Here’s an interesting essay from Chuck Klosterman in which he discusses the effects of the internet closing a short feedback loop between the writers and consumers of story. He’s talking predominantly about screenplays, but I think there’s a lot here that’s applicable to written fictions, too.
Here, Damon Lindelof ‘fesses up that responding to fan feedback during the creation of Lost was a mistake, and something he’s trying hard to avoid doing again:
But what about Lindelof’s unconscious relationship with his fan base? Even if he locks himself in a hatch, he knows his personal brand will attract the type of person who hunts for clues and twists; he knows his audience is populated by people who want to express their opinions in public and define the collective perception of the show, and he knows that any crumb of information leaked about his projects will be proliferated instantly. Even if he chooses to ignore these truths, he will still know they’re true. And that’s going to have a consequence on what he ultimately writes. He’ll unconsciously attempt to negate those problems before they even happen.
“On a personal level, this has absolutely affected me,” Lindelof says. “I’m in the process of thinking about whatever my next TV show will be, and I’m constantly thinking about this very question. I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it’s like I’ve just left a strip club. There will always be this belief that what I make will not be what it seems. I’ve become such an unreliable narrator. So as I think about my next project, I want to create a feeling that immediately says to the audience, I Am Exactly What I Appear To Be. Sometimes I wish we were in the old Alfred Hitchcock days, when I could just sit in a recliner at the start of the program and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are no shenanigans here.’ But of course, in this era, that would have the total opposite effect. In the olden days — and by olden, I mean like four years ago — I would be inclined to just try anything. I would just write whatever interested me. But now, if I thought of a major twist, I wouldn’t do it unless it was a home run. Because at this point, a base hit is not acceptable. And once you decide to do something like that, you’re faced with the question of, `What am I willing to do to hide this?’ Am I willing to lie to pretty much everyone I know? Is it worth lying to the crew and to everyone I work with? Because that’s the only way you can pull it off.”
Obviously the writer of novels is a little safer from this phenomenon; the predominantly isolated nature of the creation process means that leaking is easier to control. But the same problem will raise its head with series of books, and the slowness of the book production cycle will allow for plenty of feedback to mass up in between instalments; short of sealing oneself off from the internet and other media almost entirely, it’ll be hard to avoid that looming mass of expectation. In the long run, my guess would be that the expectations we have of story will, perforce, mutate to accommodate the effects of the feedback channel; not quite the pick-your-own-adventure interactive movies that have been mooted for years (and will probably never take off – the gaming market has that side of things sewn up already, because it’s not suited to a mass simultaneous audience experience like cinema), but a certain – and possibly wryly knowing – degree of fanservice to reward a loyal fanbase might become de rigeur. Balancing that fanservice with the risk of spoilers will be a new tightrope for writers to walk, but I don’t think it’ll be as difficult a transition as all that; fandoms will learn to be more forgiving and less demanding, or they’ll lose the things they love – much lie any other relationship, it should be about give and take if you want it to last. (This remission of privilege may well be accelerated by new business models that involve direct financial interaction between creators and fans, which will likely be the next feedback loop to slip into place.)
Before I sign off on this one, I just want to pull out some of Klosterman’s more general points about spoilers, because – as a critic – they’re an issue that interests me, and Klosterman actually fingers the critical apparatus for being a problematic part of the loop described above:
Every so often, a random contrarian will publish an essay titled, “In defense of spoilers” (or something along those lines). The writer inevitably explains why the concept of media outlets (or rogue bloggers, or quasi-celebrity Twitter accounts) preemptively ruining movies or books or TV shows is an infantile complaint and a minor nuisance. Not surprisingly, almost no non-critic takes this argument seriously. It comes from a purely egotistical point of view; the writer believes his or her thoughts about a piece of art are more valuable than the art itself (and therefore can’t be constrained by the collective experience of the audience).
Now, I’ve written defences of spoilers myself – here’s one, in fact – and while I’ll admit there’s an element of ego involved, I don’t believe my thoughts about a work to be more valuable than the work itself at all, though I do believe that the onus for avoiding spoilers lies upon those who are worried about encountering them. (Again, things are different in the world of books when compared to the world of film and TV; discussion of the latter is going to be harder to avoid than in-depth criticism of a novel, if only because the field of critics is larger and more widely-read.) Klosterman concedes the necessity of this pragmatic attitude – indeed, it’s his route into the discussion of feedback loops above:
But complaining about spoilers is like complaining about bed bugs — they’re always going to exist, they’re only going to become harder to avoid, and worry merely amplifies the displeasure. Everyone is aware that this is how the modern media works. Everyone, including the very people generating the art that’s being spoiled.
And one of his footnote/sidebars raises the core question: what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? How long would be a fair grace period before one is permitted to talk about a book or movie in detail?
If you’re writing an analysis of Old Yeller, it’s totally fine to discuss the hound’s demise. In fact, anytime a writer is doing a deep criticism of a commodity that has (assumedly) been experienced by the overwhelming bulk of those interested in reading about a given subject, there aren’t any boundaries or limitations. But things are different when (a) the art is still functioning in the present tense, and/or (b) an uninformed, uninvested reader has no way of gauging how central the element of surprise is to the enjoyment of the work. That second factor is especially important. For example, this article starts with several references to The Sixth Sense, which I mention is 12 years old. In cinema, 12 years is a long time. So if the title of this essay had been, “I See Famous People (and Maybe Donnie Wahlberg): A Inverted Deconstruction of The Sixth Sense” — I could write whatever I please. I could elucidate every single twist because nobody would consume my article unless they were already well-informed about its subject. Criticism self-selects its audience; you wouldn’t read the essay if you hadn’t seen the film.
That final sentence is the important one for me, because I think it places the onus back on the reader to be aware of what sort of venue a review or discussion is appearing in, and to be aware that a critical venue is more likely to feature reviews with spoilers, and to act accordingly. (It’s a rather libertarian attitude on my part, perhaps, but to my mind someone wandering into the comments thread at a venue like Strange Horizons and calling reviewers out for spoilers is a little like wandering around a nudist colony and demanding that people to cover themselves to spare your embarrassment.)
A popular counter-suggestion goes along the lines of “well, why not just put a warning at the top of reviews that might have spoilery content in them?” Again, I feel that’s an unwarranted shifting of responsibility from consumer to critic; perhaps it’s pure ego, as Klosterman suggests, but I don’t see why a group of people should be forbidden from discussing the detail of a work just because there are some folk who haven’t gotten round to seeing it yet. Klosterman admits that spoilers are impossible to police… so perhaps part of the mutation of fandom attitudes I postulated further up would include a sense that avoiding spoilers was their own responsibility.
Though, I’ll admit, I don’t find that very likely. 😉