Criticism self-selects its audience, or: has spoiler culture changed the way writers write?

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2011

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. 😉


Read this story: The Exterminator’s Want-Ad by Bruce Sterling

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2010

As I seem to be having a “recommend stuff elsewhere” kind of day here at Futurismic, here’s another suggestion for you. In between its non-fiction material (focussed, as its name might suggest, on building future communities based on sharing and mutual cooperation) Shareable.net is running science fiction stories from some big names to illustrate its chosen topics. The latest offering, “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad”, is from none other than Bruce Sterling – a darkly humorous first-person missive from an incarcerated former Beltway lobbyist and climate change denial huckster, locked up and “realigned” by the networked socialists of a post-climate-collapse near-future.

I could hear some of you make a sharp intake of political breath there, so let me reassure you that although Sterling evidently (and vocally) sides with progressive “bright green” sociopolitics, the socialist society he depicts is no naive utopia; if you’ve read his recent novel The Caryatids, you’ll know he’s more than able to draw every faction of the political future with all its warts and scars and human flaws fully to the front. I’m even tempted to label both works as non-partisan satires… but hey, go read it and make your own mind up.

And while you’re over there, Shareable has lots of other sf-nal content, such as interviews with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paolo Bacigalupi; go take a look around.

[ It also looks like they need to get a better comment spam plugin… ]


Go read (or listen to) Brenda Cooper’s story at Clarkesworld

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2010

Hey, it’s hump day – you should probably reward yourself for surviving to the half-way point of the week. So why not celebrate with some new fiction to read?

Brenda Cooper, who writes the Today’s Tomorrows column here at Futurismic, has a story in the latest issue of the excellent Clarkesworld online zine; it’s called “My father’s Singularity”, and you should go and read it. If you’re too busy (yeah, right), there’s an audio option as well, so no excuses.


The self-made myth of Michael jackson

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2010

Jackson/Monroe/Warhol mashup posterI’ve never been a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I have something of a fascination with his status as a larger- (and weirder-) than-life public figure… a status that his recent death will probably do little to dull, at least in the relatively near-term, and possibly forever. [image by 416style]

As such, I heartily recommend you read this piece by Brian Dillon at The Guardian: “Michael Jackson: king of hypochondria” raises the point that some of the earliest weird tales about Whacko Jacko were in fact created (or at least authorised) by Jackson himself.

When pictures of his visit to the hospital for that purpose made their way to the National Enquirer, Jackson seems to have seen an opportunity to make himself appear more enigmatic in the public mind. It was a curious change in attitude, considering his previous anguished responses to rumours about his personal life: his alleged homosexuality, his supposed decision to have a sex change in the late 70s and the initial media reports that his obvious recourse to plastic surgery was spurred by a desire to look like his mentor Diana Ross. Whatever led Jackson to court notoriety now, the ruse certainly worked; it prompted just the first and perhaps least disturbing of the many bizarre stories that would emerge about him in the years to come.

Though it was not true, the “oxygen tent” story now seems to presage so much about Jackson’s decline that it is hard not to read the image that accompanied it as an emblem of his eventual predicament: reclusive, ailing and unable to reverse his toxic reputation for eccentricity and worse. For the young man in the photograph – whose skin is still brown, whose face has changed since his early 20s but not yet taken on the inhuman aspect of his middle age, whose dancer’s body is not yet emaciated – already resembles nothing so much as a sacred or royal corpse.

Almost every book I’ve read on postmodernism cites Madonna as the quintessential self-made multi-myth, shrugging symbolic identities on and off in order to surf the Zeitgeist and keep the punters interested. That’s somewhat similar to David Bowie’s perpetual reinvention of himself as a symbol (of himself, and of other things), though I’d suggest that Bowie was less interested in being a pop sensation than exploring new avenues that interested him, with a very variable success rate (Tin Machine, anyone?)…

But Jackson just kept grafting new bits on to the same image (literally as well as figuratively), and as such became something bigger than he or his organisation could truly control. I can’t help but feel that, as such, he somehow presaged the uncontrollable runaway meme phenomenons that are such a feature of global internet culture.

Furthermore, it makes him – to my mind at least – an intensely science fictional phenomenon, as well as a postmodern one (if there’s any serious difference between those two things, which I’m less and less sure of as the days go by). The story of Michael Jackson is inherently mediated by the preconceptions of the person reading him as a text, and by the choice of references they use in that reading. The “real” Michael Jackson eventually became such a tiny and insignificant part of the maelstrom of images and stories that surrounded him that he could probably have died long before he did without costing that story any weight or momentum.

There are so many riffs to play around Michael Jackson: riffs of identity-as-narrative (and narrative-as-identity), of the power of PR and dis/mythinformation, about our willingness to believe falsehoods if they tell us what we want to hear, about the increasingly intangible border between a product and its marketing, about becoming the story you tell about yourself, and about that story mutating once it’s too big to control, about self-fulfilling prophecies, about the lonely frightened people sat at the centre of the images we create of ourselves in the public sphere.

The story of Michael Jackson is a very sad one, however it’s told and whoever it’s told by… and it’s all the more sad because his story is, to a greater or lesser extent, our story too.


NEW FICTION: TUPAC SHAKUR AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Sandra McDonald

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Seems like we’re all a little culturally obsessed with impending apocalypse at the moment; a minor flurry of end-of-the-world tales a few years back has grown into an everyman’s meme, with the cinemas full of zombie hordes, desolate wastelands and rugged survivors. That ubiquity has been a bit off-putting, to be honest… I love me a good post-apocalyptic story, but I’ve become a bit bored of them, and didn’t think we’d be publishing one here at Futurismic any time soon.

But Sandra McDonald has managed to prove me wrong, by subverting the cliches and turning the end of the world on its head with some darkly post-modern humour; “Tupac Shakur and the End of the World” is a post-apocalypse yarn for people who are bored of post-apocalypse yarns. Enjoy!

Tupac Shakur and the End of the World

by Sandra McDonald

The worst part – well, one of the worst parts, disregarding the collapse of modern civilization – is that it was my own stupid choice to leave Florida in the first place, and here I am spending my last days trying to get back there. I don’t have the Creep yet but let’s not pretend I’m special or mysteriously immune. I’m not the plucky heroine of a summer blockbuster who will find true love (shaggy-haired Brendan Fraser would be nice, or Daniel Craig with his icy blue eyes) and then become matriarch of a community of ragtag survivors. I’m just me – Susan Donoghue, thirty-one, former textbook writer, currently hiking down I-95 in North Carolina armed with a .45 handgun, pepper spray, and a hunting knife. I won’t let anyone touch me.

Let’s not pretend, either, that I’m on anything but a fool’s errand. My sister Marie, her husband Mike, and my baby niece Monica are probably already dead. The best I’ll be able to do is bury them. Take their hardened, Creepified bodies and put them in the dirt, then drop down beside them. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: TUPAC SHAKUR AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Sandra McDonald”


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