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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

cruel Spoiler, that embosom’d Foe

Posted by Laura Carroll on 10/09/05 at 08:10 AM

Anyone else’s heart sinks at the sight of headings like this?

****WARNING: SPOILERS****

I ask in part because of having recently marked an essay written by an unusually considerate person who did not wish to ruin the story for me by giving away the twisty ending of the assigned novel.  (But that’s not really a fit story for the internet.) More generally, the spoiler warning strikes me as one of the most ignoble and infelicitous of recent additions to the modern critical repertoire.

Nobody wants to ruin another person’s fun of course, and that presumably is why the spoiler warning is becoming so ubiquitous.  But this caps-lock shorthand is clumsy, it’s ugly, and it’s used indiscriminately.  Before Usenet, didn’t critics, reviewers, anybody writing about a narrative containing a surprise, deal with the issue of not giving away that surprise in a slightly more elegant manner?  By simply refraining from discussing that part of the story, for instance?  Besides, if the intention really is to preserve a pure and virginally innocent response to the text, I don’t see how it helps the reader to know that he or she ought to be on the lookout for a SURPRISE! with every little tweak and twist of the plot.

Then, the underlying assumption doesn’t imply much respect for anything that a fiction might offer you except abrupt and sensational narrative developments, or much confidence in the long-term durability of a story (ie its ability to withstand and reward repeated engagements.) A well-constructed story will stand up to decades of use and abuse, won’t it?  Somewhere there’s an assumption that the true and fundamental condition of being narrated to is equivalent to being drawn into unfamiliar territory.  I think this overvalues the first impression of a text - which often as not is rather superficial - at the expense of subsequent engagements.  What are those later engagements if not more experienced, full, considered?  Yet we continue to fetishise the first impression.  Everything I’ve ever read about Psycho, for instance, confirms this: it’s understood as deriving its power from a series of undeniably brutal shocks.  But if you’ve seen that movie thirteen times, the first experience is not real and not recoverable.

Pursue the duty-not-to-spoil logic to its natural end and we’ll have teachers advising students to leave the room if they haven’t yet finished the week’s readings.

Above the Introduction to my 1996 Oxford World’s Classics edition of Bleak House is written:

As the plot of Bleak House turns on mysteries it is impossible to discuss it without giving some of them away.  Readers new to the novel are advised to skip this introduction until they have finished the story, so that they can enjoy it at least once as its first readers did.

I recognise that there’s a right time, place, and manner for signalling imminent secret-sharing, and this seems good to me.  Bleak House is so demanding and intricate (and time consuming) a book that it’s unlikely most readers will read it more than once in their lives; also, it genuinely is a mystery story, and in the latter stages it feeds off no drive so much as the overwhelming desire to know which is shared by the reader and several persons inside the narrative. 

On the other hand, I’m far from certain the introduction to the current Penguin Classics edition of Persuasion should be prefaced with

New readers are advised that this Introduction makes the detail of the plot explicit

To me, that more or less says: this book is less good to read if you already know how the plot works out.  Which is, you know, wrong. 


Comments

Laura, I have to disagree wtih you about this, though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to phrase my disagreement in a way that will make it fully explicable.

The spoiler warning seems to me to be, basically, an Internet phenomenon.  It is not always so ugly and all-caps; there are various versions with different degrees of ugliness but with the same function.  In my opinion, it was created because on the Internet, the shared context that you can assume exists in most other situations can not be assumed to exist.  I don’t think that it really has much to do with complexity of and reliance on plot.  It is more of a social signaling device, saying that if you are kind of person who really wishes to read a text for the first time untroubled by the influence of preexisting interpretations, you shouldn’t read this one. 

The number of people for whom this is an important factor is reasonably small.  However, the history of Internet discussion of texts is strongly influenced by various more-or-less serial genres in which ongoing plot developments are an important part of the attraction of the next “issue”.  Thus a social convention has arisen which is not really suited to all kinds of texts, but which is applied anyway.

By on 10/09/05 at 10:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

While I agree with your general sentiment here, there are occasions where the experience of reading is diminished by knowledge of a particularly well-sprung trap.  This is especially true of works which rely upon well-sprung traps to create narrative tension: mystery novels, in particular, either work as novels or traps.  Many work as both, but some are little more than elaborate (and eminently enjoyable, in their own right, say on airplanes) devices designed to elicit that little sigh of disbelief readers exhale when everything falls into place.  In the case of those sorts of novels, I think spoiler warnings appropriate. 

All that said, the most amusing experience I’ve had with regards to spoilers in the classroom came in an intro. to the novel course.  Because we’d be reading six novels (two of which I needed in the Norton Critical edition), I ordered the cheapest version of Wuthering Heights I could find, which turned out to be the Puffin Children’s Classic edition.  Click on the link.  See those two tombstones on the cover: yes, they belong to exactly who you think they do.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/05 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, this is one sick and twisted little post.  If you write reviews on Amazon.com, Laura, I’ll be sure to steer clear of them.  ***WARNING:  SPOILERS AHEAD*** Would you tell me that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father if I hadn’t yet seen “The Empire Strikes Back”?  Or, seeing a new copy of “The Blithedale Romance” in my hand, would you reveal that it was Priscilla that Coverdale really loved?  Or, noting a bookmark placed in Book VIII of “The Aeneid,” would you inform me that Aeneas manages to overcome Turnus?  There are a (very) few situations I can think of where people are on common ground and a “spoiler alert” might not be necessary--e.g., an MLA panel or perhaps an article you’ve placed in an important journal, although even this might be assuming too much.  In most other contexts, though, offering a spoiler warning is the thoughtful thing to do.

By on 10/09/05 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It sure is a trope that originates on the Internet, Rich, and its ubiquity here means that people growing up with the internet perhaps unquestioningly accept that it’s the only way to deal with discussing or writing about a text without divulging all its surprises.  I’m speculating too that the logic of non-spoiling is beginning to intrude where it’s not appropriate - to do things like make readers assume that all a text can do for them is make them jump, like a ghost train ride or something. 

I agree with everything you said, Scott.  A movie I saw not long ago, Michael Haneke’s Cache, seemed to me without question a masterpiece and a politically important movie, but I don’t know how to begin to discuss it, because as Robert J. Parks wrote on Long Pauses recently, it’s nearly impossible to do so without completely revealing the story.  Relying on a spoiler warning in this case seems like a distinct cop-out to me.  So I’m eager to see how professional film critics handle that problem when the movie is released.

Son of Serenity Sperm, I’m so very sorry for offending your sensibilities.  Let me assure you, of course I wouldn’t march up to you and tell you the ending of some book I saw you reading! On Amazon, or in personal conversation, there’s no need - there’s plenty an informed reader can say to a temporarily less informed reader without leaping direct to the big denouement.

By on 10/09/05 at 07:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Given the array of deaths in Wuthering Heights, I’m surprised they stopped at two tombstones.  That cover reminds me of the cover on my ed. of A Void - I can’t find it on the internet, but it’s a pair of tombstones each sort of crenelated down the right side to form the letter E.

By on 10/09/05 at 07:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m speculating too that the logic of non-spoiling is beginning to intrude where it’s not appropriate - to do things like make readers assume that all a text can do for them is make them jump, like a ghost train ride or something.”

The difference is that I don’t think that it’s likely that it would actually have the power to make readers assume anything about texts.  I think that the reason that this logic is beginning to intrude where it’s not appropriate is because writers assume that they won’t be considered polite by some small but vocal part of their readership if they don’t do it.

By on 10/09/05 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If a book is not worth reading only because you know how it ends, then the book was probably never worth reading in the first place OR the reader isnt paying close enough attention.

By on 10/09/05 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have anything of substance to offer, Laura, but I wonder if this post doesn’t cut in a different direction of your last one, about editorial sledging.  I thought that was an admirable defense of the honor of naive reading.  Reading to be drawn into new and unexpected territory seems like one pleasure of naive reading.  If on 13 viewings, the first experience of Psycho isn’t recoverable, doesn’t that suggest that there was in fact something distinctive and valuable about the first experience?

By on 10/10/05 at 07:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Very likely it does, Sean, unfortunately; I feel quite strongly about this, though.  Not about spoiler warnings per se, but about the idea that a first, innocent reading gets closer to the genuine and true identity of a text than does a subsequent or otherwise experienced reading. 

A person’s first viewing of Psycho is a pretty damn important part of coming to know that movie - yes, very valuable, and certainly distinctive.  Unique, actually.  But as far as I can tell, the dominant critical paradigm regards every subsequent viewing as a rather academic exercise where the viewer is honour bound to self-consciously try to re-create how it felt “the first time”.  The first time is honourable, that’s absolutely right.  It’s just snobby and mean to slight a reader who’s doing it for the first time, who hasn’t learned the lie of the land.  But it’s a sort of reverse snobbery to go on artificially or theoretically clinging to that reading position. 

I guess it’d have to be at least equally interesting and worthwhile to try to think about the quirks and the reality of the re-viewing or re-reading experience, if that’s what one actually is doing. 

I just think that the good stuff is made to be re-read - infinite unpackability; or in the case of movies and plays, to be seen more than once.

By on 10/10/05 at 08:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The privileged quality of the first reading is that it is unrepeatable. Cf. Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.

By nnyhav on 10/10/05 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am blessed with a terrible memory and a gullible nature, and so I tend to gasp, laugh, and cry at pretty much the same spots every time. (I also hated that Madonna song.)

Which probably makes me (unintentionally) obtuse about the first-time privilege counted on by most other readers and viewers—yet another good reason for having avoided the life of the reviewer.

By Ray Davis on 10/10/05 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I enjoy spoiling endings for people. Like everytime I see someone reading the Bible I yell “Jesus gets snuffed!”.

By on 10/10/05 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some movies and books are worth watching or reading just a single time. There are a lot of worthwhile books and movies and not a lot of time.

By on 10/10/05 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Not the poem which we have read, but that to which we rreturn, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry.” (Coleridge, Biographia Literaria I:1)

By on 10/11/05 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Inattention is as good as amnesia and gullibility for mixing up what makes a first reading. Reading it while walking, eating, drinking, talking, riding the bus, listening to music, and watching tv, it took at least three trips from the front cover of Anna Karenina to the back before I had one full trip through - though I knew she comes to a sticky end, I had omitted part of the sweet begin first time around.

Then there’s gossip, and accident - I knew the ending of Psycho before I watched it, and I watched the ending before I watched the beginning, and good for me, since if I hadn’t come to it that way, I would have been far less tolerant of the cheesy music and might not have stayed the whole way through.

I see, in principle, why the first reading should get priority, being as how it’s an origin, just as I see why repeated readings should, in principle, get more weight, them being more like the eternal things, but in practice you’ve got a lot depending: Should the first attempt I made at reading Philosophical Investigations get priority, since it was first, and slow and careful, with repeated pagings-back, reconsiderations and comparisons, bucketloads of notes took and arguments had, or should the second take priority, since I never got through fifty pages the first time, even though I read straight through at almost the pace I read Tolstoy? - Because it certainly looked different the different times.

Not to mention a second time through is different for different books. Rereading The Magic Mountain I experience the identical roller-coaster ride, with all the pleasure of the first, rereading Ulysses I pull apart tangles that I got caught in last time, and notice new tangles I hadn’t seen before, or thought I had untangled. The last Harry Potter wasn’t worse for my knowing who would die in it, but Atalanta in Calydon could have used some more suspense.

By on 10/11/05 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for that, pf - especially your para about gossip and accident.  I also knew some things about Psycho too before I saw it.  Probably everyone does nowadays?  And now I think a bit more, I’m liking the link between it & Anna Karenina very much as well. 

When gossip about a text circulates and infiltrates and sediments to the point where it coalesces into the common shared culture, and if a text endures long enough then that inevitably happens, foreknowledge becomes a normal element of reception, not some kind of aberration. 

I wonder if we experience foreknowledge as a sort of belatedness - quietly blaming ourselves for not having got in there and read Anna Karenina before somebody else lectured us about it.  Bloom’s characterisation of belatedness, as something readers feel ashamed of and oppressed by, annoys me; why’s that man have to turn everything into a competition?

By on 10/12/05 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Belatedness isn’t my experience, but I do think there’s an interesting psychological operation that allows you to know an ending and suspend your awareness of it.  So that even rereading your able think, oh, I hope things work out for Anna.  In any case, you wouldn’t have to think that a first reading is the truest in order to think it’s valuable--or vice versa.

By on 10/12/05 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I’d better comment with my full name, I keep seeing my initals in the recent articles column and it’s giving me the heebie-jeebies.

Laura, thanks for your reply - blog commenting is like fan mail - this probably everyone knows, but I’m feeling it again now - except you don’t have to hoot and holler and wave around your reply, it’s on the internet for all to see!

I don’t know if foreknowledge is belatedness: I’m recommended something, I look at it, I come with expectations that are determined in some way or in several ways by what’s I’ve heard said about it, but there’s always an intermediary of some kind. Movies or books or music always have to come to me in some way or other, and the way it comes predetermines me in some way or other, inevitably. But I don’t ever think I’ve ever felt I was late to the party on something. Why, it only starts when I get there!

When gossip about a text circulates and infiltrates and sediments to the point where it coalesces into the common shared culture, and if a text endures long enough then that inevitably happens, foreknowledge becomes a normal element of reception, not some kind of aberration.

That, as they say, is what I would have said if I had known how to say it like that. (Of course I say that now.) It reminds me of a zinger of Frye’s in Anatomy of Criticism, which I don’t have with me, and it’s not online, natrually, and the zinger I’m looking for I can’t seem to google out - something about how meanings accrete around texts that have had high enough status long enough, and oh, I can’t remember. That was something else anyhow.

(Harold Bloom - I’d ask how anyone could take him seriously, but I don’t understand how they even read his books. I read three lines and boom, I’m dead in the water.)

Sean, I don’t think you’re replying to me, but I’ll go ahead and pretend anyhow: I didn’t mean to say the first reading isn’t valuable, just to echo Laura that it has no a priori priority (except in a temporal sense)*. And to add that often, and in my case that’s usually, it doesn’t even exist. At least, not as such.

The interesting psychological phenomenon you mention isn’t limited to reading, I don’t think. How many times have I repeated the identical relationship with different girls? - and yet I’m surprised each time at each time the same old new phase rolls around again. How many times have I seen the beginning of autumn? (How many times have we had this argument?) Even if you know it’s coming, it’s different when it’s there.

* Non-recoverable value isn’t more value, as value, than currently liquid value, at least not in the banking world, which is where I work. But now I suspect myself of seriously unethical punning. The sense of discovery you mention, that happened late for me for Shakespeare. Couldn’t really see the value, until one class I had. Then I could, and it was like a new world opening up. But that was a process of reorientation to something I already knew, and it couldn’t have happened in the way it did if it was my first experience of Shakespeare.

By on 10/12/05 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An absolute lack of foreknowledge is conceivable if the book’s content is abstracted yet another remove away from the words on the page—something today’s readers seem obliging to do. More and more (and more so in the case of particularly ossified genres) what “happens” in the book becomes a set of values plugged into the free variables floating around in the narrative. Maybe it wasn’t the butler, but somebody mustadunnit. The ultimate plot development is, therefore, the death of a character. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the best-selling fantasy is G.R.R. Martin’s series of doorstoppers, which are basically long queues of characters dying in premature and superficially unexpected ways.

By on 10/13/05 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If a book is not worth reading only because you know how it ends, then the book was probably never worth reading in the first place OR the reader isnt paying close enough attention.
@ good working and see you.

By rock on 07/29/09 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Which probably makes me (unintentionally) obtuse about the first-time privilege counted on by most other readers and viewers—yet another good reason for having avoided the life of the reviewer.

By sohbet on 09/17/09 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The interesting psychological phenomenon you mention isn’t limited to reading, I don’t think. How many times have I repeated the identical relationship with different girls? - and yet I’m surprised each time at each time the same old new phase rolls around again. How many times have I seen the beginning of autumn?

By watch tv online on 06/08/11 at 09:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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