Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, August 14, 2011

spoiled

Jonah Lehrer produces and links to lots of interesting stuff, and here's a recent example:

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave several dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. The stories came in three different flavors: ironic twist stories (such as Chekhov’s “The Bet”), straight up mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and so-called “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Some subjects read the story as is, without a spoiler. Some read the story with a spoiler carefully embedded in the actual text, as if Chekhov himself had given away the end. And some read the story with a spoiler disclaimer in the preface.

Here are the results: . . . almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler.

Lehrer accepts the results without question, but that may be because, as he says in the post, it's his habit as a reader to spoil endings for himself. But he also knows that that's not common, that most of us try to avoid learning the endings of stories (though of course sometimes we succumb to temptation). So I'm wondering how much these results are dependent on the novelty of the experience: that is, it's at least possible that the greater pleasure taken in "spoiled" stories is a temporary phenomenon, resulting at least in part from the pleasure of deviating from habitual practice. Would the pleasure of knowing the ending in advance hold up over time for the majority of readers? I wonder.

It might, though. I have noticed that sometimes, when reading stories of suspense, I think too much about "how it comes out" and therefore have trouble focusing on the story as it develops: my mind is overly focused on the conclusion that I don't know and am constantly anticipating. This might not be the best frame of mind in which to enjoy a story, and it's certainly possible that knowing the ending could liberate me to enjoy all of the story, not just its ending. But I have my doubts.

I also wonder whether people's feelings about spoilers might be relative to the length of the narrative, or, if we're going to include other forms of art, the time we invest in it. The stakes are lower when you're taking half an hour to read a story than when you need two hours of more to devote to a movie — Would The Sixth Sense be better if you knew the ending in advance? That's hard for me to imagine — or when you need a dozen hours or more to read a big novel. Maybe there'll be future studies that will explore these variables.

3 comments:

  • I'll bet it's because the researchers chose excellent writers whose work holds up all the way though. Try it with mediocre authors and it will be a different story.

  • Michael Straight said...

    This "study" is really nothing more than an opinion poll. Actually more like a focus group, given the very small and unrepresentative sample size.

    I take this study's conclusion that stories with spoilers "are more pleasurable" exactly the same way that I'd take the box office figures for Transformers 2 as proof that it's "a good movie".

    I enjoy stories more without spoilers and I shake my head with incomprehension at those who like them better with spoilers.

    I think it would be much more interesting to compare the people who enjoyed a story more with spoilers with those who enjoyed it more without and try to get at what's different about the way they are reading (or watching) and enjoying the stories.

  • Spoilers are now commonplace in narrative forms. The dominant form, cinema, uses spoilers in the trailers or embeds them in the movie by depicting the ending plainly at the beginning or adopting disjunct timelines (Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams). The ultimate example may be Mememto, which plays backwards but is constructed so that each effect is explained by its precipitating cause, unfolding the story in reverse. This is clearly enjoyable to audiences, who appreciate knowing where a story is going, but like your other commentators, I wouldn't conclude that these are worthwhile narrative innovations so much as pandering to impatient audiences.

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