Monday, April 14, 2008

A Watched Plot Never Spoils*

I hate the word “spoilers”. It will never be used here without quotation marks. Stories – novels, movies, whatever – whose primary value is suspense exist, certainly. But is a story that is actually spoiled, ruined, by having heard it before really worth hearing in the first place? Maybe, but any book like that is unlikely to show up at Wuthering Expectations. So forget spoiled – let's try a more substantive point.

I'll use James Wood to stake out an extreme case. In this interview, he claims to "make a point in my reviews of describing the entire book". He’s exaggerating – see his New Yorker review of the latest Richard Price novel, in which he covers a wide range of plot details, including what must be some key plot points, but actually leaves a lot back. Also, by the time most of us actually read the novel, we’ll (I'll) have forgotten almost everything Wood said. Our (my!) cognitive limitations are a separate issue, I guess.

Prof. N. Reading made some comments on the Wood interview that got me thinking. Prof. Reading makes some serious arguments against Wood, using The Mill on the Floss, which has a plot twist, as an example. She mentions the value of rereading for depth, but I assume everyone agrees about that. More interesting are her ideas, some very classroom centered, about the value or experience of the first reading. This is not primarily about the value of shock or surprise, but the development of a certain freedom of expectation. If we know the end, or the turning points, our reading is directed towards them. This is a source of depth - we notice the details of how the author gets us where she's going - but at the price of a sense of contingency, a constriction of our imaginative freedom. Once we know what happened, we risk forgetting what might have happened.

This is a serious point, worth thinking about by anyone who writes about books for a non-specialized audience (specialists reasonably write as if everyone has either already read the book, or never will). Please, Professor, let me know if I've mischaracterized your argument.**

Let me return to the extreme case for a moment. Homer, Ovid, the authors of The Poem of the Cid and the Niebelungenlied, all assumed that their readers (listeners, viewers) knew a version of whatever story they were telling. The emotional power of Aristotle's classic catharsis was supposed to occur when the audience already knew the story well. Writers like Euripides, our first postmodernist, played off of this knowledge in plays like Helen and Orestes, creating outrageous, expectation-shattering twists, possibly at the expense of catharsis.

But no matter how fundamental the story, there's always a first time, isn't there? At some point, likely, for most of us, long ago and completely forgotten, we had at least a brief moment when we feared that Abraham might really sacrifice his son. And if he did, that would mean ---. Then we got to the end of the story, and Isaac was alive, and the story meant this instead of that. But the possibility of that other meaning shadows the story.

It is obviously impossible to write seriously about books without describing what's in them, in detail - it's the details that matter. Otherwise, we could just read encyclopedia entries. I have to draw the line somewhere. Orestes kills his mother, and is tormented by the Furies. Moses dies without ever seeing the Promised Land. Robinson Crusoe gets off the island, eventually. And Jane Eyre - well, that would be telling. Tomorrow, I'll see how, if, when, I can tell.

* Not on Google – I can’t be the first, can I? Anyway, I am, for the moment, so proud of this bon mot that I want to copyright it. Must credit Amateur Reader. Anything else I write, who cares, copy away. Unless you’re a student working on a paper in which case, a) your teacher can tell when it's not your own writing and has Google, and b) show some dignity, man.

** I'm taking the argument seriously enough that I have skipped Blogging the Canon's posts about The Mill on the Floss, in order to preserve the surprise.


  1. I like Prof. Reading's argument about how knowing the end affects the way you read -- I was just talking with my class today about how we can't read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the way people read it when it was first published because we're all familiar with the concept of a split personality and we know all about the Jekyll/Hyde relationship. It's kind of frustrating to know we can't read the book "innocently."

  2. AR: No complaints! I like the way you've put it, especially your point about losing that sense of contingency. For me there's also an aspect that is purely to do with pleasure. I'm a committed re-reader, of course, but I also thoroughly enjoy being propelled along by curiosity, suspense, hope, and fear about how things are going to turn out. And some books are just radically different once you know--which is a great reason to read them again, of course.

  3. The phrase is great, Am Read., I will need to try and use it in the near future, properly attributed, of course. Knowing the plot definitely alters my reading experience, as does thinking I know the plot. I've been sorely disappointed in several books because the developments I was reading for never happened.

  4. Dorothy, fine example, duly borrowed for today's post.

    Prof. Maitzen, thanks. I think I'll take a shot at the taste for suspense, twists, plot in general, tomorrow - a more important idea than I had first thought.

    Sparkling Squirrel - very true. The "Frankenstein" problem.

  5. I think suspense and surprise are highly overrated. They get in the way of enjoying the book because you are constantly looking ahead and wondering what will happen, instead of fully taking in what is on the page in front of you. I get much more enjoyment out of book the second, third, fourth, etc., time. Of course that is assuming it's a good book. If it's not, and all it has going for it is surprise, then it wasn't worth reading the first time.

  6. Freedom of expectation - absolutely. It isn't so much about needing to gather the facts and assemble them together coherently but having a pristine first experience with a text. I do think that when a review is done critically, even with lots of details, it doesn't necessarily ruin that first experience. It can't recreate the experience for the reader in any way, shape or form.