Archive for the 'rebuttal'

Year End Review: Don’t Tell Me

Dial M

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Will the hero still have a pulse at the story’s end? Will the young woman have the wit to pick the man who really cares for her? Will the professor get tenure?

These are urgent questions and as a reader I’ve never wanted to know the answers before the author was ready to tell me. As a writer, I’ve assumed other readers were similarly inclined.

But maybe not.

For example:

(1) A woman I know reads widely and ardently, but will never begin a book until she’s read its last several pages. Something compels her to read the ending first. Doesn’t this spoil it for her? Evidently not. It’s spoiled for her if she doesn’t approach it in this fashion. (This only applies, I should add, to fiction. When she sits down with a book about the War of 1812, she doesn’t have to begin by reading about the Battle of New Orleans. Unless it’s a novel about the War of 1812, in which case she does.)

(2) Another woman I know, a writer herself and an omnivorous reader, always takes a book to bed with her, and insists that it be a mystery. It’s essential to her that her bedtime reading take place in a fictional world in which things are not left hanging. With a mystery, she can relax knowing that there will be resolution at the end. Triumph or tragedy, all will be resolved.

(3) “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Edmund Wilson famously wondered, showing how utterly he missed the point of what Agatha Christie was doing. And yet I re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd a year or two ago, decades after my first trip through it, and enjoyed it more this most recent time. The book’s a puzzle and a tour de force and a bit of brilliant trickery—and no, I shan’t spoil it for you—but the fact remains that my own familiarity didn’t spoil it for me.

I write several series. Sometimes the survival of an important character is in doubt, and indeed some of Matthew Scudder’s key supporting players have died over the years. So the reader’s in doubt—but not when he’s already read a later book in the series, and knows that So-and-so made the cut. Does that make the reading less enjoyable? Yes for some readers, no for others.

In 1961, I wrote a book under a pen name; a half century later, Killing Castro is back in print from Hard Case Crime. Last I looked, Fidel was still sitting up and taking nourishment, so could any present-day reader seriously expect the five Americans dispatched to Cuba could possibly succeed in their mission?

Heh heh…

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, the New York Times bestseller featuring the celebrated series protagonist Matthew Scudder (soon to be played by Liam Neeson in a major motion picure), is now in paperback in bookstores everywhere.

Mulholland Books will publish Larry’s newest novel, the Keller thriller HIT ME which has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, in February 2013.

A Critic’s Perspective

PerspectiveThe critical debate surrounding Stanley Fish’s defense of “spoilers” seems to focus mainly on how it affects the reader’s enjoyment of the book, either in a negative or positive way. What I think what needs to be discussed is the purpose of criticism. Why do readers read them, and what purpose do they serve? Do they exist merely to promote a book, and to inform readers in advance of their actual reading of the book?

As a reviewer, not including “spoilers” is a limiting, often frustrating, roadblock. How are we to critically discuss a book if we have to keep dancing around the facts? This can result in more generalized commentary or surface-level evaluations instead of the more deep, comprehensive reviews that the books deserve (and which crime fiction is often denied). If reviews are supposed to avoid serious, objective discussion, then they are just another branch of publicity, like blurbs or jacket flap copy.

I agree with those readers who do not wish to have the plots “spoiled.” And for that reason, I typically don’t read reviews until after I’ve read the book. When I don’t care about advance knowledge — or when I wish to be convinced that I should read a particular book — then I’ll go to a review, and if something crucial to the plot is revealed, I understand it comes with the territory. Sometimes those “spoiler” details can change my mind and convince me to go buy and read a book that I might not otherwise have given a chance.

In my own reviews, I should note, that I try not to include many “spoilers.” However, I’d be lying if I thought that excluding some of that information has lead to weaker discussions of the texts and many regrets that I’m not delivering the in-depth review that I’d like to.

From the opening paragraph of Fish’s article on The Hunger Games, it was obvious that his was going to be more than a just a cursory review. The depth of his analysis should have been sufficient indication that Fish wasn’t going to beat around the bush in terms of plot. As a reader, I greatly appreciated Fish’s thoughtfulness and insight; and as a reviewer, I admire his craft and thoroughness. His defense of “spoilers” may have been too cerebral and academic for my own tastes, but his original piece on The Hunger Games was refreshing to read because it was a real piece of criticism, not just another knee-jerk fan reaction from; consumer reviews serve their purpose, but that’s not professional criticism.

Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Moving Image Source, Spinetingler, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review.

What Happens Next?

Noir sp

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

It’s like the lit crit version of “If you, foolish child, still believed in Santa Claus, it’s not my fault I ruined it for you.” It seems instructive in terms of that perpetual false paradigm of “literary fiction vs. genre fiction.” There seems a real desire to diminish or dismiss “suspense” as being a shallow  or ”dirty” thing. The subtext is: If we are feeling the thrill of “what next? what next?” it can’t be good literature. While Fish clearly sees immense value in Hunger Games (and his piece on it isn’t a review, after all, so I can see why he was surprised that readers considered him a spoiler), he still seems resistant to admit that suspense–sensation–is a worthy thing. He seems to view it instead as the shallow aspect we must dismiss to mine the story for more “significant” aspects. But what could be more significant about the reading experience, about stories themselves, than that sensation of: “What happens next? How will it end?”

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of five previous novels. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University and has taught literature, writing, and film studies at New York University, the New School, and the State University of New York at Oswego. She lives in New York City.

Dare Me, which Rosamund Lipton calls “arresting, original and unputdownable,” is coming from Reagan Arthur Books in July 2012.

Spoiler Alert

Snakes in my eye

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Mr. Fish doesn’t think he owes us any warning when his reviews include spoilers. I think we all deserve a warning about Mr. Fish’s reviews, not to mention his misguided opinion – and definition – of spoilers.

He starts by stating that spoilers don’t really spoil anything. But the example he gives to support that notion – that the pleasures of a first read are only different, but no better than the enjoyment one gets from a second read – has nothing at all to do with spoilers. He states: “First-time readers or viewers, because they don’t know what’s going to happen, have access to the pleasures of suspense — going down the wrong path, guessing at the identity of the killer, wondering about the fate of the hero. Repeaters who do know what is going to happen cannot experience those pleasures, but they can recognize significances they missed the first time around, see ironies that emerge only in hindsight and savor the skill with which a plot is constructed. If suspense is taken away by certainty, certainty offers other compensations, and those compensations, rather than being undermined by a spoiler, require one.”

Certainly, readers can derive different kinds of pleasure from the first to the second read of a story. The first read gives us a chance to experience the thrill of the unknown; the second gives us a chance to more closely observe the craft of the writer since we now know the outcome. But what the hell does that have to do with spoilers? A first reading of a book is not a “spoiler.” A spoiler is a giveaway of the twist without the benefit of having the chance to read the whole story. It’s what some critics – one of whom is apparently Mr. Fish – might do in a review. When a review gives away a key plot twist, the reader has no chance to enjoy the suspense of the unknown, i.e. “is Mr. X the murderer? Or is it Ms. Y?” and “will the murderer get caught?” or “will our hero survive?” Thus, the term “spoiler” is apt, because it spoils the suspenseful aspect of the reader’s experience. But when the reader learns the plot twist by actually reading the whole story, that is not a “spoiler.” In that case the reader has been able to enjoy the full experience of following the story without knowing the outcome, of trying to guess who did it, whether the bad guy gets caught, etc. Now if the reader decides to go back for a second viewing in order to observe the story from a different vantage point, for example, to see how the writer built to the conclusion, why the “solve” did or didn’t work, that’s a voluntary choice and a whole different matter. The problem with “spoilers,” is that we readers don’t get to make that choice. The review that includes spoilers makes it for us.

Now, are there some people who prefer reading “spoilers” before they read the book? I’m sure there are. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to know the ending – and as Mr. Fish notes, in fact get irate when someone even inadvertently gives it away. It’s why I always ask, before discussing a book or movie, “have you read/seen this?” Almost invariably, if the answer is “no,” it’s followed up with “so please don’t tell me the ending.”

Mr. Fish also attempts to support his premise that spoilers don’t matter with the example of the people who watch the footage of the space shuttle, Challenger,” pointing out that, even though they know what will happen, they nevertheless root for the shuttle not to explode. But just like his first-read, second-read example, the logic doesn’t hold. The Challenger example doesn’t prove that people prefer to know how a story ends. It just proves that people – particularly in the case of a true event that ends in tragedy – can still long for a different outcome. Again, nothing to do with spoilers.

Not surprisingly, this fallacious reasoning leads to an equally fallacious conclusion: that if spoilers ruin the entire story, the work had little merit to begin with. That if all the story had to offer was the twist, then a spoiler doesn’t matter because it wasn’t worth your time anyway.  Mr. Fish therefore reasons that he shouldn’t have to give a warning when his reviews contain spoilers. If the book is good enough, spoilers won’t ruin the experience.

This is an overstatement and it entirely misses the point. A spoiler doesn’t need to ruin the entire experience to have a deleterious effect. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a spoiler seldom ruins the entire reading experience. But for many of us, it does diminish the experience, and that’s bad enough. If a critic feels the need to include a spoiler in a review, then so be it. All I ask as a reader is to at least give me fair warning so I can choose. And by the way, the fact that a spoiler diminishes my enjoyment of a book certainly doesn’t mean the work was flawed or unworthy of my time. It just means that I’ve been robbed of one of the pleasures the author intended to deliver, and that I hoped to experience.

So here’s my conclusion about reviews without spoiler alerts: I look to reviews to tell me whether a book is well written, whether a story is well delivered, whether characters are well drawn. What I don’t want from critics is a review that prevents me from having a choice as to how I experience a story once I’ve decided to read it. No critic has the right to decide whether spoilers impact my experience – or dismiss any negative impact as evidence that a book is unworthy of my time. So critics,  go ahead and tell me what you think of the writing. Then get out of my way.

Marcia Clark is a former prosecutor for the State of California, County of Los Angeles, in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She has written a bestselling nonfiction book, Without a Doubt, about the case, and is a frequent media commentator on legal issues. Now a Special Correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, Clark provides coverage of high profile trials and contributes a column for The Daily Beast.

GUILT BY DEGREES, the second thriller by Clark to feature DA Rachel Knight, is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Dickens, Professor?

Thoughts CaptivityA recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

A common way to end the description of a book or film you’ve seen to someone who hasn’t is with, “…but I won’t tell you what happens, I don’t want to spoil it for you.” On the whole this restraint is received with gratitude. The term ‘spoiler alert’ has become standard on the web, preceding text that reveals critical elements of a plot, and could, in my view, precede many reviews that read more like synopses, but I digress. The point is, when one sees this warning, one can make an informed choice about whether to read on or not. So, for Professor Stanley Fish to posit that knowing the outcome of a story does not ruin our enjoyment of it may be an interesting academic exercise, but it is disingenuous. Yes, one can re-read a book or re-watch a film attuned to previously overlooked clues that point towards the known outcome (stories with a major reversal like The Sixth Sense being an obvious case in point) but a large part of enjoying new stories is going on an unknown journey whilst trying to anticipate where it is heading.

As a writer one strives to make an ending inevitable without it being predictable, and for the reader to have this exposed up-front is akin to seeing a picture of someone naked just before you go on a date with them for the first time –  you have essentially robbed that person of the choice of how and when they reveal themselves to you.

Professor Fish’s assertion that books can only be ruined by spoilers if they are shallow, because they rely solely on suspense, willfully ignores every book written than has both suspense and literary merit (Dickens, Professor?). So, a book that offers ‘multiple pleasures and insights’ could also be ruined by listing all the ‘insights’ it contains for instance. All this is academic, of course, until publishers start to put a detailed synopsis on the back of every book. Which leads me nicely onto blurbs…

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book Category for South Asia & Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, Hiller lives in Cambridge, England.

Hiller’s acclaimed, first thriller SHAKE OFF has been called “deadly, poignant, and powerful” (The Economist),”Smart and tense and real enough to be scary” (David Morrell), and “A spy thriller of the highest class” (Charles Cumming). Mulholland Books will publish SHAKE OFF in August 2012.

Visit Mischa at