Kate Elliott March 4th, 2009
Some folk cannot abide spoilers–it ruins a book for them–while others read for process not goal and therefore do not mind spoilers. Now, it makes no never mind to me whether a person hates spoilers, or doesn’t mind spoilers, or checks ahead to see who lives and who dies because the anticipation is killing them. As I say, let a person be the reader they want to be.
As for me, I personally prefer to read or view for the first time without knowing what is going to happen; I like to experience the plot “in real time” with all the surprises, setbacks, revelations and shocks that may entail. I enjoy the experience of my own reactions, and if I really really like a book or film I will read/see it again, which provides yet another experience, the experience of watching the known story unfold and anticipating or recognizing the way the narrative builds and twists.
Others will approach the reading (viewing) experience differently, and that’s as it should be.
But I want to talk a little here down a sideline, not so much about “plot points as spoilers,” but about the larger sense of preconception.
We carry preconceptions with us everywhere, in all aspects of our lives. Our preconceptions filter how we see and experience and react to the things we come in contact with. This is inevitable. (And in my experience, the people who most insist that they are truly objective and function beyond such filters are often the ones who are most fooling themselves.)
I just finished reading a novel with minimal preconceptions as to its content. This was an odd but pleasurable experience.
A few months ago at the bookstore browsing, I came upon the Alastair Reynolds selection and recalled that
1) I had read his first novel and liked many elements of it although it hadn’t totally worked for me
2) I hadn’t read anything else by him since that novel
3) I knew he receives consistently good reviews.
So I first ascertained which of the novels on sale were seemingly not part of a series. Then I picked up what appeared to be a standalone. I purposefully avoided reading the synopsis on the back cover. I read the first chapter and found it engaging. So I bought the book, knowing only that it was what I call Big Ticket science fiction, with probably some Nifty Concepts to be thrashed through, and something to do with Paris.
Those are actually plenty of preconceptions, but fewer than I would normally have when I might pick up a novel or sit down to watch a film or tv series having heard bits and pieces about the setting, set-up, plot, or character conflicts. You know, the kid is growing up in his relatives’ house but he’s really a great wizard, or that one about the evil and good twin only that isn’t revealed until the sixth chapter (so then you’re waiting for it), or it’s set in a world where there was a nuclear war a thousand years ago (so you’re looking for hints), or or or. I rarely am able to approach a book or film or tv show these days without rafts of plot or character or style or critical preconceptions. Sometimes I like that but often preconceptions just annoy my intake mechanism, which prefers the revelatory vista, like driving cross-country on a road never before traveled: Whoa, look there!
In this case, I had no clue as to the plot or characters or Nifty Concepts. Nuthin. All I knew was that it was sci-fi, albeit with an opening chapter seemingly set in late 50s Paris with no apparent skiffy element. And I had an expectation, mostly from that quick read of the first chapter, that the writing would be good.
Which means I was able to enjoy the unfolding story without seeing too much into it, without anticipating beyond my normal tendency to guess what might come next, without settling too many expectations over the landscape or plot.
I was fortunate enough to watch the first season of Veronica Mars (via Netflix) and the first season of The Wire in much the same way, having only a vague idea of the set-up (girl detective, or complex Baltimore cops and drug dealers character/city study) and a ton of positive recommendations to go by. What I didn’t have were much in the way of expectations on what I would find inside. That lack of expecation enhanced my enjoyment.
In fact, there have been times when expectation has killed my enjoyment as a reader or viewer; it can get very hard for me to set aside preconceptions once they are in place. It shouldn’t (and it doesn’t always), but I’m weak that way; I’m sure many of you are stronger. And as I said above, those who are indifferent to spoilers are perfectly right to read fiction and view shows in a way that works for you. It is how it is. This is just how it happens to work for me.
There’s an additional entire branch of this discussion that I haven’t gone into here: I’ve seen folk comment on a book or film/tv, and it has seemed to me (reading and judging between the lines, whether fairly or unfairly I can’t say) that the reader has come to the book with preconceptions that override anything else. That they end up reading the book or viewing the film/tvshow through those preconceptions rather than giving it a chance to speak for itself. This can serve the narrative ill or well, depending on the nature of those preconceptions. But it does change the experience of reading.
So I was delighted to read Alastair Reynolds’ CENTURY RAIN with so few preconceptions. I enjoyed the novel. You might, too, if Big Ticket sci-fi is your cuppa. But I’m not going to tell you what it’s about.