What do we know and when do we want to know it?

Spoilers.

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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  1. 1. Clothdragon

    I have to say that I’m glad I watched Sixth Sense before I knew… well… the secret.

    Other than that, I can’t think of another movie or book where it’s been that big a deal for me. And though I LOVED Sixth Sense when I saw it years ago, I just realized that I haven’t watched it again since. It’s even in our dvd cabinet. Odd. I know I watched Mystery Men (that came out the same time) multiple times.

    Now I’ll have to watch it again and see if it matters, if it’s still a good movie without the surprise — because basing a story on one thing to the point it would be ruined if you knew in advance just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But I usually watch/read to connect with other characters not find out a specific idea or who killed someone I never knew. And I’ll read the next book because I like the characters.

  2. 2. Alma Alexander

    Uh – fingers faster than mind as usual – I was thinking of the more commonly accessible parts of the Odyssey being available for a couple of hundred years. The original, of course, is considerably older than that…

    And Clothdragon – data point – I’ve seen “Sixth Sense” after I knew the “secret” and enjoyed it as a nice mystery movie – but then I really did twig onto the “secret” in the first five minutes of my first run at it, so in theory that was the first time I watched it knowing the “secret. All the clues are right there for those who want to see them, actually. So I’m curious if you DID find out that it mattered, for you…

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Alexander, I agree totally. I read the devine trilogy in community college, at 25. Most in my class had already read it. I had an idea where we would be headed; same with Shakespear. Frankly, it was the journey. The beauty within the language. I’ve re-read (new translations) each book at least once since then. When I taught school, everyone of my kids saw Harry Potter and almost every girl in my class was working on the books; go figure.

    CDragon, I get what you’re saying about the magic of the moment. But truly, I wish somebody had told me what ‘Remains of the Day,’ was really about. The trailer sold me a ticket to a different movie than the one I saw. Same for ‘Million Dollar Baby’ don’t get me started on that mess with SL Jackson and J Moore.

    Commitment-shy, I don’t watch first-run TV shows; Top Chef aside. After season-one, I waited for the end of ‘The Wire.’ So I’m waiting to rent/buy Battlestar Galatica on DVD. Thankfully, I read a spoiler about the grand finale. Truly, I would’ve been… very unhappy, had I invested what little time I have into a show that ended on that note. Just my humble opinion.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I’ve watched the movie Apollo 13 more than a dozen times, and I end up on the edge of my seat every. single. time. It isn’t like I don’t know what’s going to happen — hell, it’s history; there was never any doubt in the first place. But the story invariably has me empathizing with the characters, who don’t know, and so it is on their behalf that I’m holding my breath.

    Having said that, I think some stories in particular (like twist endings) do deserve to be encountered for the first time without warning, even if they retain their worth once you know the secret. I tend to think along those lines more than a “statute of limitations” — I love the late-70s TV show The Sandbaggers, and will under no circumstances talk about a certain plot point around anybody who hasn’t seen it, because I think everybody should have the chance to be punched in the gut by it. :-) Whereas I’ll much more freely spoil points from more recent work, if their first-time impact is of a different sort.

  5. 5. Doug Hulick

    If I already know the snap/twist/one-off ending of a work, I apporach it differently. Rather than go along for the ride, I find myself analyzing the groundwork as it is being laid. Is this foreshadowing? Is it effective? Ah-ha, I can see how they will be able to circle back to event X later so that the ending makes sense. Wiat, how dos this apply to what I know is coming later? And so on.

    So while I agree that spoilers can be a drag in some instances, as a writer, I also see them as an opportunity to study how someone else is performing their craft and learn from it (or learn how to avoid their mistakes, as the case may be).

  6. 6. Tom

    Hasn’t Homer’s Odyssey been around since appr 400 BC or thereabouts? Hmmm, so I’d give it another century or two before it is safe to talk about it in public.

  7. 7. Mir

    Coming from a storytelling culture, my most beloved tales I’ve heard and told dozens of times. I love the familar story arc, caressing it as I tell – but each time I, whether teller or listener, am changed from my previous hearing. I am in a different mood, I’ve had a different experience, I am ready to hear a different subtext or have a different angle on the tale. They are never the same to me.

  8. 8. Adam Heine

    I think not knowing the secret can affect how much one loves the work.

    For example, I didn’t know the secret of Usual Suspects, so when I got there it was an OMG moment. And now it’s one of my favorite movies.

    I had heard the secret of Sixth Sense (though I don’t blame those who spoiled it since it had been years and years since the movie came out), and while I thought the movie was good, I don’t remember it very well. And I don’t care to watch it again.

    So I think, for those of us who watch movies over and over again even though they’re “spoiled”, a lot of it has to do more with remembering that first OMG moment. If we never had that moment because of a spoiler, would we love the movie just as much?

  9. 9. Lise

    One of the things about people using spoiler tags, or warning people of spoilers, is that means people care about a work enough to try and encourage people to experience it fresh they way that (we assume) they did.

    Think about movies like The Happening… it had a secret but people relished in dishing the secret to people who hadn’t seen it.

  10. 10. Adele

    Yup, I try to avoid spoilers of books in new releases but on old favourites(Good Omens for instance) I feel content to wax lyrical about all my favourite bits without guilt. There are some books and some movies that are spoiler sensitive, they tend to be the ones that don’t re read/re watch as well, but otherwise, not really seeing the problem.

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

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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