“Spoilers” spoil my life

SFFaudio Commentary

Spoilers…. this post will point out how fucking stupid spoilers are.

See that yellow line at the end? That’s the spoilers I’m talking about. That’s the one I don’t give a shit about – and that’s the one that seems to have infected the minds of practically every conversation about books in the last 10 years. It’s pretty fucking sad to me that the only place one can really go to find out anything about a book is Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the one place that has a rule about not allowing argument about a book, the only place I can seemingly go to find out whether I’ll want to read a book.


So this is a pretty hard topic to research. Those colours, on the “use over time” above, are mine. I’m guessing with them, going with my sense of the predominate usage of “spoiler” – I think I once read that Spider Robinson coined the modern genre usage back in the late 1970s, in a column or something. Roger Ebert seems to be attributed it for movies. But what I’m certainly not talking about third party political candidate phenomenon (the idea is that they ruin elections), nor am I talking about the wings mounted on the backs of sports cars (which reduce aerodynamic lift) – I’m talking about the “spoilers” that dominate and limit book talk today – the ‘who dies at the end’ of a movie or TV show kind of “spoiler!” [said with glee], the ‘who’s whose secret sister to whom’ – or some such inane detail that someone thinks is crucial to appreciate something.

That person, actually, its you – its you – you are the person who uses the term “spoilers” – you’re well, you’re just really really wrong.

I understand, these trendy terms and turns-of-phrase are inevitable, unstoppable. One may as well fight against the tide as fight against them.

If you look to the past, as I am always doing, you will see how oblivious to the stupidity people are – check out this list of ridiculous 1980s phrases and euphemisms and you’ll see just how stupid people were in the 1980s were.

I know it is pointless to fight but I’m going to anyway, I’ve staked my claim on the beach, anchored myself to the bedrock beneath the shifting sand, and I’m beating against the endless wash of “spoilers” as hard as I can – my lone and lonely voice against “spoilers” is a valiant fight, and it is a fight I’ve long been losing – but that’s the point I’m trying to make – we all lose, whenever a conversation about any book somebody is discussing is truncated because they think some fact could “spoil” a book.

Even the word is stupid. “Spoilers” even if they have an effect won’t utterly ruin anything that is truly good” – but I understand, hyperbole is effective, the words “enjoyment lessener” or “surprise reducer” and thus would be unsurprisingly less enjoyable to use.

I really think it all just boils down to one point. I know it is doomed to failure, but I just have to say it – if you could just grasp it – if you could only grok it, deep down in your bones, in your genes – you’d stop having that word come out of your mouth when it comes to books.

I can almost understand it when it comes to a very narrow subset of movies, like The Crying Game, or Chinatown, or The Sixth Sense (the only thing The Sixth Sense has is the twist/surprise/point of the whole 1 hour and 47 minute exercise).

But books aren’t like that. And honestly, if you think about it, TV shows aren’t either.

Spartacus dies, I knew that going in, the fact enhanced my pleasure.

Whether Walter White gets away with his crimes or not isn’t the point of me watching Breaking Bad. I enjoyed the journey (except for that one episode where nothing happens).

In terms of TV shows it all comes down to this, do the people who make the show know where they‘re going? Do they know how it ends? If they do, great. If not, you’re fucking LOST.

Now books are a completely different deal, and here’s why. Books are long, and they are many. Being long and being many means we can’t read all of them, not even all the ones we want. And ultimately I think this explains why the term “spoiler” crops up in practically every conversation about book these days. If you don’t understand this one point, a small matter you think you know (but don’t really accept) if you just could accept this concept, really take it on board, namely that we are all going to fucking die, your saying “spoilers!” would rapidly diminish.

You who say “spoilers” act as if we had an infinite amount of time to read all the books.

This is stupid.

There are now more books published every year than we could read in all our lifetimes. So if you tell me that some point or other “spoils” a book then what you’re essentially saying is that you think I’d be less inclined to read the book if I knew some fact about the book. But this misses the point, I’M NOT GOING TO READ THAT FUCKING BOOK.

So, to sum up, please stop the self-censoring. I’m not going to read that book you don’t want to spoil for me, not unless you tell me something about it, something interesting.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Update: here’s a Google N-gram for the phrase “spoiler alert”

5 thoughts to ““Spoilers” spoil my life”

  1. Not sure I’m qualified to comment because I’m so fucking stupid, but I enjoy the experience of reading a good story when I don’t know what comes next.

    It’s FUN.

  2. To clarify my short remark:

    We agree on some things about spoilers. I agree that the most satisfying book talk occurs when there is no regard to spoilers, but when I’m talking to a friend about a book I think he or she would want to read, I try not to spoil it. And further, sometimes I set a podcast aside because I want to read the book first. I’ve found that I enjoy the SFFaudio podcast best when I have read the book.

    The best, most satisfying conversation about a book is among people who have read the book.

    I’m all for more podcasts with those kinds of discussions, but appreciate warnings on podcasts where I’m used to hearing spoiler-free book talk.

    You said:
    “I’m talking about the “spoilers” that dominate and limit book talk today – the ‘who dies at the end’ of a movie or TV show kind of “spoiler!” [said with glee], the ‘who’s whose secret sister to whom’ – or some such inane detail that someone thinks is crucial to appreciate something.”

    That’s an aspect of fiction that you don’t offer enough credit. When I’m reading a good book for the first time, I’m often caught up with the characters in a deep way… I feel real emotion in response to those happenings. If I know what events are coming, I feel less. I know this is true because I re-read sometimes.

    A Great Book can withstand more than one read – I think C.S. Lewis defined “great book” exactly that way. A Great Book is one that can be re-read. That suggests (like I think you are saying) that there is much more than just the “stuff happens” in a Great Book. There are ideas and language and structure – all beautiful things.

    But the emotional impact of the events of a story IS one aspect of a story, it IS important, and it can be diminished for the reader if he or she knows plot details. It IS important to a person who is appreciating the story at that level.

    That’s why I believe a story can be spoiled, and shouldn’t be.

    I don’t mean to say that book discussions shouldn’t happen – just the opposite. More, please! But it’s kind to let a listener/reader know that going into the discussion.

    On the “we’re all going to die” thing? It’s just as valid a point that a person who groks this wants to maximize the quality of remaining experience, not the quantity of book discussions heard.

    And, hey! I grew up in the 80s. Reading this illin’ post on this gnarly blog was hellacious. But I’m sorry I had a cow. I will, like, chill.

    PS – You are not immune to language trends, my friend!


  3. If one can reasonably expect that there are active consumers of a narrative in the vicinity, it’s polite to keep your voice down when discussing it, or give a little warning alert. There are always excellent reasons why spoiling is okay (e.g. “Plot is the least important part of story-telling!”, etc), just as there are excellent reasons not to say excuse me, please or thank you; or not to take a shower and use deodorant. But when all is said and done, all these reasons are simply assertions of opinion. We do these things in large part because it smooths out our relationships with those around us.

    The increase of the use of ‘spoiler alert’ is due in my opinion to at least two trends: the increasing use of the internet, and ‘on demand’ media. The internet brings ‘spoilers’ more easily to people’s eyes, and ‘on demand’ media means that people can reasonably delay watching a TV series, or a movie, until a time more convenient to them. This last also allows longer plot arcs. With broadcast media, an episode had to resolve its plot by the end, and characters could not change very much at all.

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