Monday, February 7, 2011

A Watched Plot Never Spoils, revisited

It has often been said that a watched plot never spoils.  Often said by me, at least, since that phrase, coined in 2008, remains my greatest contribution to Western civilization.  A Watched Plot Never Spoils, in two parts.  Overly attentive readers of Wuthering Expectations will not be so surprised when the dismissal of the very concept of spoileration turns into a defense of the value of first contact with a strong story.  The Appreciationist can see all sides.  Or, I am inconsistent and confused.

The Lifetime Reader, pondering away upon The Iliad, asks her readers for their opinions on Spoilerism, which it turns out, showed me something.  Now, the main reason I am writing this post at all is to rescue a good joke* from her comments, but I also have a point.  Please consider:

As is often the case in Debussy’s compositions, the 1894 tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune begins with a dissonant chord that (spoiler alert!) never resolves.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed entrance to The Rookery begins with a narrow, dark corridor which soon (spoiler alert!) opens up into a large, light-filled atrium.

Masaccio’s importance as an innovator rests on the skillful incorporation in his paintings of the new technique of (spoiler alert!) linear perspective.

Writing about music is like (spoiler alert!) dancing about architecture.

In Citizen Kane, the identity of “Rosebud” turns out to be (spoiler alert!) some depressingly idiotic sub-Freudian nonsense, barely worthy of the term “MacGuffin,” in an otherwise brilliantly-written film.

I find these hilarious, so please contribute more.

In each case, just as in a key point in a story, a moment of tension has been created.  What does happen to that chord?  The word “that” signals the continuation of the narrative.  The tension, presumably mild enough to begin with, lasts a moment and is then swept away by the simple act of finishing the sentence.  The tension created by a first encounter with the story of Abraham and Isaac is considerably greater, but it hardly lasts much longer.

One could resolve the tension in another way, though.  One could, and should, go to Chicago and visit The Rookery.  The visitor will discover how Wright created and resolved tension by experiencing the effect himself.  He does not have to read about it in a book, or, heaven help us, a blog post.  Similarly, he could watch Citizen Kane, listen to Debussy, perhaps with the assistance of some training in composition, and master the fundamental concepts of Renaissance art history solely through careful attention to the artworks of Masaccio and his contemporaries and predecessors.

I do not want to argue against the importance of experience.  I want to identify its cost, which I will call knowledge.  Once I begin to study an art, once I begin to treat it as a field of knowledge, I begin to replace my direct experience of art with others' experience of art.  Spoilage abounds.  The diehard Anti-Spoilerists put all of their weight on experience, at the expense of knowledge.  Knowledge is then acquired slowly, and without the benefit of the expertise of others.  But the cost of the active pursuit of knowledge is a dilution of the thrill of discovery, including but not limited to our experience of a well-told story.

I am convinced that the rewards of knowledge are ample, even enormous.  I could make a half-hearted argument that the shift from experience to knowledge is not only necessary but inevitable.  It would involve an odd juxtaposition – the desire for a pure experience is a component of innocence.

I don’t want to make that argument, though.  For one thing, I’m not sure how to do it without loaded, and I suspect inaccurate, words like “mature” and “serious.”  For another, just look at the books I write about – on the list of Most Interesting Features of Salammbô, the plot ranks somewhere between the binding and the typeface.  Talk about a moot point.

And, really, I dance around plot twists and surprises with what I hope is some degree of respect for unspoiled readers, even though I doubt I have any.  I bluster, but I’m actually a sweetheart.

But: another of my lines retrieved from Lifetime Reader’s comments – I'll start including spoiler warnings as soon as Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson do.  That one’s not a joke.  Separate post, some other time.

* The idea here actually belongs to Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books.  My innovation was to understand its comic potential, or to trivialize it.


  1. I love your line that "the desire for a pure experience is a component of innocence." It gives a paradox that I will be turning over all day.

    While I was reading your post I was thinking about religious faith. Some groups believe that each person experiences a direct from-the-heart relationship with the divine. Others emphasize the importance of what the religious leaders say. One doesn't seem more naive--or more mature--than the other in this case.

    I am not religious, but I think the practice of Torah study may be the ideal model for literature. We hold the books between ourselves, read together, and argue away. We use what people have said in the past not to constrict us but to inspire us and open up new worlds of meaning.

  2. I do think that people take this "spoiler" thing to far at times, when they insist that nothing about a story can be revealed. However, I think there's a valid point when you're dealing with details that are supposed to be a surprise. It's in that sense that something's been "spoiled". It's like when someone tells you that they're planning a surprise party. It kind of spoils the surprise. I'm sure you realize all this, though, and you even mentioned "dancing around" things.

    It's a problem though when you're trying to discuss the implications of [spoiler alert] the recluse that hates gypsies turning out to be Esmeralda's mother. If someone is on a blog about classic literature, then you'd figure they'd know that by now. If not, it's like "Here's a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Come back when you're done reading it.

  3. .
    There is a middle path: when the writing creates an equivalent vicarious experience in the reader. It’s just hard to do!

    Trying to solve the ‘spoiler-alter’ question is like (spoiler alert!) expecting an echo to speak first.

  4. Spoiler alerts are for losers! Wait, let me rephrase that in a more diplomatic way. I think the lack of spoiler alerts in academic literary journals and the excess of spoiler alerts in the book blog world are telling regarding the level of discourse on display--and, hey, I even like a ton of book blogs for their combination of entertainment and insight. Love that Debussy crack by the way, but now there's no point in me ever listening to that song...

  5. Lifetime Reader - why thanks. How I wish that line were better written. "Component" - ugh. The prosaic but functional "part" is better.

    But, substantively, I entirely understand the desire to read like we sometimes did as children - no expectations, no anxities, no outside world, no idea about the "importance" or age of the book. I suspect we lose this despite our best efforts, but I am not entirely willing to argue against those efforts.

    As you say, and as I fear, treating one path as "mature" and another as "immature" is bad thinking. But I do not yet have another formulation. The last thing I would want to argue with is someone else's religious experience!

    I do have an argument against the Torah study analogy - do the yeshiva students ever get to really trash the Torah? Because imaginative literature, even the greatest books, need an occasional trashing.

    Bryan, that's a good example. I can guess that I would never specidically mention that particular Hugo plot twist. I would instead label it as "melodramatic plotty nonsense" - "then, after some plotty nonsense, Hugo..." This is an advantage of not caring about plot. A disadvantage is that I can write on a book for five days, not realizing that someone is thinking, "Yes, but what in the devil is the book about"?

    On the other hand - I certainly did not assume that readers knew the plot of, for example, Salammbô. I assumed that 1) no one knew it, and 2) no one wanted to know (and if they do, they have the internet).

    As Vince says, I try to find the essential part of the book and describe it in some way that communicates the experience. That's good writing, good criticism.

    Richard, I do not need academic journals as an example. I'm thinking of the magazines I read, and others like them - The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Commentary, etc. - which assume their readers value knowledge, not just experience. They may also make another assumption or two.

    Imagine the joy or perplexity of the composition student listening along to Debussy, trying to figure out when and where that dang chord resolves, and discovering for himself that it never does. Wow! That kind of discovery is so fulfilling. It's a shame to lose it. It's necessary to lose some of it.

  6. This is an advantage of not caring about plot. A disadvantage is that I can write on a book for five days, not realizing that someone is thinking, "Yes, but what in the devil is the book about"?

    A familiar issue. Not dissimilar to the "Yes, but did she like it?" problem.

    Naturally, I believe you do exactly the right thing. If information is material, it is material. If it's not, it's simple courtesy not to spoil for no reason

  7. Materiality - yes, exactly. A bloggish pet peeve: Posts that spend three or four paragraphs on a detailed plot summary, spoiler alerts and all, and then spend the rest of the piece writing about nothing but characters, with no reference to the tedious incidents that were so carefully enumerated. Red pencil. Delete button. Slash slash.

    What's a good guideline for a plot summary - four lines? Four words? Stranger comes to town. Woman goes on journey. Adulteress makes bad decisions. One day in Dublin. This poem's about me! Malone dies.

    All right, maybe four lines, except for that last one, which is sufficient.

  8. As someone who reads a good deal of literary criticism and who discusses books-as-a-whole for a living, I tend strongly toward the knowledge, not pure experience, model of reading. Still, I have some sympathy with other points of view: recently, my mother, from across the dining room table, said, "Oh, don't read Mill on the Floss, it's too depressing. Right in the middle, these two children --" and told me precisely what happens. My reaction wasn't, of course, to think that the book was spoiled (and indeed I'm going to read it next), but I was mildly annoyed.

    Nevertheless, it's part of my job to begin to provide context (history, literature, intellectual touchstones) and the framework of analysis for my students as we read. I show them the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Perhaps I'm the serpent. Oh dear, this is edging toward blasphemy, or anyway extreme frivolity. But it's a useful analogy, too.

  9. Also -- four-word summaries -- is it "Adulteress makes bad decisions" or "Adulteress dies under train"? Or even "Adulteress leaves home, family"? Choices.

  10. That "adulteress" bit can fit more than one book. The trouble with AK in four words is that I really have to save two words for Levin.

    In the classroom, you really can assume that everyone has read the book - I said "assume"! - which gives a certain kind of freedom. But you are still revealing secrets and thwarting certain discoveries.

    How else can education possibly work? Imagine the thrill of discovering how chlorophyll is related to photosynthesis. Well, that thrill is gone, gone, gone. We are taught that now; we learn it from a book, or a teacher. But other possibilities appear.

    I'm not sure your mother is remembering The Mill on the Floss correctly.

  11. Don't you mean, "I'm not sure your mother (spoiler!) is remembering Mill on the Floss correctly."?

    And yes, I don't mind laying everything bare in the classroom, including the most important bit (to my mind) -- how and why the writer did it.

  12. In the story of "The Lady or the Tiger?" there is (spoiler alert) no good choice.

    Hmm, I might have to think about this some more!

  13. "The Lady and the Tiger" is a good one. I was facing this problem with Maupassant. Does it damage our enjoyment of O. Henry or whoever when we know that he's known for trick endings? We then read expecting the trick. But if you don't know that O. Henry or Maupassant or whoever wrote "The Lady and the Tiger" used trick endings, what are you allowed to know about them?

  14. I've given an enormous amount of plot detail in my recent posts--mostly because I realized if people had not read The Iliad, my thoughts over the course of the last two weeks would make no sense at all. It is awfully hard for me to decide if my posts are likely to inspire people to read the literature, bore them to tears, or "spoil" it for them.

    With other people's posts, I sometimes feel that I'm in danger of saying something stupid if I haven't read the book being discussed, even if I feel moved by something the blogger has written.

    How do we find a balance?

  15. How do we know? Experiment. Trust your readers. Ignore your readers. That sort of thing.

    You're dealing, right now, with a book that is packed with incident. I don't think you're summarizing so much as making sure we're all clear on where you are in the story. I mean, you have not even mentioned (or I don't remember) Achilles fighting the river, or the long description of the shield, or the nighttime raid of Odysseus and, um, the other guy.

    As for commenting when you haven't read the book, my understanding is that if you put that sideways smiley face after whatever you say, no one can argue with you or correct you. Those who loathe the smileys as deeply as I do use question marks.

  16. I, too, love what you have to say about innocence and experience. You could equally cast that in the light of pride and prejudice, but you are clearly a much nicer person than I am. What I do think is that the frame of expectations that surround a novel before the first word has been read can be a cumbersome obstacle. For me, it works more detrimentally when that frame is made up of other people's negative comments. I really don't mind knowing what happens (I am all for knowledge in every conceivable form), but I do mind having my impressions manipulated by a host of critical voices. Or even adulatory ones. The most subjective part of the subjective experience of reading is deciding what value to assign to the book read, and I'd like to do that all by myself.

    One other thought: reading is the experience of a very pure kind of mental freedom. It's the place where we can catch our real feelings and responses in flight, where we don't have to hide anything for fear of social non-conformity or lack of compliance to the 'right' kind of responses. But when we discuss books, all that anxiety about having the 'right' response returns. Plus, if we know what's going to happen in advance, maybe our deeply personal responses get messed up a bit, corrupted by that knowledge that comes from elsewhere. What some people call knowledge, others experience as colonisation of their minds.

  17. No, I haven't mentioned the shield, etc. I haven't even mentioned the g*ds. And instead of using the sideways smile or the question mark as my talisman against challenge, I like to use ellipses indiscriminantly...

  18. Lifetime R., the question mark is meant to be a sign of humility - just asking a question. Not sure everyone sees it that way. The ellipses have a nice "I've lost my train of thought" quality.

    litlove - Here's an honest question - what is the reader's responsibility in controlling his expectations? Wuthering Expectations Rule #1: Read the book in front of you, not the one you have concocted in your head. That can take some effort - the obstacle can be cumbersome, absolutely.

    A good reader should use whatever he has read - plot, negative judgments, whatever - as tools to discover what's in the book.

    The judgments of others are just more knowledge. Yes, it affects our experience of art. Back in the bubble, then? No - good readers learn to use that knowledge.

    I mean, you would like to make the judgment all by yourself - but that ship has pretty much sailed, right? You're pretty much stuck knowing that Bach, Mozart, Haydn, etc. are "great composers." As Jenny says, that apple's done been bit.

  19. I love your spoiler alert for Citizen Kane because it still doesn't SPOIL it! Really, I have a hard time seeing anything as spoilers. I do like your discussion of experience and knowledge. I'm trying to think of something witty to add to the discussion but I have nothing to add. Well said.

  20. Dang Rosebud nonsense would spoil the movie if it weren't so easy to ignore.

  21. Sorry I'm late for the fantastic discussion. Recently I picked up The Other Hand (also published as Little Bee) and the whole cover was one big 'Don't spoil it' warning. Such a turnoff. If it's so easily spoiled, it's probably not that great to begin with.

    I love your spoiler examples.

  22. So, Marieke, the spoiler warning is a spoiler!

    It's true, isn't it? If we're obsessed with the pure experience, we can't know anything. If all I know about a book is that lot's of people are reading it, that is still information that will affect my experience.

    And how about the cover art? Or the title? Or, the big one, the author. If you have read another book by an other, you know a heck of a lot about the new, unread book.

  23. Ha ha, that's a good one. A book without a title or an author or a cover design or a blurb. How well would that sell?

  24. Yes, a bad seller. Because even supposed anti-spoiler neurotics actually demand an enormous amount of information.