Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

on spoilers

I’m not so interested in the question of how Wikipedia reveals the ending of The Mousetrap, but I am interested in how Ruth Franklin, in her eviscerating but largely accurate review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in this week’s New Republic, reveals pretty much everything that happens in the book, even quoting its powerful final sentence, which is possibly the best thing about it. (Here’s the link, though I think the full text is available only to subscribers.)

After all, Wikipedia is known for giving complete plot summaries of books and movies, so why not The Mousetrap? But when I write book reviews of novels, I try to reveal no more of the actual plot than is necessary to explain and justify the view I take of the book as a whole. This is what most reviewers do, and sometimes it can be tricky: see Aimee Bender’s recent review of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, in which Bender sweats a bit over this question but decides that she can't talk intelligibly about the book without revealing one key element of the story that the book itself reveals fairly early on.

Why do we reviewers try to avoid spoilers? Because we understand that other readers may not share our verdicts, and insofar as possible we want those readers to be able to read in such a way as to form their own judgments. There’s something tyrannical about Franklin’s blunt revelations of what happens in Freedom, a forestalling and preventing of other readings: it would be very difficult for anyone who had read Franklin’s review to have their own strong experience of Franzen’s novel and therefore to come to a more positive conclusion about the story than Franklin comes to (or for that matter than I came to).

For a book like Infinite Jest, which lacks a conventional plot and therefore a conventional ending, this might not matter so much. It also might not matter so much if Freedom had been out for a year or two. But Franzen was clearly writing a more traditional kind of novel, and while I don't think the book is very successful, I think his effort deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. Franklin is one of our best reviewers of fiction, I think, but in this case I don't like what she has done.

I imagine she would defend this practice by saying that everything about everything is already revealed on the internet, and that people could have found spoilers and lengthy quotations from the last pages of Freedom on hundreds of websites. And all that is true. But many book-readers and movie-watchers still try to preserve a certain innocence in relation to works of art they anticipate encountering, and that desire deserves more respect than Franklin gives it. The amour-propre of The New Republic presumably would not allow it to insert the phrase “SPOILER ALERT,” but I think that would have been a good idea in this case.

UPDATE: Check out these letters to the Times, especially the second one. (Hat tip to my friend Garnette Cadogan.)

5 comments:

  • "I imagine she would defend this practice by saying that everything about everything is already revealed on the internet, and that people could have found spoilers and lengthy quotations from the last pages of Freedom on hundreds of websites. And all that is true."

    I image Ruth Franklin's mother would say something like "If all your friends jumped off a bridge..."

    Lovely thing, one's own imagination.

  • There are some reviews best read before you read a book, and there are some best read after. Identifying which is which is difficult, but not impossible.

  • "Identifying which is which is difficult, but not impossible."

    Maybe the Google could give us an algorithm?

  • Maybe the Google could give us an algorithm?

    We can only hope.

  • I completely agree with you. Reviewers of the professional variety know by training or intuition that there's a line in these matters one simply doesn't cross, and you do right to call her on it. I wonder if this is most likely to happen when the reviewer dislikes or is cranky about the book for some reason, and in that state allows this to override their own standards, imagining revelations simply one more blow in their bursting arsenal.

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