Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spoilers in Ancient Literature

When Rebecca started a discussion on Twitter about the special problems that Classics bloggers face, I started thinking about how difficult I am finding the "spoiler" issue.

Often when I read reviews by book bloggers, I come to a section that warns the reader that the blogger is about to reveal some plot point.  As a reader who doesn't care a whole lot about plot, I sometimes prefer to know what is going to happen in the story purely so I can concentrate more on how an author works--that is, how he or she develops characters, uses language, or chooses to structure the work to aid the progression of the text.  But I realize I am very much in the minority.  For those of you who read my comments, you may have figured out that even my long-time partner is one of those plot-driven readers who doesn't want things spoiled.

In the few reviews I've written of books where plot twists are important--such as in The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh--I wouldn't have dreamed of giving away what happens.  But somehow it feels very different when books don't seem to be relying on the reader's surprise, or even the reader's gradual awakening to certain information.

I suppose the central problem is that I am not writing reviews of classic literature.  It seems like a ridiculous proposition to me, honestly, to sit down to talk about the pros and cons of Homer as an author.  There is definitely a place to talk about whether I enjoy certain reads or not--and I'll mention that when it seems relevant--but in general I feel like I'm here to profit from what these books can give me.  If they give me absolutely nothing, it is more likely to be my own limitations than the author's.  (I am reminded of the brilliant posts by Amateur Reader about what he calls appreciationism: "As an Appreciationist, I want writers to succeed, and I want to discover how they do it.  As a result, I typically root for one character, the same one every time, the writer, the imagined writer.")  Talking about what an author does, and how her or she does it, requires explaining some of the background.  And the background, my friends, is often the plot and characterization.

I suspect that the issue of spoilers is going to loom much larger when I get to more modern literature.  For now, I'm comforted by the fact that ancient authors assumed that their audience knew the basic plot line.  As Anthony O'Hear says in his The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature (which I have only begun), "Homer and the tragedians took their audience on journeys in which they saw the statuary afresh, maybe in new and dramatic lights.  But the core and even the details of what they were showing their audiences, the audiences already knew."

So--I would love to hear what you think about the issue of "spoilers" in discussions of classic books.  Does it upset you to be told, for example, that Patroclus is killed and that Agamemnon claims Briseis for himself?  Would it bother you if I told you that ***Harry Potter Spoiler Alert: he lives***?  Do you think there is a difference?  And where does one draw the line?

39 comments:

  1. I think that there are "classics" where everyone knows the plot at least roughly, menaing that real spoilers (as opposed to points of minor detail) don't really spoil things and then there are others where the plot is not so familiar and where spoilers might annoy readers who want to discover the storyline themselves. The knack is knowing which is which!

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  2. I think at a certain point a piece of work is old enough and well-known enough that you no longer need to worry about spoilers. Some people may not know the plot points already (I saw The Iliad in a theater with some 13 year olds who were really rooting for Hector to win) but I don't think it's the responsibility of you or others to say a spoiler is coming up if it's reasonable to assume people already know the plot.

    It gets trickier with modern books and I think you have to be subjective in what you think is popular enough that the plot points are known. I'm trying to figure out the formatting on my own blog to just say "assume everything has spoilers" because I'd rather discuss the book and not have to worry about plot points I bring up.

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  3. My husband reads a lot like you do, but I'm one of those people who doesn't like to have books spoiled no matter how old they are. Having said that, there are some books I can't discuss without spoilers, and if that's the case, it's easy enough for me to say up front in my post how deep into spoilers I'm going to go and why, to give people a chance to decide whether or not to continue. For instance, I can't discuss The Stranger by Albert Camus without spoilers. I could, but it seems pointless, as the whole point of the story is to discuss the philosophy that the main character lives by.

    I do think it strange that you say that writing reviews of classic lit is ridiculous. I think classic lit merits reviews just as much as modern lit, if not more so. I'm not of the strain of readers who think just because something is classic it must be good. There are some classics that are flat-out awful, but which achieved some important historical milestone that caused them to become classics. I always try to point out in my reviews - classics or modern - the difference between my opinion and enjoyment, and why the book is important or useful. I do think dismissing reviews of classic books sort of put all of us classic reviewers in an awkward position, as if you're saying what we're doing isn't good enough or something.

    I've never found the spoiler issue to be a difficult one in the three years I've been reviewing classics. I can discuss themes and character and importance of a work without discussing the plot at all. Since the majority of readers DO believe in spoilers, and no classic text is so well known that *everyone* knows the plot points, I think having a spoiler warning or learning how to write about all the themes etc without talking about plot is a valuable skill.

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  4. This is a good point of discussion you bring up. I think books of a certain age (contemporary & even modern classics) need a spoiler alert because in the book blogging community, many have not read them yet. I find that spoiler alerts are a non-issue with my reviews because I word information about the book carefully. You can label a potential "spolier alert" with red font or type any potential spoilers in white (or whatever colour your background is), then direct readers to highlight it for further information. Knowing what counts as a spoiler can be the tricky part of writing a review, but to be honest, 99% of the time most people aren't ticked off if they read a "spoiler." In my opinion, it doesn't ruin the reading experience if that's what reviewers are afraid of doing in letting slip revealing information.

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  5. I think spoilers should be clearly identified. In most cases, I don't read reviews of books I have not read.

    I did go to wikipedia to get a listing of characters in Tolstoy's 'War & Peace' and I read one description which gave the ending away. I was deeply upset about this, because it changes the way in which I read the text.

    That said, it gives me a different vantage point... but I think I would have preferred still to uncover the ending naturally, as that is obviously the effect that Tolstoy (and all authors) generally intend.

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  6. A Watched Plot Never Spoils.

    Is this all just a matter of preferences, arbitrary, one as valid as another? Or do these preferences have costs? What does a neurosis about spoilers do the study of literary history, for example? It destroys that kind of study.

    Anyone serious about criticism or literary history has to read a lot of books, but also read a lot about books. If I want to write criticism, I read great critics.

    In practice, I basically never reveal big plot twists or endings. An advantage of not caring about the arbitrary aspects of plot is that you won't feel the need to write about them! If there's a twist ending, as in many Maupassant stories, I just refer to it as "the twist ending." Of course, some people's delicate pleasure is presumably "spoiled" just by knowing there's a twist ending, although if they knew anything about Maupassant, they would know that he's known for trick endings, so to avoid this they make sure they know nothing, which is a peculiar way to go about the study of any subject.

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  7. Personally, I do not like to know where a story is going before I read it the first time. But saying that statement brings to mind modern books, not classics. This may sound elitist or just plain wrong, but I think that modern books rely more on plot, on twists, than classic books do. With the classics, it is the journey, the details of plot and character, the writing style, the symbols and metaphors; with much of the modern work I read, it is more sensationalism and excitement. Knowing that Odysseus kills the suitors really tells you nothing about the overall story because it is so complex and weaving. I freely admit that this could be the result of the type of modern lit I read.

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  8. Such an interesting conversation. I do try to leave out spoilers or warn of them when writing my posts but it is more difficult with some books than others. Particularly if I want to discuss the evolution of a particular character. I will often allude to something so readers who are familiar with the book will understand but hopefully those who haven't read it won't. However, sometimes I just have to provide details to fully flush out my thoughts and for those I try to include spoiler alerts.

    As for reading other blogs, I only mind spoilers if I plan on reading the book soon so I will just avoid those posts or will read only the beginning. Otherwise, I assume I will forget things by the time I read the book. Unless the reviewer is so detailed in outlining the entire book in their post, this has worked for me so far. It is really unfortunate that Eclectic Indulgence had a spoiler on Wikipedia. Those sort of sites should be safe from spoilers, especially for those of us new to War and Peace! Reading it right now so I'll avoid going there myself.

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  9. I think that for the classics, spoliers are a nonissue. Many of us know what's going to happen, because the books are so well known, they've been adapted into film numerous times. I still want to read them. Now, for something like DuMaurier's Rebecca (many would claim it's not a classic, anyhow), I wouldn't have wanted to know the outcome. Which is why it's wise to use a disclaimer at all times. Readers know what books they're reading for plot and which they're reading for pleasure, and choose accordingly. Great post, btw.

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  10. Amanda: I am so sorry if my post offended you. I certainly did not mean to. I think classics bloggers who offer reviews are doing far more than just saying the books are good or bad. Certainly your posts show a great deal more depth than a newspaper review of a contemporary bestseller. Your review of Lolita is a terrific example. Talking about your experiences of the book, how modern readers might respond to a text, what you see the author doing to make the book successful (or unsuccessful), what some of the symbols and echoes are, etc. are all qualities more a form of personal analysis than purely a review, or so it seems to me.

    And of course you are right that some classics are classics because of their role in the shaping of a new literature, not necessarily because they continue to resonate deeply throughout time. In fact, I'll have to deal with one of those not-so-appealing texts of historical importance in an upcoming post (Hesiod).

    But I'll stick to the statement that my job is to figure out how I can profit from a text, not whether I think it is good or bad. That up-down judgment does not seem like the point of "reviewing" texts which have been read for hundreds and hundreds of years. Saying that I don't enjoy something--or even that I suspect other modern readers might not enjoy something--isn't giving the work a thumbs down as a literary work, just as a pleasure read for modern readers. Likewise, figuring out how a book succeeds in transforming us doesn't mean the book is necessarily a great work overall. But perhaps this is just a distinction that I'm drawing that might not make sense to other folks.

    Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts.

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  11. I strongly agree with Amateur Reader - while in practice I seldom reveal significant plot points of any book I'm writing about (usually they simply don't come up), in principle I believe the prevalent sensitivity toward spoilers is a bit exaggerated. If a book is worth its salt it should stand up to knowing that Alicia marries Edward in the end, or whatever.

    I understand that many readers are super-sensitive about spoilers, and I try to respect that via spoiler warnings. But I must admit to a tad bit of impatience. There's nothing wrong with writing newspaper-style reviews of whatever book you want (which reviews typically do avoid spoilers), but the internet is a big place and there's ALSO nothing wrong with taking an approach closer to scholarly criticism, as AR suggests. Given this approach, it becomes a bizarre proposition to avoid mention of plot points when they're relevant to a larger discussion of themes, techniques, philosophies, etc. I'm not trying to write a "review"; I'm trying to pick apart details of writerly craft.

    I guess it all just goes to show that blogging is a platform, not a genre. We're not all writing with the same goals, nor should we be necessarily.

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  12. Falaise: Yes, knowing when spoilers actually spoil things is a hard line to discern!

    Red: I must admit that I root for Hector as well! He is such a sympathetic character. More on that on Monday, in fact.

    Teacher/Learner: Figuring out what is a spoiler and what isn't is difficult, isn't it? I had not yet figured out how people hid their text like that. Thanks for the tip!

    Eclectic Indulgence: I hear you! On the other hand, you left a comment the other say (which pleased me to no end) saying that my discussions made you interested in reading both Gilgamesh and the Iliad. I'll warn you now that I have given away the major points of plot for both books. Is there a line where some discussions are inspiring and some are the opposite?

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  13. Amateur Reader: How did I guess you would have something interesting to say about this issue?

    Although I am utterly persuaded by your argument, I feel quite uneasy saying that what I am doing here is related to literary criticism or literary history, since I am such a novice. But nevertheless, I acknowledge that I am more interested in learning how to read like a critic--like an amateur reader?--than I am in learning to be a reviewer. (I remember feeling like a liar the first few times I said I was a professor--and even feeling like I was somehow untruthful when I first used the word mother after my child was born.)

    I read a fascinating essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education a day or two ago which discusses how most modern readers approach a book: as a source of entertainment and diversion--and easy to judge as successful or not. The author of the article suggests that we should be looking for the books that challenge us to grow and change, to reflect upon ourselves in new ways, rather than books which teach us to accept the status quot and reassure us that we need no growth. When I read the article, I wondered what you might say. (http://chronicle.com/article/Narcissus-Regards-a-Book/126060/?sid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en)

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  14. Trisha: You've put your finger on something I've been skirting around in my own mind: that classics (at least ancient classics) do not rely on plot devices nearly as much as a lot of more modern works. I wonder when this changes? You can't read more than one Jane Austen without knowing early on in the next who is going to wind up with whom. But Wilkie Collins? Or some of the sensationalist novels? I'm not well read enough to know for sure.

    And there are certainly exceptions--modern novels that put more weight on characters and language and symbols than on plot. Some use so much foreshadowing that it is clear the author wants the readers to know what is to happen.

    But this raises another issue: why do we not consider it a spoiler to know how an author uses language? or who the characters are and how they develop? or what they themes are? Is it because the author isn't trying to present them as surprises? What does that mean about books where the plot doesn't function with that element of surprise (like ancient classics)?

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  15. No, not offended, only just surprised to hear reviews dismissed outright like that. I don't believe the purpose of a review is to pass judgement on a book, but to discuss one's own opinions and experiences, either in a subjective (like mine) or objective (more journalistic) way. You mention my post about Lolita - but I bring up the fact that in that particular post, I warned readers up front that I would be talking about many of the spoilers in the book. I felt that to be common courtesy. Despite Lolita being famous, not everyone knows what it's about. I've known people to be spoiled as to the mystery in Jane Eyre, or the tragedy in Little Women, that sort of thing, because readers assume everyone knows what happens and that ruins the experience for them. Some of them never go on to read those works because they feel there's no point anymore, and that really frustrates me. The frustration isn't with them, but the people who are careless enough to give stuff away on assumption that "everyone knows already."

    I like when bloggers include spoiler warnings, because it means I can trust them. I won't, as another blogger said above, only read reviews of books I've read. That cancels out the point of reading reviews at all for me, which is to learn about new books I haven't heard of, or to gain interest in books I never wanted to read before. But if a blogger consistently posts spoilers without any sort of warning ahead of time, I learn to skim lightly through their posts without really reading, and eventually I stop reading altogether. I'm one of those readers who went into Jekyll and Hyde or Phantom of the Opera or Jane Eyre or Rebecca not knowing anything whatsoever of the story ahead of time, and I loved being able to experience these free from prior influence. None of them would have been the same had I known in advance what was going to happen in them.

    I guess the point to me is that it doesn't really matter if a blogger wants to discuss things that might be considered spoilers, as long as they say so up front. I disagree with the person who said about that 99% of people don't care if they accidentally come across one. I would say the exact opposite. If a blogger wants to discuss spoilers, that's fine - as long as they state so up front. Otherwise, I think it's hurtful to the audience and turns people off. Those who don't mind spoilers will keep reading past a warning, and those who do will be happy to be warned and can then skip that particular post.

    I hope that makes sense?

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  16. Elizabeth: The idea of referring obliquely to events in order to discuss particular themes or character development is a great plan. If a discussion can make a certain kind of sense to folks who have not yet read the book and also have additional meaning to people who have read the book, you've found a terrific compromise. (And I too am blessed to be forgetful enough that anything can surprise me.)

    Jenny O: There is a very clear difference in my mind between learning how Rebecca turns out and learning how the Odyssey ends. I would never share the ending of a book built on plot so clearly as Rebecca is--but I don't know where the line is.

    I personally don't understand why plot matters in a lot of classics--although I am very aware some people care a great deal. It isn't that I assume people already know as much as I assume it doesn't matter in a lot of texts like that what happens with the plot. The plot is just a device for the bigger stuff, it seems to me.

    When attending a showing of the Branaugh version of Hamlet, one of my very well-read friends said at intermission, "I can't imagine that this will turn out well!" I had to laugh. Shakespeare is even clearer than Maupassant on what is going to happen to his plots.

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  17. How to Read Like an Amateur - there's the title of my first book.

    That Chronicle article makes me feel like a champion of masscult. Its angry tone is offputting, and its assumptions about how people use pop culture are not merely insulting, but wrong (if they were insulting but right, I wouldn't mind so much).

    However, the author does approach a good critical guideline, which I try to keep in mind: I am not the measure of a work of art. Whether or not I see myself in the mirror of the book is of no consequence. I am not that interesting. Let's see if I can use the word "I" some more.

    Anyway, I'll start including spoiler warnings as soon as Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson do. I have strong doubts that their criticism is "hurtful" to its audience.

    PS - I, too, am a - I'll be kind to myself - mediocre reviewer. I'm working on it.

    PPS - the mystery in Jane Eyre is in the title - it is the title - of the single most famous, most assigned book of feminist literary criticism, The M**** in the A****.

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  18. Personally, I wish I could write on my blog more in an essay style than in endless reviews, where the whole work is discussed openly, rather than just another teaser to sell the book. I want to consider books as literature, to discuss them as adults, as a close and thorough reader, not as movie goers (Hitchcock has a poster from Psycho warning audiences not to give away its shocking twist!) I dislike the obsession with spoilers and I wish more people would tell me what actually happens in books so I could make up my own mind about whether or not I want to read it, based on what the story is actually about! I don't tend to read something if all I hear is 'there's a dark secret' -- it's been so overdone. What dark secret, is it an issue I'm interested in?

    Last year I read both The Woman in White and Fingersmith, which both have similar Victorian sensation themes (Fingersmith being a modern take on Woman in White) and I knew both the plots beforehand, from seeing movies and plays of them (Wilkie Collins even wrote his own version of Woman in White for the theatre). I have to say from that angle, The Woman in White was a better read, the characters were so alive and the imagery and cultural significance of it stayed in my mind. (Also in the movie, the musical and the play of Woman in White, something happens to a certain character a different way in each one, so I was curious to see how it was in the novel!) With Fingersmith it was more frustrating that I already knew the big twist, the rest of the story didn't seem as vivid. Beyond the plot similarities, it didn't resonate on the same level.

    I've heard an English student say she was horrified when a professor gave away the ending to Anna Karenina (and even someone who wouldn't let anyone discuss Lord of the Rings in his hearing because he hadn't read the books yet and so couldn't watch the movies) -- both overreactions, I think. To my mind, literature students have to know about books, even if they haven't read them yet.

    Knowing the ending of Anna Karenina was what drove me to read it, I wanted to see how the story of this kind of woman, the themes and characters were developed by a male author, and the same with Portrait of a Lady and Madame Bovary. If you read literary criticism, I'm sure you'll hear spoilers!

    But different bloggers have different approaches, I read partly to continue the university experience of a better understanding of the art of writing and writers as artists. No one is afraid to give away Van Gogh's most brilliant but hidden brushstrokes (for example) for fear it will mean someone else will wonder what's the point in looking at the painting if it's already been discussed, they might find their experience of looking at the painting to be enriched the more they understand it. But others may read more for entertainment, as consumers of books, rather than students of them. (Now I'll have to read the article you've linked to above about that!)

    And as I say, I wish I could write on my blog without the fuss over the spoiler thing, but I don't. It's a frustrating thing, but I do want to entice people to read the book too and the audience for a blog, many people who've read more or less than you and many different books entirely, is not the same as one professor who's studied the text more often than you have. I don't know where exactly the balance is with that, between essays and reviews, online.

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  19. I wish I could write on my blog more in an essay style than in endless reviews, where the whole work is discussed openly, rather than just another teaser to sell the book. I want to consider books as literature, to discuss them as adults, as a close and thorough reader

    AMEN, SISTER.

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  20. Interesting discussion. I think about this sometimes because I know some people are much more sensitive to spoilers than I am. Some people hardly want to know what the book is about, and I *like* to know that kind of thing, always excluding any developments meant to be a surprise. I've read and enjoyed many books despite knowing the ending in advance--it's a different experience, not a worse one. (Like Carolyn, I read Anna Karenina because I knew how it ended--I so wanted to see how Tolstoy got there!)

    Still, because I know some readers are skittish about so-called spoilers, I try to discuss late developments sort of obliquely, but that's not always possible. When I'm going to discuss such things in detail, I may use spoiler warnings (especially when I'm discussing some surprising twist, as in Fingersmith), but more often I'll start the paragraph with some sort of phrase that indicates I'm talking about the end. Clever readers should know to stop reading if they think plots are easily spoiled. I'm sure I've forgotten to give adequate warning for some readers, especially when it's a book whose whole storyline is pretty much embedded in our culture. And I'm sorry if that would stop a person from reading a book, but in my mind, it's the reader's loss.

    Also, re: reviews vs. essays. I call what I do reviews, but that's only because I define the word broadly, to include newspaper-style reviews, critical analyses, and riffs on a book's theme. Perhaps my definition is so broad as to be useless, but I've seen all such types of writing described as reviews.

    And I have no words for that Chronicle article. Amateur Reader, of course, nails it. I was too busy getting all offended to have anything sensible to say.

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  21. My apologies to all of you--AR and Teresa and whoever else--who suffered through the Chronicle article. I should have warned you that while he has a few interesting things to say, he's going to really make you angry. But I didn't want to SPOIL your read...

    My internet is spotty this evening--and that on top of a need for family time leaves me unable to respond to everybody until the morning.

    But I want to tell you that I'm a little verklempt by the brilliant thinking and enthusiasm some of you are putting into this discussion. As the Coffee Talk lady would say, "Talk amongst yourselves."

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  22. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderFebruary 03, 2011

    Thanks for the shout-out, LTR. Living with you, I think I've begun to mature as a reader. While i still enjoy the craft of plot development, I am learning to value and discovering an interest in the many other layers of literature.

    While i am thrilled to see the dialogue this post has generated, to me it seems a bit overly polarized. Even after your ruthless academic training, you remain sensitive and polite. Like many of the commenters, you have not and will not willfully divulge a critical plot twist relating to a book that is structured around it. You would, I predict, feel guilty for weeks if a blog reader lets you know that you have decreased rather than increased their reading pleasure. Even if one hopes that readers will move beyond being plot-driven, few are interested in forcing them to change their ways by dropping spoilers in their paths.

    Seems like there is a bit of difference in opinion about the meaning of 'review'. I think you used review to mean the relatively simple act of rating a book with perhaps the addition of a bit of cheerleading for those that one rates highly. And while you may have implied that you see little need for this type of review of classics, I think your larger point was that while spolier alerts are necessary in this type of review, that discussion of plot may be more necessary when one writes instead for the purpose of personal reflection or analysis - either historical or literary.

    And now it is time for a little reading before bed. What shall we read?

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  23. It's a tricky question. I think a lot of the time it isn't possible to write about your reaction to a book without revealing things that might be considered spoilers by others. I don't care so much if other people reveal things in their reviews, that is part and parcel of reading reviews on other blogs. I know it annoys some people though, so I try and warn of spoilers, but I don't always

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  24. I love the cross-form comparisons and am irritated that I did not think to do it myself.

    "The first movement of Debussy's La mer begins with a C major chord that (spoiler alert!) never resolves."

    "The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed entrance to The Rookery begins with a narrow, dark corridor which soon (spoiler alert!) opens up into a large, light-filled atrium."

    I made up the thing about Debussy. The description of The Rookery is accurate.

    Rohan Maitzen just posted a model review of a mystery novel that seems quite sensitive to the reader's potential experience. She describes the ending, for example, but by telling us what it is like, not what happens. I would be curious to know if Maitzen's piece meets the standards of anti-spoilerists.

    No apologies necessary for the Chronicle piece - negative examples, warnings about what not to do, can be very useful.

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  25. Emily: I love your comment that there is nothing wrong with journalistic reviews, you are instead "not trying to write a 'review'" but instead "trying to pick apart details of writerly craft." I guess some of my posts feel less like scholarly analysis than that--more like personal responses and discoveries--but I hope with time I'll be a more confident blogger.

    I definitely gravitate to other's posts that discuss books in either a scholarly or personal way. Most of us use the shorthand "review" for what we do, don't we? Often we mean something much more like a personal essay than a journalistic review.

    Amanda: I suppose I respond best to your blog posts when they don't avoid spoilers, whether I've read the given book or not. I understand that some of your readers really want to have the warnings in and I completely respect that. I've gone back to look if you felt the need for spoilers and the reviews that have stuck in my memory, and in every case you've felt them necessary. Perhaps that is because in those posts, you have something so deep to add to the conversation and which perhaps is very difficult to share when so much of the shape of the novel has to be hidden. I know very well that I am only one kind of reader.

    I agree with you that the goal of most classics bloggers is to write about "one's own opinions and experiences," usually in a subjective way. I did not mean to suggest it was silly to do that--just the "review" which passes judgement on a book. That kind of review makes some sense for contemporary books, but not for the long-lasting books.

    Finally, I do not assume readers already know the plot. I certainly didn't know the plot of the Iliad until I read it. In fact, I have written my posts specifically so people who have not read the book would have enough plot details to follow along.

    My reasoning is not that people already know the plot; it is that it is not damaging to know the plot of this kind of book. Would I divulge a "who-done-it"? No. But when the point is "how-done-it" or "why-done-it", why does it matter? (Did I learn these words from AR? Quite possibly.) I think of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder where there is absolutely no mystery and absolutely stunning degrees of suspense nonetheless.

    When people read a book "freshly" for the first time, they miss a great deal of the magic of the book. That is why great books pay us back for each reread. Do people who refuse to read a book if they have already heard part of the plot also refuse to reread favorites?

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  26. AR: The two posts you link to above are terrific. I am so sorry I had not read them before. They've convinced me that I need to go back and read your entire archives. Or at least buy that guide to amateurism as soon as it is released. Please, everybody, go and read--right now.

    I am extremely fond of the personal. Yes, taking the worth of other things simply by my own reflection is immature. On the other hand, it is a bit of a conceit to say that if we don't use the personal in our writing, we aren't thinking personally.

    There are times when someone's personal reaction (well flushed out) moves me in a way that a more scholarly reading might not. Perhaps my feelings about that are shaped by my generation and gender.

    It is interesting that you used Jane Eyre in your posts as an example of something people might feel could be spoiled. Other commentators here have seconded you. I've been dreaming up a future post about the theme of disability in JE--which would require mentioning the m******* in the a**** as well as the circumstances surrounding "Reader, I m****** h*m." That book holds such enchantment and excitement for me on every rereading that I am not sure I would have been aware these might be spoilers for folks. Yes, they are mysteries--but they somehow remain mysteries even when one knows how it all turns out.

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  27. Carolyn: What a thoughtful response! It seems like a lot of us want a place where people who have read the book can gather together with people who have not but actively want to hear about it in full and complex ways instead of through teasers.

    Like you, I choose some books because I know where the author is going and how it compares with a similar book. For example, after reading Madame Bovary, I wanted to know how Tolstoy handled the same story, and how Braddon does in The Doctor's Wife, and how Pasternak might be similar or different. It is knowing the plot that leads me to these books rather than steers me away.

    And bravo for the Van Gogh comparison! I think you are right that there is a fundamental difference between the reader who gains his or her pleasure from the analysis and the reader who gains his or her pleasure from diversion.

    I am fascinated with your point about students of books versus consumers of them. Isn't that becoming so universally true? We aren't patients anymore but consumers of health care. We aren't even CITIZENS expecting justice but simply consumers wanting to get our money's worth. Your comment gives me lots to think about.

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  28. Teresa: Sounds like that style might work well for me when I get into more plot-driven works.

    You are absolutely right that "review" can mean a whole range of possibilities. When I wrote, I was thinking of one specific kind, and I definitely upset at least one reader by making this limited definition as my meaning in the post. I wish I had foreseen this problem.

    I'm trying to cook up a spoiler comment for my sidebar that warns that I talk in great detail sometimes about major plot themes but will not divulge something I see as giving away a deliberate surprise without special comment.

    Beloved Slow Plot: Thank you for your very kind words. I cannot express how much it means to me that you've followed along with my project--reading so much with me and helping me think through these books. I look forward to reading beside you for many more years.

    Becky: I'm still awfully new to the book blogging world and I haven't yet gotten the hang of writing in a way that seems both meaningful to me and "safe" for all readers. This discussion in the comments has given me a fascinating lens into the complex and conflicting opinions.

    Amateur: Carolyn's comparison is incredible, isn't it? My definition of "brilliant" is that I hear something I've never thought of before and immediately feel like it is the most obvious thing in the world. Her analogy fits and I can't imagine ever forgetting it. Your riffs kept me laughing this morning when I was getting a little uptight about the irritation or disappointment my post seemed to inspire.

    Off to read Maitzen right now. She's a new blogger for me.

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  29. Great discussion! I wondered about spoilers when posting about Oedipus for this Ancient Greeks tour, but since I was posting my published book chapter, there seemed no reason to worry about holding back. It is hard to discuss the significance of Oedipus or "Oedipal" without knowing all of what happened to him.

    I agree with many of the above comments that classic plots can't really be spoiled, even by knowing them--that is the basis of dramatic irony--we know what is going to happen to the characters and they don't! Excruciating, and involving for a reader, theatre goer.

    I also agree that the older works are a part of the cultural heritage and their reputation precedes them, and likewise I think it is fascinating for bloggers and reviewers to keep reviewing these ancient works. Often a new translation provides the opportunity to weigh in once again on, say, Aeschylus or Homer!

    Thanks for the delightful post and discussion.

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  30. There are times when someone's personal reaction (well flushed out) moves me in a way that a more scholarly reading might not. Perhaps my feelings about that are shaped by my generation and gender.


    Just chiming in again to say that I completely agree with this and one of the things I'm interested in is the more personal-essayist model of writing about books, that examines personal experience. I'd like some kind of happy balance between that, and scholarly analysis.

    And also, please write your post on disability in Jane Eyre when you get there; I'd love to read it. :-)

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  31. We have to use our personal experience in our writing. It's central to our style, if not our subject. Virginia Woolf's reviews are personal. I suspect this is true of every great critic, although perhaps someone has a counter-example, a writer who ruthlessly expunged the personal somehow.

    I used a sort of "when I read the book" format today, as a way to suggest at least one path into the bizarre book I was reading.

    Maybe you and Emily are thinking of something else, though, more like Anne Fadiman's essays about the experience of reading? Joseph Epstein is the relevant model for me. Yes, please, do more of that.

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  32. Lucy: I find it so fascinating that so many of us are using this 21st century way of communicating about books to talk about all these texts constructed when the word (the written Greek word, at least) was still so new. You are right that it is our continuing conversations, coupled with new translations, that keep these stories so fresh and immediate.

    Emily: Thanks. I absolutely will post about disability and Jane Eyre--possibly sooner rather than later since I'm sure I'll be a little more Bronte obsessed than usual when I see the new film adaptation.

    AR: I was responding to your lines about asking whether you could use the word "I" some more. I love Anne Fadiman--and think of Dirda as an interesting model too, although it would really help to be brilliant. I've never read Woolf's criticism and do not know anything about Joseph Epstein. Both are now on hold at the library.

    BTW--I'm thinking of posting something completely unrelated about Anne Fadiman tomorrow.

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  33. I'm firmly in the camp of not wanting spoilers. I read a lot of classics and I hate knowing how they're going to end. It's so hard to avoid it. I read Anna Karenina a couple years ago and I knew how it was going to end and that really did change the way I saw the characters. It didn't ruin the book, but it affected it. The characters are more important than the plot to me, but I still want to discover it as I go. Wonderful post!

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  34. I've so enjoyed coming back here to see how the discussion has developed, it's so rare when people don't just drop a comment and run, never to return to the topic! (I also giggled over Amateur Reader's very important and timely spoiler alerts.) I partly thought of the analogy between novels and art from Proust, there's a part (possibly near the end, but maybe not... it is long!) where he describes seeing a tiny little section of a certain painting and how much it comes to mean to him, which I think was used symbolically somehow in Harold Pinter's screenplay about Proust (which wasn't made into a movie, but is supposed to be good).

    I've also taken a few art and art history classes and then gone to museums and there's such a difference between seeing the small reproduction of a painting in a textbook or hearing a professor describe it and suddenly seeing it in person -- Van Gogh has such thick vibrant strokes of paint on the canvas that you just can't see from a reproduction, it really made it come alive for me in a way that all the posters of sunflowers never could. In the same way, I though I knew the plot of Oedipus through Freud and wondered what was the point of continuing to study it in school, but I was blown away by it when I read it and could finally see why it remains such a touchstone. I also read three different versions of the Electra story and the differences between the ways it was told by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides was fascinating, Euripides had a more humanist approach than the other two, the point wasn't on the surprise of what happens, but how the characters are developed and portrayed, how they change between the tellings. To rephrase Italo Calvino -- "Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them." -- even with knowing the plot, a classic piece of art will always have something wonderful there for those willing to look for it. Maybe some contemporary literature is more easily spoiled because not as much of it will last as a true classic?

    Also, as someone who wants to be a writer (and sometimes I imagine being a professor, only there aren't enough jobs), I like to study literature as art, to see how it's done. Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer is great for that, she advocates reading the classics to learn how to write better, just as painters have gone to the Louvre for hundreds of years to copy the paintings there and get a free education that way.

    I love the idea of a personal essay style being mentioned above, that sounds like the balance I'm looking for, and definitely inspires me to check out Anne Fadiman.

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  35. Avid Reader: Have you checked out Amateur Reader's first post about spoilers, by any chance? You might enjoy it. He links to an essay which discusses some very intersting reasons to read books without knowing their plots in advance. Let me know if you agree! WutheringExpectations.blogspot.com/2008/04/watched-plot-never-spoils.html

    Carolyn: Interesting take on how "spoilability" might be the sign a work is not a classic. Clearly, books like Jane Eyre repay multiple rereadings, so clearly most people don't really think a book like that is completely "spoiled"--but they do want to experience the mystery for the first time with fresh eyes. The same is true of Harry Potter. No on wanted anything spoiled--but at the same time, the books are among the most reread books in literature. With that group excluded--in other wards considering only books that really don't seem worth it once you know what happen--I think I agree with you.

    I love your discussion of how art comes alive when seen in different contexts and settings, reproduction or original, etc. Doesn't that fit beautifully with Calvino's quote? What magic is for something familiar to be able to stun us, again and again.

    And the Prose book now joins Woolf and Epstein on the hold shelf at the library.

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  36. This is an interesting post and offers a lot to think about.

    As a classics blogger, I often find myself struggling with this very question. Sometimes I warn readers if I am going to discuss a key plot point and "spoil" it for them, sometimes I don't. Since my project is really about my journey through these books, and chronicling what I think, I can't be spoiler free. I need to discuss some of the bigger issues in detail. My readers have come to expect that...I think.

    I think that in regards to classics, it is hard to offer a review. I mean, these reviews are going to sway the author's life, since in most cases they are dead. We're merely commenting on the impact this "timeless" story has had on us, in this moment and time. I am sure that I offer nothing new to say about any of the titles I am reading, but my reactions may lead someone else to discover a book that I loved and they didn't know about. I always try to keep this in the back of my mind since I know that not everyone has read these.

    Anyway, I do think this is something we should all keep in mind as we read these books. I think that sometimes we take for granted people know plot lines of classics. For example, the one super popular classic that I really know nothing about is Jane Eyre. I've never read it and I don't know the first thing about the storyline. I try to avoid spoilers since it is a novel I know nothing about. When I see a post on it, I just ignore it. Perhaps that is what we should all do to avoid being "spoiled."

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  37. I've thought about starting a similar discussion. I 'll have to revisit this post to get through all the comments at some point!

    I am one who doesn't believe knowing a plot spoils a book. I can't think of an example, at least, of when knowing a resolution bothered me. (I'll think on that one.) But, I'm a last page first book reader, so I'm also an extreme.

    I agree with the blogger(s) who say(s) they want to write ESSAYS on how reading a book affects them rather than "reviews" that are selling the book (for good or bad) or getting someone to read it, etc. Although I label my posts "reviews" and I try to write just one post (sometimes more) on my reactions to the books I read, I don't really think they are reviews. I actually find professional reviews rather stuffy and unhelpful -- I guess I'm just thinking of the blurbs in the paper, New Yorker summaries of new books, etc, and I honestly don't read those very often. I like reading posts in which people reflect on key aspects and themes of a book. I LOVED literary criticism as an English student, so maybe this is hold over from that.

    I don't think bloggers should overly worry about spoilers, though, unless they are trying to be a blogger for the masses. As someone mentioned, if a reader doesn't like spoilers and they read a blogger who "spoils" books frequently, they'll stop reading the blogger. So be it. I think bloggers should write for those who want to read their types of posts, not for everyone under the sun. It's impossible to please everyone.

    That said, given the sensitivity (oversensitivity, as some one pointed out and i"d agree) to spoilers in the blogosphere, I have made a point to write "this post may contain spoilers of ____" at some point in the beginning if I'm going to be writing a spoilerific post. I do love writing those essay-ish posts much more, though, than the safe ones that will have far more readers.

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  38. What a great discussion! I'm terribly late to the party and can only echo Amateur Reader, Emily, and Carolyn. A watched plot never spoils, and I'd rather discuss literature essay-style, in detail, and not worry about it. For contemporary literature, especially mysteries, I try not to give away (or at least to warn about my discussion of) twist endings, but for the most part I ignore all that. Caveat lector!

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  39. Wisely or otherwise, I have revisited this issue today. Selfishly - you'll see that. This discussion was quite useful, and led to an insight, or what passes for an insight at Wuthering Expectations.

    Rebecca - have you ever written about how that "last page first" practice actually works? I don't mean why you do it, but how.

    You turn to the last page of War and Peace, only to discover passages about the "law of inevitability" and "the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space." Um. Let's flip back and find some characters. Ah - end of Epilogue 1. A little boy is in bed; he dreams.

    What does this give you? I would love to read that post. Many specific examples, please.

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