Spoiler warning?

This post is about the inclusion (or otherwise) of spoilers in reviews, and was partly inspired by two posts on the subject (here and here) by Paul Kincaid (‘partly’ because I’ve had these thoughts in my mind for a while anyway, without writing them down; and also because this is not intended to be a direct response to Kincaid’s thoughts).

I don’t like spoilers in reviews, and I try to leave them out of mine; but there’s an issue, I think, over what exactly constitutes a spoiler. In my view, revealing plot points or character developments does not equate to spoiling per se; it depends on why a reviewer makes the revelation. I think that a review should try to illuminate the work under discussion, to enrich the reading experience for someone else; and I’ve been known to go as far as quoting the final sentence of a text, with that aim in mind.

What a review shouldn’t do is detract from the reading experience; if it does, that’s what I’d call a spoiler. But here we tread in uncertain waters because, as Kincaid says, people read books in different ways, and what may be a major revelation to one reader may be something another reader has seen many times before. I’ll try to set out my view by using a specific example – The Lord of the Rings.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that, by novel’s end, the forces of Sauron are defeated and the One Ring destroyed? I would say not (except perhaps for the most inexperienced of readers), because it’s a convention of this kind of story that “the heroes” will triumph – we expect it to happen, so it’s not really a spoiler to say that it does.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Gollum, not Frodo, is the one ultimately responsible for destroying the Ring, or that the hobbits return to the Shire to find it ruined? I would say yes, because these are events which, to an extent, subvert our expectations of what will happen. Equally, though, there may be readers who would be happy for these to be revealed as illustrations of some of the book’s themes.

Is it a spoiler for The Lord of the Rings to say that Frodo’s resolve is tested whilst he bears the Ring, or that the ultimate defeat of evil is more problematic than the characters could suspect?. These comments hint at the points made above without stating what happens outright; and this is the kind of thing I prefer to do in my reviews. I don’t think these are spoilers, though of course others may disagree.

In the end, we all have to decide where to draw our own line when it comes to spoilers. Personally, I’d be wary of revealing major developments, even if they did help explore a point; but I’m also interested in testing the limits of what I think it’s acceptable to reveal. I would always hope, though, that what I write about a book will not spoil it for anyone.

4 Comments

  1. Agreed. It’s only really a spoiler if it’s a twist!
    When reviewers try too hard not to reveal the plot, it just gets boring.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    2nd December 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Yeah, I think you’ve got to reveal something to be able to talk about a book in any kind of depth. Perhaps it’s trickiest when a twist is central to what a book is trying to do. Legend of a Suicide is a perfect example — I wouldn’t dream of revealing the twist in that book, but it was very hard to write my way around it whilst still saying something useful.

  3. I think reviewers got around that with Legend just by talking about the strength of their reaction (basically promising that, yep, it’s a good one!). Only danger with that was over-hyping it, but I still don’t think most people would be prepared.

  4. Sometimes it’s nice to approach something knowing absolutely nothing about it. Films spring to mind here: Memento and Intacto I knew very little about before I watched them and enjoyed them all the more for it. It’s hard to be able to do that though; even if you consciously avoid reviews and put your fingers in your ears whenever a subject is mentioned, there’s still the cover blurb and packaging to contend with. Maybe there’s a market for the unadorned. Problem is, they’re usually expensive collector’s editions that come unfurnished, so a buyer is likely to know an awful lot about these before purchasing.

    And agree with Lija that over-hype can have a detrimental effect. Interesting post, David.

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