A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.


Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

12 Responses to A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

  1. Super post, Caroline, and thanks so much for the double mention of my novel and my blog post.
    I love how you’ve introduce the topic with the amusing references to those stories we keep going back to, despite our familiarity with the plot and of course we treasure fairy tales partly because we know what’s going to happen. I suppose there are some solid stories, the kind that feel hardwired in our brains, that require repetition, and some books that are so well written we find new things each time we revisit them.
    It’s interesting to divide readers and writers into those who privilege plot versus those who privilege language, although for me as both reader and writer I’d locate myself as somewhere between the two. I like literary fiction more for the emotional depth than the poetry.
    Discovering the research on spoilers was extremely reassuring for me on my impending publication of a novel with a secret. Although I’ve gone along with the convention of avoiding the reveal, it made me less anxious about the prospect of it inadvertently coming out. (And much more relaxed than my character is about her secret!) It’s been interesting attending a couple of events on the basis of that secret but talking around it – I was worried that might be a bit awkward but it hasn’t been so far. It’s been fun thinking what I can say, and how to say it, without spelling it out.
    I think all kinds of reviews are beneficial to raising a book’s profile and I do have one review that contains a spoiler along with the spoiler alert. At an event this week a reader told me she’d read the reviews and couldn’t resist the one with the spoiler – it made her very enthusiastic about the issues and her interesting questions added to the discussion.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for continuing this discussion. I warm to the reader who thought that she wanted to read your book even more as a result of knowing the secret in Sugar and Snails.
      I find myself shifting a little on this issue. Perhaps becoming a little more tolerant of the alerts, while wanting to challenge the suggestion that readers won’t enjoy novels if they know the story. Or the secret.

  2. Great post Caroline. Some years ago I asked my readers what they looked for in a blog review, and the question of spoilers came up. Some cared, and some didn’t, and I’m sure it’s largely because of the sort of readers they were. I think though that we could add a third group to your A and B writers and readers, and that is A and B books. They overlap a bit with the writers group but I think to focus on the book is another way of looking at it “plot-driven” books and “idea and language driven books”. I’d included classics in the latter (even if they might initially have been plot-driven, because by definition they are well known and so usually read for something besides the plot).

    When I first started my blog, I planned not to worry about plot spoilers. I wanted to write posts that discussed the book in entirety, which meant taking the ending into consideration, but I pretty quickly realised that this was not what was expected by many readers (particularly of reviews of contemporary books). So, I rarely spoil plots and I do give a warning (maybe once or twice a year) if I decide to refer to the ending in some way. It’s a real juggle – but like you my focus is writing and ideas and I’d love not to worry about spoiling plots.

    • Caroline

      This is an interesting addition: your review readers do not want to know about the plot. Especially the ending.
      In We are all Completely Beside ourselves the big secret is revealed on p77. See Sarah’s comment.
      Sometimes the way the book ends requires a comment, like The Green Road I reviewed recently.
      And in some books it seems like the author didn’t know how to end well. And that needs comment as well.
      I guess it will have to be considered on a book by book basis.
      Thanks for this.

  3. Sarah

    Can I put a plea in for different kinds of readING rather than readERS? I love a good story well told. And I like reading or re-reading some novels where I am not distracted by anxiety/excitement about how the story will go and can concentrate on other things – the prose, the emotional insights, whatever. With We Are All Beside Ourselves (great title) I enjoyed not knowing, and felt I could trust that the author didn’t want me to know yet. When all became clear it changed so much, and I will never get that pleasurable, interesting unknowing back. So I am glad I never saw a spoiler beforehand. Knowing brought other pleasures and interest of course.

    • Caroline

      You are right – it’s about the process of reading not the people: I should have made that distinction.
      I agree that not being distracted by plot allows reading that appreciates many different things.
      Wise comment. Thank you.
      C xx

  4. Sadly I heard a review of We Are All Beside Ourselves before I read it and I did feel slightly cheated until page 77 – I would prefer not to have known that particular twist, but still enjoyed the book. On the other hand, I’ve recently heard some episodes of Jane Eyre (on radio 4 a couple of weeks ago) and did think, when one of the announcers ‘wondered what could possibly be going to happen’ (not exact words!) could anyone have been listening who did not know the story – and no, my enjoyment of the adaptation was in no way lessened by knowing exactly what was going to happen to every single character! Then again, I recently borrowed a Margaret Atwood novel from the library and realised within the first few pages that I had already read it – but I was able to enjoy it again, not completely remembering everything as it unfolded but recognising certain events, knowing what was going to happen a few times and paying more attention to the way it was written than perhaps I did the first time. So much depends on the book of course – and the reason classics are classics is that you can read them any number of times and get something more from each reading!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these thought Nicki. It seems that the consensus is that we have to think of each book separately and what we want to achieve in our reviews – looking at the writing not just the story, seeing a reveal or an ending as crucial to the enjoyment, or something else.
      Nice definition of classics.

  5. Christine Arthur

    Ah! a subject dear to my heart – I do think it’s possible to enjoy a book you know the outcome to from the start (Good Behaviour – Molly Keane) – but spoiler alerts annoy me as I don’t think reviews should contain spoilers. If the author has chosen to write without giving significant information upfront, why should the reviewer overturn that ?

    Where I think plot spoilers are completely unacceptable is when they are in the introduction to the book itself. Hilary Mantel has the temerity to do this in my edition of The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. I think the publishers were cowed by her celebrity otherwise they would have edited it out but it took the shine off the book for me.

    • Caroline

      Thank you Christine. I find that very helpful. Go with the writer’s intentions.
      I can see that Hilary Mantel’s spoiler really annoyed you!

  6. Eileen

    Writers: storytellers, users of language and a third to add: learners.
    Love the spoiler cartoon,

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