November 5th 2009
What do we know and when do we want to know it?
The rude, the uncouth, the unwary who let slip the fundamentally important pivotal core detail while talking about some recent book or movie to someone else who has not yet read or seen it. The reviewers who, in absence of an opinion on a piece, trot out a plot synopsis complete with spoilers embedded within.
The thing is, I understand the aversion to basic spoilers *completely* – so long as we are talking about *current work*. Something that’s still in the cinemas, some book that’s barely hit the shelves, that sort of thing – the kind of situation where your partner in conversation might want to keep from knowing certain details until they’ve had a chance to experience those themselves. That’s understandable, and perfectly fine.
But just where does one draw the line, when talking about older works?
In a newsgroup I frequent recent discussions have centered on the Oz books, and on the Odyssey (yes, THAT Odyssey. Homer’s). Someone asked a question along the lines of “Wasn’t there an Oz book where….?” and someone else answered “Yes.” That was suddenly considered a spoiler – a malicious interference with people, destroying the pleasure with which new readers will approach the Oz books.
But correct me if I am wrong – first, the Oz books are pretty much aimed at kids (weren’t they? Even the spoiler-whingers talked about eight year old readers somewhere) and those readers are not on this forum at all – which means that no spoilers have been made for THEM – and frankly, if you’re forty and you still haven’t read all the Oz books and don’t want spoilers *just in case you do* I don’t feel that’s my problem. These books have been around for a long time, they have been talked about for a long time, I don’t think you can even GET some of them any more they’ve been out of print for so long, and I don’t see how the fact that some grown-up human being won’t take responsibility for his or her own choices to read or not to read the Oz books should affect what I have to say about them.
But Odyssey ?!? Yes, that Odyssey, Homer’s, the one which has been around for a COUPLE OF HUNDRED YEARS – how can anybody, with a straight face, even talk about a spoiler for that? I read it as a child; I’ve probably forgotten more about it than some people will ever know, and you know, that’s fine, not everyone has to have read this as a prerequisite for growing up. It was just my own good fortune to have been raised steeped in the culture and literature and mythology of the old world and the history at the dawn of time, and while I would love for everyone to have shared that upbringing I realise that they have not (especially in the modern United States of America where 150 years counts as old and historic and anything before that all too frequently dismissed away as irrelevant). But really, if you are living in a Western civilization and haven’t grown up in Papua New Guinea or some isolated South Sea island, you will have – SHOULD have – heard of the civilisation of ancient Greece. Perhaps even of its Gods and heroes. Perhaps even of its poets. Screaming “spoiler!” if someone references a poetic saga hudreds of years old simply reveals an abysmal cultural ignorance, and not an eager desire to “get around to” reading the Odyssey one day, some day, when other more important things (“hey guys the game is on”) are not interfering with that goal.
Just how old, just how hoary, just how venerable does a book or a movie have to be before it can be spoken about in public without someone shutting you up about spoilers? I’ve heard the cry of spoiler go up with such things as “It’s a Wonderful Life” – but for the love of Clarence the Angel, just about everyone involved with that movie has died of old age. I should think that the statute of limitations has run out for it by now. Oh, here’s another – there’s a Big White Rabbit. And his name is Harvey.
I just re-watched an old favourite movie on an afternoon re-run on TV – well, I was sick and bored and miserable and I couldn’t concentrate on much else so I watched a lot of TV, okay….? – and you know what? I know this movie practically by heart. I know it on a level that’s so full of spoilers that it would freak the spoiler-averse out to an epic degree. But knowing the dialogue as it is uttered – knowing the expressions that will come into people’s eyes – knowing certain favourite scenes are coming up and waiting for them with eager anticipation – it is possible, you know, to watch/read a story for the Nth time and STILL get a kick out of it…. when it is that good. This movie I am speaking about? The first time I saw it, cold, spoiler free, I cried. I cried every time I have seen it since. And the spoilers have taken nothing away from that. NOTHING.
So. For myself, I pledge to remain courteous about the issue, and conscious of other people’s desires to experience a movie or a book for the first time for themselves…. so long as it is a NEW movie or a book. Anything older than a quarter of a century has been around plenty long enough to have been “spoiled” by someone other than me a long time ago. And if somebody just hasn’t “got around’ to seeing or reading a particular (elderly) work of art… well… that can’t be my problem. I cannot curtail my speech or my opinions because I do not know whether someone on the other side of a written page, or a screen, has read or seen some book or movie which I reference. We are all guardians of our own culutral universe – and the only way to avoid spoiler talk altogether is simply to withdraw from the real world and lock the doors behind you. If you do NOT want a book or movie spoiled, do not read reviews, do not frequent places where people might have conversations. Here’s the thing – the rest of the world can’t, and won’t, wait until you catch up. It’s moved on, to other things – and in its wake the things that were older are now embedded in the matrix of common knowledge.
For myself, the answer to the question which is the title of this post is, I don’t really care. For me, the lure often isn’t the destination. It’s the journey. I don’t care if I know in advance that the Butler Did It. What I want to know is How The Butler Did It. And for that… I’ll watch the story. A good story will survive any “spoiler”, any day.
What do you think?
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Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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