Spoilers: or, The Joy of Reading and Viewing Without Preconceptions

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
AND
2) I hadn’t read anything else by him since that novel
BUT
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.

19 Responses to “Spoilers: or, The Joy of Reading and Viewing Without Preconceptions”

  1. Madeleine Robinson 04 Mar 2009 at 10:27 am

    Now I’m going to have to go read me some Alastair Reynolds.

    I can always tell if a reading experience (and isn’t that a highfalutin’ term–and yet it’s apt) is working for me if I am just dragged along, immersed. The first time I find myself leafing forward, trying to see if my plot prognostications are justified, I know that the book is not entirely working for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t finish the book–just that the tension of not knowing is not being balanced properly by the joy of moving in real time. For the longest time I thought this was a moral flaw in my reading process; these days I suspect more and more that it’s the work, and not the reader.

    Of course, I am wretchedly impatient as humans go.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 04 Mar 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Hooboy!

    When I first read your title here, I instantly had a preconception that this subject is about spoilers in reviews. Because this is one of my own particular peeves, that the obsession with spoilers makes it impossible to properly discuss a work critically.

    But I see that my preconception is incorrect. I was projecting my own concerns onto the subject and coloring it with my own agenda.

    But I do believe that for a number of readers, reading is all about the agenda. There seem to be people who approach the act of reading with agenda-colored glasses fixed in place. For such people to abandon preconceptions would be missing the entire point.

  3. Foz Meadowson 04 Mar 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Through trial and error, I’ve realised I tend to enjoy films (and books) more when I go in with low expectations, or none at all. Even if I know quite a bit about the storyline, if I’ve already passed judgement as to whether that concept is likely to work, whether I mistrust the lead actor/author, whether it reminds me of something I’ve already disliked or seen before, then I sit down as a cynic, arms akimbo, effectively challenging the narrative to Prove Me Wrong. And, of course, it rarely does: the act of doubting the content makes me more likely to scoff at emotional scenes or laugh inappropriately, to raise my eyebrows at this escape or that plot device, even though these are all things I might enjoy in an alternate setting, or even in confluence under different circumstances. Going in with no expectations and no knowledge (something I rarely do) is an improvement on this, but it tends to make me impatient: I like to know the rough shape of a story from the outset, as most narratives, consciously or unconsciously, provide quiet signposts along the way as to where things are heading, and once I started noticing this as a kid, I’ve never yet been able to shut it off. Thus, if I can’t tell where the signposts are supposed to be leading, I can’t gauge their effectiveness, or, worse still, I might misconstrue them. Some of my bitterest cinematic outrage has stemmed from films which were marketed as belonging to one genre, which then turned out to be utterly incorrect – M Night Shyamalan films suffer acutely from this, as did (for me) Brotherhood of the Wolf and A Beautiful Mind. For me, reaching the twist-point first time around was akin to feeling duped, as if I’d been watching the story in the wrong language, or had suddenly lost my ability to navigate physical cues from the actors: utterly maddening. But if I can learn about the plot without passing judgement as to the quality of its execution, then we’re cooking with gas.

    So for me, I guess, the notion of narrative preconception doesn’t hinge on what I know about the story, but on how well I think it can be told: it’s a value judgement.

  4. Harry Connollyon 04 Mar 2009 at 10:33 pm

    … it can get very hard for me to set aside preconceptions once they are in place.

    If I read a comment like “OMG! I was so sad when the uncle died!” I spend the whole movie watching the uncle, thinking: Is this where he gets it? Is he going to get shot? What if that guy with the hat drove up right now?! That would be shocking! How close is he going to get to that cliff?”

    It’s the same with books. That character’s name changed to “Uncle (will die soon)” and it colors everything about him. It makes it hard to focus on the story.

  5. Kate Elliotton 05 Mar 2009 at 2:18 am

    I think there is necessarily a place for critical discussion of work that includes “spoilers” — that is, a full discussion of all elements of the narrative. In fact, I think there has to be. There are some novels/series/stories/whatever that can best be discussed by people who have read/viewed the work in question and want to get down into the meat of what is going on in the work, and that can’t be done without spoilers.

    Certain works are so well known that there shouldn’t be a need to alert for spoilers.

    But I also think there is a place for the “alert readers to this new novel or film” review in which the reviewer can talk about what worked for them and why and then mention, if they do go into detail on the plot, that they’re about to reveal plot points so people who don’t want to know can avert their eyes.

  6. Kate Elliotton 05 Mar 2009 at 2:19 am

    Uncle (will die soon). Ha! I like that, and, yeah, I’m the same way.

    It’s interesting how rewatching (or reading) a narrative –when you know exactly what happened already — it’s all right to know that uncle will die soon, because then you’re watching for the narrative clues. But first time through, it works against the narrative flow (for me; ymmv).

  7. Kate Elliotton 05 Mar 2009 at 2:24 am

    Many years ago a friend handed me a book and informed me that the book was totally brilliant, just about the best thing they had ever read. I started it and was underwhelmed. Feeling guilty, I plodded through some more; it just did not work for me, and also I didn’t think it was that spectacular.

    Preconceptions really ruined it. I have no idea what I would have thought of that book if I hadn’t had that introduction. Poor book.

    re: Brotherhood of the Wolf. That’s interesting, because I saw that film years after it came out with very little idea of what it was, and it wasn’t at all what I expected, so I ended up liking it more than I expected. Same with The Thirteenth Warrior, although I like Thirteenth Warrior more because – you know – Vikings.

  8. Kate Elliotton 05 Mar 2009 at 2:25 am

    Immersion is a thing I love in novels and films/shows. If I stop thinking and just *go* – that’s the very best. That’s what I always hope for.

  9. Madeleine Robinson 05 Mar 2009 at 11:02 am

    I do make predictions–the result of a life spent trying to parse other people’s plots as well as my own, I suspect. “Okay, I think I know where this is going. Little Ariadne loves Aunt Mamie soooo much, and they have such a special bond, that Aunt Mamie can’t possibly make it past the second reel alive,” or “Aunt Mamie is going to turn out to be the serial killer.” Unless a movie or book is so totally immersive that I don’t slow down to think about it, I will tend to find cues and attempt to predict.

    Spoilers do, sometimes, well, spoil things. Years ago, when I was following Thirtysomething passionately, a casual note in a newspaper article mentioned that a character was going to die in the next episode. So watching that episode became all about waiting for him to die, rather than getting to watch the show unfold as it would. It’s more than a decade later, and I’m still rather bitter about it. (I know. I should get a life.)

  10. Lois Tiltonon 05 Mar 2009 at 11:12 am

    I recently read a work by [Brilliant Author], whose stuff I had greatly enjoyed decades ago when it was new and fresh. And I was disappointed, because it was just the same stuff that had once been new and fresh, decades ago. I was wanting something new and fresh from BA NOW. My expectations entirely determined my reaction.

    I could enjoy that stuff decades ago, why couldn’t I enjoy the same stuff now? What has changed is me.

    But the editor, in publishing this stuff, in putting BA’s name in large type on the cover, is counting on expectations. Is counting on either [1] people who actually WANT the same old stuff, over again, or [2] people unfamiliar with BA’s stuff but who recognize the name.

  11. lyssabitson 05 Mar 2009 at 1:36 pm

    It’s funny the way spoilers can help and hurt. TV shows are the best example I can use, people don’t publish book spoilers that much. I used to religiously read spoiler posts for some TV shows I liked, but would assiduously avoid them for other shows. It depends on why I like the show.

    For Gilmore Girls, for example, I would read spoilers because my enjoyment of that show was only partly for the plot, but the rest was for the character interactions. Knowing what was or was not going to happen in a particular episode would often free my mind up from wondering, exactly the opposite of Harry Conolley does about the hypothetical dead Uncle, when X was going to happen. I knew that it would (or would not) and that left me able to enjoy the parts that weren’t X better.

    Other shows though where finding out is the point of the show (Battlestar Galactica comes to mind) I avoid spoilers and get really irked when people tell me what’s going to happen. I was so late to start on that show though it was impossible to avoid them (in fact there was a discussion here about Boomer that totally spoiled that particular storyline for me, but ironically, was also what prompted me to finally end my petulant Sci Fi channel boycott and watch the damn show already.) and so I went into the first couple of seasons already knowing half the plot points, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In that case, my enjoyment of the show wasn’t completely ruined, but I think a weaker show would have suffered.

    The first time I find myself leafing forward, trying to see if my plot prognostications are justified, I know that the book is not entirely working for me.

    Sometimes the leafing forward is, for me, a sign of how much I love the book. Usually though I do this when it’s a book where I’m completely in love with a particular character and begin leafing forward looking for the next time the character comes back “on stage”. The read-through of such a book is usually hurried and stressful, because all I can think of is “WHEN WILL I GET BACK TO THAT GUY?!” and I can’t properly appreciate the rest of the book. But I generally read those books several times over, and on subsequent re-reads, I can give the rest of the characters their due because I already know what will happen with my favorite character, and can slow down. This works for plot points sometimes also. There have been books where I’ve flipped through looking for a particular plot point, because I know that if I don’t figure out when exactly in the book it’s gonna happen, each turn of the page will torture me, wondering if this is going to be the page when it happens. Knowing it’s on page 287, I can read pages 1-286 for what they ARE, not what they might be.

  12. Foz Meadowson 05 Mar 2009 at 9:30 pm

    @ Kate Elliott – I’ve only seen Brotherhood of the Wolf once, and while I thought it was odd the first time round, I suspect I’d really enjoy it a second, because so much of the conclusion which seemed random originally is actually foreshadowed from really early on, but so discreetly I’d missed it.

    @lyssabits – Reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books produces deep anxiety in me, because I have several favourite characters and never like leaving each cliffhanger chapter to go and watch someone else; until I get embroiled in their scenario, and then I don’t want to go back, and so I keep getting dragged on and on, and suddenly it’s 4AM.

  13. Laurieon 05 Mar 2009 at 11:15 pm

    @Foz – I get irked just thinking of A Song of Ice and Fire. I read the first couple of books but once I realized that No One is Safe and Red Herrings abound when trying to pin down what’s going on, I said screw it. I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks the football out from under him, so I just got pissed off and put the second book down about 3/4 of the way through. It may be the only book I didn’t finish, ever. It’s strange to me how many people actually love that about the series. I think I’m a callow reader who secretly loves the MCI we’re all supposed to find tedious. :(

    Maybe I’ll have to give it another shot.

  14. yeremenkoon 06 Mar 2009 at 9:14 pm

    G,day I love spoilers and reviews about authors. I am a writer and enjoy sci-fi writing, as a whole I have felt that the art of writing has always been learnt by younger authors through the ideas as to how other writers create their imagery and themes.
    I always check out the covers and brief blurbs about a book before I take it off the library shelf, and can spend hours wasted reading reviews by any person. I believe they help if the blurb is done well.
    try my sci-fi at doomoftheshem.blogspot.com

  15. Laurelon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Laurie:
    Thank God I’m not the only person in the world to be pissed by George R. R. Martin killing off my favorite characters, bringing them back from the dead or completely changing their characters so the good guy is now the bad guy and the bad guy was misunderstood but now has a soul made of shining new gold.
    The only reason I’ve read him at all is that he IS an excellent writer. I wish at the same time that I had never started his work because he takes what three, four years in between? I think that frustrates me more than anything. I may be dead before he finally gets around to finishing his book.
    It’s like Melanie Rawn. Hey, you got a contract for three books, don’t stop after the second, write a bunch more stuff in between and then expect me to CARE a decade later IF you decide to finish it. I don’t. I just want my money back, thank you very much. Oops, sorry.
    I LIKE spoilers and here is why. I want to know if something is overly violent or otherwise outside my comfort zone before I invest in it. I read an Anne Bishop novel several years ago that I still have nightmares about and none of the blurbs or the spoilers at the time said one thing about the obscene violence to children only about how brilliant she is. Yes, she is excellent and imaginative but I would never have bought the book or plowed through it had I known what kind of twisted, child porno crap she was writing. So I say, spoil away everyone. Please.

  16. Laurieon 29 Mar 2009 at 3:24 am

    Laurel, I think we were separated at birth. That whole thing with the Captal’s Tower is probably the biggest beef I’ve ever felt with an author. I will never, never, never, ever purchase another title from Melanie Rawn as long as I live. “As God is my witness…” *raises her fist to the sky*

    It’s a bummer because I loved everything of hers I ever read – except for her post on her website basically telling her readers to get f*cked and die if they didn’t like her decision to not finish that series. It was pretty harsh. I don’t begrudge her the decision to not write the thing, certainly. However, the tone she used about the issue was downright nasty and it seems counterproductive to alienate the readership – especially when you want them to keep purchasing your stuff. If I didn’t care about the material, I wouldn’t have gone looking for info about it. Nice to get a slap in the face for the effort. (Am I still peeved almost 10 years later? Yes. Yes, I am.)

    But I digress.

    I’m currently trying to get through Battlestar Galactica without seeing spoilers from the series finale. I picked up season 1 of BSG when Dollhouse came out because I liked Tamoh Penikett. A friend of mine said I would love him in BSG, and he was right – how could anyone not love Helo? However, I’m only up to season 3 and the entire internet is awash with spoilers. I don’t want to know until the series plays out! I want to be surprised. Tough to do when you’re behind the rest of the world in viewing the same content.

  17. Laurelon 04 Apr 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Laurie:

    You see, they even split our name (Laurie/Laurel). And “amen” on Melanie Rawn why should I care about you and/or your work when you have no respect for me as a reader? Also, how stupid would I have to be to buy anything else that is not already a “fait accompli?” I kick myself twice yearly about George R. R. no matter how talented he used to be.

    Got any ideas of a good completed series or stand-alone author?

  18. Joon 10 Apr 2009 at 1:26 am

    20 odd Years ago, when I was conscripted into the Air Force, I was posted to a very remote part of the country, high on the mountains above the Kruger Park (South Africa). It was an almost exclusively Afrikaans speaking base and their small ‘library’ had only a handful of English books. Sadly no fantasy books in sight.

    They did have a small blue paperback proof copy of a book. I started reading it clean, with absolutely no idea what it was about. No blurb, no album art, no clue of the genre, just the title and author.

    MORT – T. Pratchett

    I had so much fun reading it and laughed out loud so many times the rest of the base were intrigued and landed up reading it too.

  19. Kate Elliotton 11 Jun 2009 at 1:34 pm

    The thought of reading Pratchett with NO IDEA makes my heart feel warm all over.

    Laurie,

    I have only seen Battlestar Seasons 1 & 2 and alas now I have heard about the end of the series. But I’m wondering if this will be a help of hindrance when I finally get around to watching the rest. Sometimes it depends on how well the ending works in context with the rest of the series.

    Forex, I just recently finished watching my all time favorite show, The Wire, and I’m glad I avoided all talk of the final season before I watched it.