the plot -- and, more than plot, the surprise of the ending -- is the primary thing to be enjoyed in the book, then knowingly destroying that surprise is to knowingly destroy the pleasure the book possesses. I don't see discussing a book as a whole doing that in most other cases.

    *China made me laugh. (Working on another sea novel, m'boy?) One of the reasons I think it will be fine to link to this post and comment thread as a statement on spoiler warnings is that it will so drown the entire endeavor in context that it will be all things to all people. In the end, both I and spoiler warnings will come out looking absurd, and that's probably how it should be!

    *Derik, like me, has discovered that the stronger you hold an opinion, the more likely you are to provide an exception to your own rules.

    *An experiential difference between narrative and other literary elements is an interesting idea, and would certainly be valid to a point, since if we're going to separate something and identify it as an element, then it must have properties of its own. My own position is against the exceptionalism that has made plot the holy of holies at the expense of other things, a tendency that I think (or, perhaps, feel) spoiler warnings contribute to. I like the idea of the experiment BionOc proposes about blind exposure to some cultural item, and would be curious about the results. What are the things that affect a reading/viewing experience? After all, readers or viewers more sensitive to, for instance, foreshadowing have a different experience from others -- I can think of movies and books I find predictable that other people don't, and vice versa, and that makes for vastly different judgments.

    I don't necessarily think my position is one that should become a universal. In the post I linked to at Sarah's blog, she points to a review that is a masterpiece of discussing a novel without giving away any important plot details. That's probably the ultimate goal for reviews aimed at readers who haven't yet encountered the work in question. Most of the time here, I'm writing for myself to try to figure out what I really think about something, so that's not entirely my audience or goal, but it's certainly one I respect.

    (Maybe the position I'm taking is the one of a not-quite-sane radical idealist, so that the more moderate pragmatists can look less crazy and gain more ground than they would otherwise.)

    *Morpheus died?

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  8. 'Many types of mystery novels (and certain other types) are more about the plot and the revelation of the mystery as anything else, which is why I think they're a valid exception.'

    Ooh, that's a slippery-ass slope you're toeing, Matt. Now you have to start facing questions of quantifying the relative prominence of plot vs. other elements in any given work, and whose judgment that is to make, and it turns into a big subjective mess.

    What if you have a splendidly characterized, fully-fleshed detective novel with a mediocre ending? What about a horribly written piece of suburban family litfic with a killer twist? &c.

    I think if you're going to take your radical idealist stance, you have to go whole-hog and make no exceptions. Caveat blogtrollor and de'il take the hindmost.

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  9. Well, any idealistic position is going to ignore some grey areas and complications, but the difference, I think, between a useful idealist and a ridiculous idealist is in their ability to at least acknowledge degrees of judgment.

    What if you have a splendidly characterized, fully-fleshed detective novel with a mediocre ending? What about a horribly written piece of suburban family litfic with a killer twist? &c

    In the first case you mention, revealing the ending doesn't hurt the book at all, and may, in fact, help a reader appreciate it and not feel as let-down as they might otherwise. In the second case, if the book is ruined by a mention of its ending, then the other stuff in the book can't be very interesting, and the ending probably isn't very well integrated with the other elements, so it's a gimmick that deserves to be flogged.

    To see Nick Mamatas get yelled at for being a spoiler, read the comments to this post. Nick uses far more interesting and colorful language than I do.

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  10. I am simply trying to show that there is life beyond worrying about the plot all the time, and that plot is neither greater nor less than other important elements of any narrative which get mentioned all the time without warning.

    That is simply because those other elements can't usually be ruined by revealing them to the reader beforehand.

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  11. Nick's position is similar to yours, Matt, but honestly I think most of that thread is pretty silly and immature. All that nonsense about 'Well, I like spoilers, so you can fuck off!' is profoundly beside the point.

    Spoiler warnings do exactly no harm to those who want their plot spoiled; they can simply bowl right past and read to their hearts' content. They're just enjoying dissing people they think are less radical and anti-plot-pomo than they are.

    And the argument that a book that can be spoiled by plot spoilers wasn't worth reading to begin with is both presumptuous and ex post facto.

    Today I'm feeling quite hardheaded and lumpen-common-sensy about this, and I think as a reviewer you are absolutely entitled to reveal as much or as little about a work as your aesthetic principles demand, but if you want to be gracious to your readers you will do them the courtesy of posting a warning. Even if it's a giant general uber-warning about not posting warnings. Just something to make the reader aware she proceeds at her own risk. It's the nice thing to do.

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  12. Spoiler warnings do exactly no harm to those who want their plot spoiled; they can simply bowl right past and read to their hearts' content.

    But, but, but ...

    We're not talking about shouting in a public place (or even the internet equivalent of shouting in a public place.) Both Matt and Nick were writing in their personal journals. Just because other folk choose to read them hardly requires that they modify their conduct to some arbitrary societal convention.

    but if you want to be gracious to your readers you will do them the courtesy of posting a warning.

    I find this a rather wrongheaded sentiment - I've never had a problem stopping reading a review that I felt was giving away more of the plot of a book than I wanted. (And this includes Matt.) I don't need someone to tell me maybe I shouldn't read this, I'm more than capable of making up my own mind.

    I assume others who read my journal have that same ability. Suggesting I follow someone's arbitrary rule of courtesy in a personal journal seems about as foolish as insiting I don't use green on my website because some people are colorblind.

    Matt's journal belongs to him and there is absolutely no reason why he shouldn't run it any way he likes, even if you don't like it.

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  13. Writing on a "personal" blog or not (which, by the way, happens to be as public as virtually every other website out there), I think most people "get" the idea that others may take that spoiler stuff seriously. I take it very seriously. And how am I, as a casual visitor of Matt's blog, supposed to learn that he may post spoiler material without warning? I discover it by having something spoiled for me. I find that defending the no-spoiler-warning position - as anything like a policy - is ridiculous. Sure, you're not breaking a law. So what? Nobody is saying that. But you spoil plot details for someone, you should at least be gracious in retrospect and acknowledge that you've stepped over a pretty reasonable line.

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  14. 'Matt's journal belongs to him and there is absolutely no reason why he shouldn't run it any way he likes, even if you don't like it.'

    Bit simplistic, that. Presumably Matt wants me (as in any or all of the many me's thronging the Ultraweb) to read his posts, or he wouldn't post them publicly. You only write in a vacuum if you write secret reviews in a notebook marked 'Private! Keep out!! This Means You!!!' that you keep under your mattress at home.

    Otherwise you're writing for an audience, and like it or not they will have opinions about how you do it. You are of course free to disregard them--to that extent you're right, it is Matt's journal--but then you risk them not reading you anymore.

    As a reader who finds Matt's stuff interesting and would like to read it, it's worth my while to try to get him to present it in such a way that I know when I can do so 'safely' (to be melodramatic about it). Again, he's free to refuse, and I'm free to fuck off. But it's not as simple as 'Matt's, he can do whatever he wants'.

    'I've never had a problem stopping reading a review that I felt was giving away more of the plot of a book than I wanted.'

    I certainly have. Many's the time I've been innocently reading along and had a single sentence land some gigantic spoiler before I even knew what had hit me. Call me hypersensitive, it's a problem for me.

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  15. On the contrary, offering a spoiler warning lends sanction to the idea that spoilers are important.

    It's not just a social nicety, it plays to a wrongheaded and foolish expectation. That there may be large numbers of wrongheaded and foolish people out there does nothing to make the anxiety over spoilers wrongheaded and foolish.

    Plaain and simple: if Matt starts putting up spoiler warnings with any regularity, Matt is no longer a critic. He's an ad man.

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  16. That should read "does nothing to make the anxiety over spoilers LESS wrongheaded and foolish."

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  17. Ah ha ha ha ha Nick, Freudian slip. I win.

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  18. *pats bionoc's head*

    That's right. You win.

    Also, "rosebud" is a sled, the chick in The Crying Game is a dude, and the Titanic sinks at the end.

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  19. Curse you for a sadist and a puppy-kicker! I was saving 'Titanic' for a special occasion, and now you've ruined everything.

    I suppose next you're going to tell me Kevin Spacey is really Kaiser Soze. Or that the von Trapps don't get stuck in a death camp.

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  20. "The man who tells the truth about a detective story is simply a wicked man, as wicked as the man who deliberately breaks a child's soap-bubble -- and he is more wicked than Nero. To give away a secret when it should be kept is the worst of human crimes; and Dante was never more right than when he made the lowest circle in Hell the Circle of the Traitors. It is to destroy one human pleasure so that it can never be recovered, as if one had jerked the elbow of Roberts when he was doing an unprecedented stroke in billiards, or smashed the skull of Milton the moment before he wrote 'Lycidas'."

    G. K. Chesterton, in _The Illustrated London News_, November 7, 1908 (Collected Works, volume XXVIII)

    ...What Chesterton said about detective stories doesn't apply to all stories of every kind, of course; but I would venture to say that it applies to any story in which the plot (or any other element: characterization or world-building, for instance) takes surprising turns. But how to define "surprising"? What is surprising to me may be obvious to you, or vice versa, depending on our past reading experiences.

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  21. I disagree about the anxiety over spoilers. I'm grateful when told that an article has some spoiler contained within it and will avoid the article if I've been anticipating the movie. I appreciate that touch on behalf of a reviewer.

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