Saturday, August 1, 2015

Quick Thoughts - Spoilers

The time has come, I feel, to talk about spoilers. Now, I'm not sure everyone else's opinion on the place of spoilers in reviewing. I myself have some mixed opinions, because I understand that reviews play different parts for different people. For me, I normally try to avoid spoilers (try being vaguely honest), wanting to let the reader discover for themselves the endings of things, discover the twists and turns. Where possible I try to leave things ambiguous and open. And this is because I assume that there are people out there that are reading reviews to figure out what they want to read. It's something that I've certainly done, though a part of me doesn't much care when reading a review in this way if there are spoilers or not. And sometimes, honestly, I want spoilers even if I haven't read the work.

I shall explain. Sometimes, when I go looking for reviews on a story or a novel, I'm looking for certain ideas or keywords. If this is a book that I'm thinking of getting for myself, it's sort of like looking at the back, looking for some overview of what's there. In that case, I want the book spoiled in certain regards. Accidental pregnancy, rape, or other triggering content is probably not going to be on the back cover. But I can be faily certain that if a book or story has some content that is going to offend me or make it an unpleasant reading experience, that someone else has already discovered that and mentioned it in a review. Not that it's always so stated, and sometimes the most positive of reviews can steer me right the fuck away from a book. Because if the review is glowing and praising certain things that I have issues with, then I know that I want to stay away from it. So when I review part of me is trying to play to that, trying to perhaps warn people of things that they might find unpalatable. Which is different for me than it is for others, so it means that sometimes I do indeed include spoilers so that people know what they're getting into with a story.

Now, there is another part of me, too, that uses reviewing for completely selfish reasons. Namely, to get down my thoughts on a story, my own reaction to the writing so that I can organize my thoughts about what I just read. And I'm not sure how much that requires the spoilers, except that sometimes I want to react directly to something that happens, and often it's to something that is important to the story, that is a spoiler. I can think of many recent stories I've reviewed where this has been the case. I just can't really hold myself back from reacting to certain things because they get to me. They make me smile or cringe or cry or piss me off and I want to talk about them. I want to figure out my own thoughts about them and that means I have to spoil them. Now, as some have probably noticed, when I am conscious of spoiling things I have been trying now to include the warning in parentheses so that people can skip or whatnot. Do people skip? I'm not really sure, but I feel that it's the polite thing to do in case there are people who really don't want the stories spoiled.

Spoilers are fascinating, though. Part of me, the part that is a writer and not a reviewer, wonders if there is something to be said about spoilers being basically unfair to artists. That there is an argument that spoiling a story or novel in a review would be tantamount to basically copyright infringement or, if not that, something morally comparable. And there is a part of me that sees the point there, that what you don't really want is someone going around revealing things that artists took a long time to create, and to reveal it in a way that doesn't even capture the actual work. Like if I were to describe a painting in some detail and then someone would read the review and judge the picture for it. Which, obviously, they haven't seen the work, so should they be judging it? The answer that I invariably come back with is, yeah, pretty much. I feel that the idea of "fairness," which a loaded term, is used in these situations, and in situations similar, and I feel like it doesn't really apply.

Take the Puppies situation (please). I have seen reviews of the stories that were included in the Puppies slates. These reviews made use of spoilers rather heavily. I read the reviews and I am not going to read the stories. And I have judged the stories, and know that, if I were voting for the Hugos, which I would be voting for (or which I would not be, as the case may be). I feel that people would brand this as not fair of either me or the reviewers who spoiled these stories. Because of the reviews, I feel absolutely no guilt about giving the stories a pass. None at all. I feel like I have experienced enough vicariously through the reviewer, all without having to buy anything or read anything or give traffic to anything. I find this completely okay. Because really, people shouldn't need to be slapped in the face in order to know they don't want to be slapped. It's not "only fair." And writing something does not entitle you to readers. Nor to "unbiased reactions." I'm fully on side Reader here, and that's as someone who has been poorly reviewed.

I guess, in the end, I know that I will continue to use spoilers. I believe in them, in many ways. Without them, what, I'm left having to tiptoe around something I might not want to tiptoe around. Yes, if there's a really good twist I will probably try to avoid spilling the beans, but I might not be able to contain myself. And if I want to perhaps warn people of what they're getting into, I want to be able to do that rather explicitly, so that if they feel they want to have a go at the text anyway it's not a mystery. There are, for example, many people who like "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman. And the writing is solid and the characters fairly relatable (shy, sad, lonely). The premise is insteresting, crashing a party where the people turn out to be aliens visiting earth for a short stop. I sort of have to spoil that if I want to mention my issues with the ending. The main character, who was there with his friend (who is an ass), has a moment at the end where it's obvious that the friend wanted to have sex with one of the aliens there until he found out she wasn't really a woman. The language used is very evocative of trans tropes that are...not good at all. It's a trope that's played for laughs in the story and that...well, made me rather uncomfortable and made me not like the story. And to talk about that part of the story, I had to spoil that the people at the party are aliens. I had to wreck the punchline, because in my mind that punchline was unsettling. Now, that's an old story and most people who want to read it probably have already, but people are free to take my assessment of it and either avoid it or go seek it out, either to see how their opinions might differ from mine or just because they want to make up their own mind. My spoiler certainly hasn't hurt the story. It remains the story. But I needed to reveal it both to try and do my best at reviewing for others who might be reading my reviews and expect honesty and for myself, because what the hell would I be doing with my life going around writing fake reviews? The only way these reviews are valuable to me is by actually prompting me to examine how I react to stories and why.

And I should probably stop myself before I go on any further on something that most people probably find dull as rocks. Anyway, thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. It's an interesting issue. Sometimes I have no problem with spoilers, especially if the work in question isn't any kind of a thriller. If the worldbuilding is the main attraction, I think you can tell a lot about it without spoiling anything, because the fun isn't in discovering the world but in living in it.

    OTOH, I can't figure out how to review 'The Girl With All The Gifts' because if you tell what subgenre it's in you've spoiled the main surprise - yet anyone who read a review and purchased the book based on it is eventually going to say (whether pleased, displeased, or just surprised) 'it's a ____ novel and nobody told me? What the heck kind of a review was that?'

    1. I guess my thoughts are in that case all you can do is put up some sort of warning and go ahead and spoil it. That way anyone who does _want_ the surprise given away will be able to have full disclosure on it. But then, maybe that's me. Surprise isn't normally why I read, though I can attest to the power of a well placed twist or surprise. It's a tricky minefield of intent and I guess one just has to walk it as best as one can...