The spoiler-police: spoiling it for the rest of us?

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Mary Elizabeth Williams takes to the pages of Salon.com to decry one of my own pet hates: the spoiler-police, those people who get angry at you for discussing a book, film or TV show that they haven’t seen yet [via Martin Lewis].

As a reviewer and critic, this is a particular bugbear for me. First and foremost, I believe that stories that can truly be spoiled by having major plot points revealed before reading and/or watching it are rarely stories worth bothering with. This is why The Sixth Sense wasn’t really a very good movie, for example; watch it a second time, and it’s just ninety-odd minutes of narrative prestidigitation. That said, there are exceptions (it’s very hard to discuss Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World without talking about the pivot point twist at the middle of it, but knowing that twist actually makes a second reading a different and equally enjoyable experience), and it’s the mark of a good – or at least responsible – critic to be able to know the difference and act accordingly.

But secondly, it’s always baffled me that people bothered by spoilers couldn’t simply self-police the problem and, y’know, avoid reading reviews and discussions of the story in question before they get to it. Williams agrees:

… for the love of God, if you really don’t want to know about a book/movie/television show, do the rest of the world a favor and stop hanging out in the online discussion groups about it. Sure, if you live in a time zone where your favorite show has not yet aired, you could go on any of the many websites devoted to it and rage about the injustice of it all, like the poster in a “24” thread who complained, “Your East Coast arrogance that once it airs on the East Coast, it’s fair game to blog about — and ruin for us on the West Coast — is beyond stunning.” Or you maybe could restrain yourself from joining the discussion for three measly hours.

[…]

Do these die-hards ever consider that maybe they’re the ones spoiling things — for the rest of us? I promise I won’t blurt the ending of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” when you’re behind me in the ticket line. If, in fact, you tell me directly you’ve never seen “The Third Man,” I will simply say you’re in for a treat. But how about you assume if you’re in an online discussion about the film, maybe that’s a space for people who’ve seen it and want to discuss it? Or the fact that you’re just now getting hip to “The Wire” doesn’t impose a cone of silence on it for anybody else?

Testify, sister!

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6 Responses to “The spoiler-police: spoiling it for the rest of us?”

  1. MisterK says:

    I get that you don’t want to worry about ruining the story for people in discussion forums, but reviews are not a place for spoilers. People read reviews to hear if they should see a movie or not. I don’t care what you think of the movie I’ve already watched, so just don’t ruin it. Tell me if it’s good or not and maybe a couple interesting things about it. I also don’t like people deciding whether giving away all the plot points ruins a book or movie for me. I think it does, so don’t tell me about it. Like I said, I’ll stay away from discussion forums that are aimed at people who have already seen a movie, but reviews are not those places.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    I must respectfully disagree. MisterK.

    Tell me if it’s good or not and maybe a couple interesting things about it.

    I can’t tell you whether or not you’re going to like it without discussing why you might like it. The logical extension of the idea of a spoiler-free review is the title of the movie and a star-rating, with no actual text. Without the text, how do you understand the star rating? What if the reviewer has radically different tastes to your own? Discussing the film gives the rating a context; if an excess of context is a problem for you, don’t read it.

    I also don’t like people deciding whether giving away all the plot points ruins a book or movie for me. I think it does, so don’t tell me about it.

    Only you can make that decision, of course. But only you can decide whether or not to read reviews before seeing the film. How many plot points is too many? Is there some sort of universally-agreed percentage that it’s OK to let through?

    Or, to put it another way: why gag me, when putting plugs in your own ears has the same effect? You’re arguing for a form of censorship; I’m suggesting that censorship starts and ends with your own hand on the mouse (or remote, or magazine rack, whatever).

    It’s like going into a live music bar you’ve never been too before, and then complaining bitterly that the music’s too loud and is spoiling your night out. If you want reviews that say “if you liked [x], you’ll love [y]!”, fine – find somewhere that does those sort of reviews. That’s cool; everyone’s different, and there’s plenty of review venues out there that provide just such a service.

    What’s not cool is telling people who think differently to you that they should shut up for fear of hurting your feelings. I believe the First Amendment has something to say about that. 🙂

  3. John Lunn says:

    I think both sides have a point on this topic. Most movies and books don’t need the spoiler alert that’s attached to them so I get the feeling the tag itself acts as a teaser for the reader.
    My only complaint with your post is about The Sixth Sense. Sure the surprise is a great bang. But the story holds up as a well told and retold tale even if you know the ending.

  4. LBalsam says:

    It is easy to provide visual indications of spoiler ahead. Go on and discuss them, just provide the visual indicator (perhaps a different background color).

    I like to know if the movie/book/TV show is good an how violent it is before deciding to see it. I do not want to know all the plot twists. I would like the opportunity to see/read it as the author or director intended.

  5. Sarah Ennals says:

    I’m the sort of person who likes a magic trick better for knowing how it’s done – that said, there are a couple of movies (Gangs of New York and The Thirteenth Floor are the first that leap to mind) where I envy the blown minds of people who stumble across the opening scenes on tv and watch them without even knowing what the setting or genre of the story is going to be…

  6. Rick York says:

    Really, as long as the writer says that there are spoilers, you don’t have to read it. Shame on those reviewers who don’t.

    I cannot remember a single SF reviewer not indicating “spoilers ahead”.

    And, MisterK, Paul nails it. There are many books, films and TV shows which are impossible to review without some spoilers. I would recommend that you skip reviews with spoilers. Reviewers can write anything the wish and, you don’t have to read it.