Monday, October 18, 2010


I don’t watch Mad Men on AMC (no cable) so I didn’t mind when I checked into Twitter last night and there were lots of spoiler tweets during the last episode of the season.  But it seemed to bother some people.   And then other tweeters started making fun of the spoilers and the complainers by tweeting the ends of famous books and plays and movies. Which was humorous.

Today, Matt Yglesias posted this at his blog:

… I think “spoilers” aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be. I knew Macbeth dies in the end before I read the play, I knew that Troy falls because they stupidly let a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into the city walls, and I knew that things weren’t going to work out for Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Foreknowledge doesn’t ruin these works or any other work of quality. If anything, it’s the reverse. If you look at a well-constructed story … knowledge of where things are headed enhances your ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together.

Well, yes. They aren’t as bad as people make them out to be. They aren’t the end of the world.  But. 

Knowing the end has never ruined my reading of a well written novel.  No, not even a mystery novel.  And generally my second reading of a great novel, in which I know everything that happens, does enhance my ability to appreciate the author’s mastery in structuring the novel.  But my ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together also includes my appreciation of the mastery by which the author is able to evoke emotional responses during a first read, responses that may not be as intense if you know what is coming.  

My first encounter with the story of Anna Karenina was not through the novel but in opera.  I did not know the story at all.  I did not read the synopsis.  I did not expect her to throw herself in front of a train at the end, although I was sure it was going to end badly.  I remember being emotionally drained at the end. This did not ruin my reading of the novel when I finally got around to reading it.   But I wasn’t all that interested in how Tolstoy set me up for the shock of the train scene because I hadn’t experienced the shock through reading his words.  I appreciated the very modern, almost stream of consciousness way that he wrote the scene, but I couldn’t judge whether that technique would have evoked any emotional reaction from me if I was reading it “fresh” because I would never come to it fresh.

Compare this with the first time I read Martin Amis’ The Information in which I argued with the author and his character, Richard Tull, through most of the novel, was sure that Richard Tull was over-reacting and misinterpreting the actions of Gwyn Barry, was sure that Amis was leading me toward a predictable ending and at times was a little bored by Tull’s revenge fantasies gone wrong.  Then the end came, Richard Tull finds a measure of peace and I, the reader, was arguing with him, saying “you can’t stop NOW, not now that I know what I know!”  As soon as I finished the novel I turned around and read it again to figure out how Amis managed to evoke all of these reactions from me.   Sure, if I had known the ending when I started the novel it wouldn’t have ruined if for me and I might have dispassionately analyzed the “mastery with which the story has been put together” but I could never have analyzed how he evoked reactions from me that I might never have had.

On the other hand, I cried all through the end of Dorothy Dunnett’s novel King Hereafter, the story of the real Macbeth who was not evil but was a decent king and man.  I cried because I knew what was coming although I didn’t know how she was going to do it to him.   And knowing where the story was going did enhance my experience of the novel.

So.  Spoilers?   How do you feel about them?