Luke, I am your spoiler warning!

In this post I will question the nature of spoiler warnings and whether or not they are justified. Hmm. Did I just give away my whole idea? Oops.

I understand the need for spoiler warnings and dislike the necessity. I’m not quite sure who came up with the idea, but I’d like both to thank and smack them. Thank, because it’s kept me from finding out secrets I didn’t want revealed. Smack, because there’s something inherently absurd with thinking you can read a review of a book or film without something getting revealed. I mean, come on. It’s a review

It’s a simple enough thing to add a warning, and I almost always do. But there’s a part of me that, when adding it, feels like a hypocrite. I wrote something and now I’m warning you not to read it? Yeah, right.

A while back, John Scalzi proposed a statute of limitations on spoiler warnings, as follows:

Television: One week (because it’s generally episodic, and that’s how long you have until the next episode)
Movies: One year (time enough for everyone to see it in the theaters, on DVD and on cable)
Books: Five years (because books don’t reach nearly as many people at one time)

I think that’s a fine system, but it’s as arbitrary as anything else to do with spoilers. If a book has been out a hundred years and a faithful film adaptation is released this month, how much can you reveal about the film without warning? 

I have a ton of questions and no ready answers. Can fear of spoiling make for timid and over-cautious reviewing? Conversely, can a reviewer reveal more than they should, even with a spoiler warning? Or is “contains spoilers” carte blanche to spill all the beans?

If someone comes up to you and says, you know, Darth Vader is actually Keyser Söze, or something—giving away the big secret at the end—you want to boot them in the junk. Deliberately ruining an ending is not only giving away a spoiler but also being an ass-hat. 

End-ruining comments aside, what qualifies as a spoiler? What is fair and reasonable information to present without a warning? The Wikipedia entry on spoilers reads, “Spoiler is Genex slang for any element of any summary or description of any piece of fiction that reveals any plot element which will give away the outcome of a dramatic episode within the work of fiction, or the conclusion of the entire work.” That’s a lot of “any.” Is it even remotely possible to review fiction without spoiling something, under this definition? Are reviews all spoilers in and of themselves, then? Or should reviews focus only on writing mechanics such as word choice, rhythm of language, concision and such, avoiding plot altogether?

Were I reviewing Steven Brust’s Agyar, for example, it could be considered a spoiler to so much as mention that the title character is a vampire. But vampirism is what the entire book is about. Similarly, you can’t discuss so much as the title I Am Legend without giving away the ending of the book. On the other hand, I could mention a hundred details about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland without ruining anything

Spoilage is relative. What ruins a story for one person is enticing for another. Cover art and back cover copy can be full of what some would consider a spoiler, but we buy the books anyhow. That said, spoiler warnings are meant as a courtesy, and I’d be ill-advised to look to marketing material for standards of civility. 

I know this is all much ado about nothing. I just think it at least bears passing consideration that the whole topic of spoilers is far from clearly defined. But I know that I’ll just buck up and keep putting warnings on reviews and expecting them from others. And I’ll also keep in mind that a review, any review, might contain a something I’d consider a spoiler, with or without a warning.

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