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.
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 www.mischahiller.com.