Matters/Antimatters: Spoilers

Hi, my name is Steven Padnick, editorial assistant at Tor Books, and welcome to MATTERS / ANTIMATTERS, the new Tor.com/Suvudu joint venture!

With each installment, I will post about a topic of interest to the science fiction, fantasy and general genre community, and Kaitlin Heller, my… ahem, colleague at Del Rey, will offer a response on Suvudu. Or vice versa.

SpoilerToday, I’d like to talk about that bane of internet discussions, spoilers

No, not “one who seizes the booty,” but the revelation of a plot element, thus denying a potential viewer or reader the enjoyment of surprise and discovery.

While I am sensitive to the desire to approach each work of fiction as pure as the driven snow, so that each reveal and twist is felt as viscerally as possible, I feel that the mania to remain “spoiler-free” hinders discussion and promotion of genre work.

First off, it is impossible to discuss with any seriousness a work of fiction without revealing its plot, and especially its ending. Certainly, setting your Facebook status to “Snape Kills Dumbledore” is a dick move. And reviews and jacket copy, texts meant to help you decide whether you want to see or read a work, probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about how everything resolves. But discussions and critical analyses, such as appear on this site and others, need to address works as a whole. How can we debate the depths of Snape’s character without ever mentioning that he kills the representation of Order and Good, or assess the thrashing he gives Harry after that without acknowledging he was under orders from Dumbledore the entire time? Writing around spoilers—that is, writing for the least informed member of your audience—limits how deeply you can actually delve while writing.

Additionally, this mania hurts the promotion of genre work. Two years ago, Marvel Comics published Captain America#25, in which Captain America is killed. But rather than spoil this dramatic turn of events, Marvel released absolutely no information about the issue to retailers, comics reviewers, or fans until the day of sale. When news of Captain America’s death hit mainstream outlets like the New York Post, comics shops around the country were left flat-footed and out-of-stock in the face of a demand they had no reason to anticipate. As high as sales were, and as many new customers came into shops for the first time, how many new customers left disappointed, and how many sales were lost, simply because Marvel didn’t want anyone, even the people who sell their books, to know what was in them.

Spoiler-phobia also hurts the development of a fan community. One of the great joys of finding, say other Battlestar Galactica fans on the internet is finding a space in which you could talk in depth about the latest episode, listen to interpretations and ideas you would never have thought of on your own, and connect with others like you around the world. But people feel stifled in what they can say for fear the spoiler-police will come down on them for mentioning that Starbuck is a Hylon. This creates an unwelcoming atmosphere that divides fans into those that know and those that don’t.

To me, this mania seems particularly irrational, because in the long run spoilers really shouldn’t have that much of an effect on one’s enjoyment of a work. Knowing the plot does not “ruin” the quality of anything good you read or see. Sure, it’s a shocking twist that the chick has a penis, but The Crying Game is still a good movie even if you know that beforehand. Similarly, it’s rare that anyone these days sees a Shakespeare play without knowing who lives and who dies, and yet people still go to Romeo and Juliet. And every opera I’ve been to provides a complete plot summary in the program, so you don’t have to worry about the plot while listening to the music.

Conversely, anything that is ruined by knowing particular plot points isn’t worth re-watching, and probably has few qualities other than a trick of storytelling. Michael Bay’s The Island wastes its first hour (and title!) on a fake-out story about supposed survivors of an environmental disaster and their sterilized home, and its second hour on the usual Bruckheimerian explosions and chases. Had the movie actually been about their lives as clones, and not about the reveal that they are clones, it might have been a good movie about identity and the ethics of bioengineering.

Finally, people are far too extreme in their quest to remain spoiler-free. I get that people hate to have endings ruined. But people complained that knowing Leonardo DiCaprio died ruined Titanic. What, exactly, were they thinking? The boat wasn’t going to sink? But that’s not the half of it. John Scalzi joked on Twitter that the Comedian jumped, and people complained about that he spoiled Watchmen. When DC relaunched Justice League of America, people complained that depicting the stars on the cover spoiled the book.

Scalzi suggests a spoiler statute of limitations, a period during which one should be careful about revealing plot points, but after which complaints about spoilers can be safely ignored and/or mocked: one week for television, one year for movies, five years for books. I’d probably add one month for comics, and shorten the period on books, but that sounds about right. But only as far as casual conversations go.

For a serious review, where someone is trying to explore the deeper meanings of a work, it is not their responsibility to protect you from unwanted knowledge. It’s certainly not their responsibility to anticipate which particles of information will putrefy your enjoyment of a given text. In the end, that responsibility falls to you, to stop reading articles about works you haven’t experienced yet. No one forces you to read. On the other hand, if you’re complaining about spoilers for works you DO know about, and are just concern trolling on behalf of others, please give serious consideration to getting a life.

Thank you.

Kaitlin, what do you think?

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