Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

No Great Work of Art Can Be "Spoiled"

You get itNow that we've done the history of "Spoiler Alert," let's discuss appropriate and/or civically obligatory uses.

The (previously, of course) definitive guide to spoiler alert usage was written by Awl contributor Dan Kois for New York magazine's Vulture blog in 2008. The whole guide is worth reading, as is the accompanying manifesto calling for a return to a "water cooler culture," in which people who really care about a show or book or movie make an effort to read or watch it as soon as they can, so they can then discuss it with their co-workers (or whomever) in person.

Spoilers, in this account, are allowed after a brief but reasonable interval that allows for anyone who truly cares to watch or read the show or movie or book in question. Spoilers are allowed in the text of articles more quickly than in headlines, because people can simply choose not to read articles for a few days to avoid spoilers, if they must, but it can be hard to miss a headline.

Furthermore, the rules vary for different media: you should give people a few extra hours to watch a TV show, a few days to see a movie, and a few months to read a book. Reality shows can be spoiled immediately upon conclusion, as they are essentially sporting events. Operas are never, under any circumstances, to be spoiled. (I'm pretty sure that last one is a joke.)

All of which is well and good and probably necessary to lay out on a blog such as Vulture where people are writing about shows and movies and books and the reactions thereto several times every weekday. And the accompanying manifesto really is terrific; you should read it (after you finish this; or at least come right back).

But the guidelines, I regret to say, are flawed. They are both too severe and not severe enough. That is because they ignore a crucial factor: artistic ambition.

That probably sounds snobbish, and I suspect (though Dan is welcome to correct me) that an aversion to snobbishness is at least partly responsible for this oversight-just as an assumption of snobbishness is probably the reason Ron Rosenbaum also failed to make this distinction (in his own pro-spoiler blog post from 2006, cited by Kois in his manifesto). Put simply, a truly ambitious and successful work of narrative art is spoiler-proof. If a show or movie or book is really, truly great, you can watch it again and again and again, well after you know what's going to happen, and the aesthetic pleasure you derive therefrom will not diminish. It may even increase. This is an essential part of the work's greatness.

Consider this: Alfred Hitchcock knew as much about creating suspense as perhaps any narrative artist of the past century; and when he made what is, hands down, his most artistically ambitious movie, Vertigo, he went out of his way to spoil the mystery halfway through. Vertigo is the story of one woman pretending to be another in an effort to deceive a man, and Hitchcock easily could have preserved the mystery of that woman's identity until the end of the film.

But the pleasures and satisfactions of Vertigo don't depend on not knowing a basic aspect of the plot. They derive from the movie's brilliant illustration of love and desire and the ways we idealize and romanticize particular human beings and then become disappointed or even disgusted by their simple, physical humanity. It's the best thing Hitchcock ever did, and knowing who is actually who doesn't change that.

On the other hand you have The Usual Suspects, which, after you have learned the identity of Keyser Soze, really isn't very good.

(By the way: Hitchcock's deliberate avoidance of narrative suspense in Vertigo is one of the reasons it is better than the truly excellent but not greatest-ever-made film Citizen Kane-no matter what some fancy poll says-which employs the narrative crutch of withheld knowledge and then bestows that knowledge in a corny and not very satisfactory way at the end.)

So if you're discussing something like The Usual Suspects, you should not try not to reveal the ending unless absolutely necessary (even now), and, if you must, a warning is in order. If you're talking about, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the rules are different. It's actually more okay to spoil something the better it is-and this rule comes with good cultural consequences: should we really spend that much time talking about The Usual Suspects? Let's talk about the things that can't be spoiled, no matter how many plot points we give away.

Your own artistic ambitions as a critic are relevant here, too: if you're writing a blog post you consider more or less ephemeral, then, what, you can't be bothered to throw in the silly but really rather simple phrase "spoiler alert"? But if you're aiming for something more lasting, then yeah, it's not really fair for readers to get mad at you for not using what is honestly kind of an embarrassing cliche. Editors can follow this principle as well: is your publication for the next three days or "forever"? Edit accordingly. Readers could then approach a publication with the appropriate degree of caution.

With that established, the other question: Why is imperviousness to spoilers an essential aspect of truly great narrative art? I'm not really sure. I have a theory, though, one that is at present about quarter-baked at best and will probably sound even more pretentious than everything I've written so far (which, considering the repeated use of the phrase "narrative art" and the appearance of both "thereto"and "therefrom" is, I imagine, saying something). I think it has to do with life and death and the way the former leads inevitably to the latter. That is: Life is not a mystery. We know how it ends. And if a work of art can be "spoiled" when we know the ending, it can't really have that much to say about life, can it?

David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America and has recently written for Bookforum, Slate and The National. He is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

65 Comments / Post A Comment

Screen Name (#2,416)

I bet you wouldn't have been so quick to write "Life is not a mystery" if you had known that right now I am sitting in a coffee shop wearing elk antlers and drinking Bvr Hjt liquor from the hubcap of a 1976 Cadillac Sedan de Ville.

La Cieca (#1,110)


Screen Name (#2,416)

Spoiler Alerts: Wait a minute, this isn't a coffee shop; it's a casino. Those aren't antlers; it's driftwood. And that's not Screen Name; it's a drunk beaver! And that's not a hubcap from a 1976 Cadillac Sedan de Ville; it's a roulette table. What am I doing here with him? Life is a mystery!

Jane Hu (#5,833)

Yes!! After killing off his protagonist midway through Psycho, Hitchcock pivots the traditional marriage plot into a detective story that looks backwards.

Sproing (#561)

Hitchcock's movies are a good discussion point. They resist spoilers because they subvert traditional plot expectations. He throws his plot motivators (his "MacGuffins") to the side as soon as he's able, but by that time you're so wrapped up in what else is happening that you don't care. Marion Crane takes off with $40,000 to kickstart Psycho. Where does that money end up? At the bottom of a lagoon, and nobody cares because by then they're all like "Shit, Norman's mother is fucked up." Cary Grant gets his life ruined in North By Northwest because the bad guys mistake him for super-spy George Kaplan, but Kaplan doesn't exist and never did. It's wonderful misdirection, and what it adds up to is that everything I just told you about either movie matters not a whit. Just see them.

La Cieca (#1,110)

I sort of partially disagree, and for that reason I'll note there's a 50 year old spoiler coming in this graf. There is a huge amount to enjoy in Psycho when you go into it expecting the curveball of what happens to Marion Crane. But a first, naive viewing of the film, especially by an audience at the time of the first release, gets the full experience of the gamechanging "what the fuck just happened to [the star of this movie] Janet Leigh?" That sense of blindsiding metasubversion can happen only once and it is dimmed somewhat by knowing in advance how the story unspools. (It's also by now pretty much dulled by the fact that this stunt, original with Hitchcock, has been so often copied since.)

petejayhawk (#1,249)

It would have been awesome to be so shocked by a movie twist. Simpler times, they were.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Psycho's sort of a defining Modernist moment in the tension between Art as process vs. Art as narrative. Lots of artists could care less about the latter because they want you romance you through the telling. Others have no patience whatsoever for obsessive craft and want three acts that flow gracefully and in an orderly fashion into the ocean.

The greatest of the greats, give or take a visionary or two on either side of the ledger, pull both off. Hitchcock's one. I'd put Raymond Chandler in there, too, but I'm probably off on my own with him. They routinely said to Hell with Narrative, then went out and captivated you with a story and its resolution.

TroutSavant (#1,990)

Ugh. Somebody spoiled The Usual Suspects for me and I'm still annoyed about it.

garge (#736)

I would be very Fuck You, To This Day about that one.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Operas are never, under any circumstances, to be spoiled.

In fact, among the cognoscenti (a place nobody should ever want to be) there is something of a rule of not spoiling a documented opera performance. In other words, you shouldn't say, "Oh, man at the end of the Mad Scene when she totally cracks the high note, the Loggione totally goes apeshit!" unless you know the queen about to listen to the bootleg wants to know the dirt in advance.

djfreshie (#875)


MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I was going to bring up opera, too, but La Cieca beat me to the punch (and made the crucial distinction between the narrative and the performance). Why am I even here? Not sure…

Miles Klee (#3,657)

i mean … uh … MAN, is that a good movie

phlox (#204)

Miles, have you ever picked-up your teeth with broken fingers?

oldirtybassist (#3,630)

So when are we getting the post telling us which works of art are great enough to be spoiled?

BadUncle (#153)

I'll just say it. STC IS Kaizer Soze.

BTW, the definitive guide to online Spoiler Alerts was set down more concisely, and 15 years earlier, by NY medical examiner, music critic and crime novelist Jonathan Hayes. Essentially, he said, "Don't be an asshole."

keisertroll (#1,117)

Why is nobody talking about Keiser Soze?

saythatscool (#101)

Kobayashi sends his love, Unc.

NinetyNine (#98)

The original/definitive Spoiler Alert article was a Peanuts strip when Lucy tells Linus that 'Rosebud was his sled.'

I agree about plot driven narrative. Books I'm on the fence about but seem to be pushing plot too much, I will just read the last couple pages and go back to where I was. If the story doesn't still hold my interest, it's probably weak fiction and I put it down. (Barnes' Talking it Over is the perfect example of this. London Fields is a great counter-example).

NinetyNine (#98)


bb (#295)

Harry, is that you?

Baroness (#273)

O God, your're right- I remember reading that in a Peanuts Treasury as a kid. So that spoiler was the first time i had ever even heard of Citizen Kane.

mmmark (#4,458)

This theory makes Momento turn into a mushy film.

oudemia (#177)

Mr. Oudemia once got very cross with me for saying "Anna Karenina throws herself under a train." Come on!

I have to say: I got a tiny bit bummed when I found that out beforehand. Not as bummed as having to slog through a hundred pages between plot points and that dude's closely set white teeth.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

The secret at the end of a film means nothing to the creativity of getting there in the story. That's why classic films can be watched over and over and over again.

There's also a distinction to be made between simple narrative and "seriality." Ask anybody old enough to be burned by the second season of Twin Peaks. It's lead me to actively shun any show where episodes can't be enjoyed discretely.

Of course that makes me "stuck up" if I happen to think people are "suckers" for wasting hours of their life on teasing cliffhangers. *cough* the entirety of Lost *cough* I'm OK with that. I've made peace with being an asshole.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

This is so true. Some storytellers just aren't capable of the sort of planning and discipline it takes to sustain an interesting narrative over a long-running series. I may be a geek, but the glaring example that instantly comes to mind is Heroes. I watched about a season more than I should have, because every episode seemed to hint that it was just about to get good again, without actually being good itself.

DMcK (#5,027)

A truly great example of excellently engineered sustained serial narrative, in my opinion, is the manga series "Death Note". Yeah, it droops a little bit mid-way through, what with all the boardroom intrigue, but all twelve volumes (well, except the last one obviously) are nail-biting, plot-twisting cliffhangers that my Death Note-reading friends and I would passionately murder each other over if anybody spoiled 'em.

En Vague (#82)

Remember when Rosie O'Donnell purposely spoiled Fight Club on her show in order to get people not to see it? While I generally agreed and thought it was a bad movie about dudes acting like dicks, still, talk about a dick move.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You ever notice how book critics write everything with an eye on their expected anthology of criticism book.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I suppose gelling spoiler etiquette down to "1) Don't ask 2) Don't read about it 3) Be first to watch post-production or get over yourself you git if you think the world revolves around your sad, pathetic life." would leave a lot more advertising space, so win/win.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

It seems to me that, at this point, it's not only difficult (and unreasonable?) to be unspoiled on works like Citizen Kane and Anna Karenina until you get around to seeing/reading them for yourself — it's also contrary to basic cultural-literacy expectations. You can't do many crossword puzzles without running into "SLED." The plots of Great Works of Art (and also The Sixth Sense) become part of the deposit of cultural knowledge at some point, if only so that we can all make stupid "He was dead the whole time" jokes.

Alex Balk (#4)

Please don't spoil "Weekend at Bernie's" for everyone.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You said you were leaving. Liar. And you never gave me that number, indian giver.

Oh, all of sudden that bird site gets mentioned on AdAge and everyone wants to act like the night is theirs.

Well, it's not, the night is mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Whoa! You can make $100-300/article? Shit, I can crank out a ton of long-winded big worded crapfests too!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Has anyone else noticed that Not Foster had to be slammed on the head to cover the Sticky Drama controversy – and still hasn't thanked anyone yet?

Even Foster would at least acknowledge his failings as a reporter (needs to do that more often actually) and sheepishly thank those who show the true story behind the story.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I'm actually doing a security audit on another site, but while I wait for recompiles to finish am reading through my normal sites.

Anyway, I need a challenge. What new wacky movement should I start? Kind of running out of things and the Democrats are just way too easy to punk anyway.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Oh God, have you read that AdAge article yet? That balding Benson guy made the proclamation that under Bloomberg the web is alive with the sound of people talking about traffic patterns (uses Time Square).

Geez, was this guy not around for the huge conversation about when they decided to create Columbus Avenue flea market closings? Where do they find these people who have no memory of history?

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

That's actually a very valid critique Mr. Barea.

Why should anyone trust an online property run by people who "found" the Interznet in the last 5 years and therefore have no concept about what was going on online for decades?

It's not like all that happened was chatting about basic. There was every bit a thriving community as you would find in Little Italy.

Discussions about bars, restaurants, theater, sex, setting up offline meetups – you know the stuff you guys are just starting to do.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

In fact, this is (in my defense I may or may not have been on acid at the time) a poorly constructed website that was originally created in 1995 – when you guys were all still getting ink on your hands.

(I was on acid when I designed this and it looked much better then)

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

One day I'll you the story of how I got ATT to send me 3 replacement T1 routers when the line went down during an ecstacy party.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

I sort of hope that you are Kevin Mitnick, Phiber Optik, that guy who tried to sell himself on eBay, or maybe even Shadow Stevens.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Sorry, if they made a movie about me it would be "Can't Catch Me even if you wanted to."

Never had this desire to hack and get caught, can't get much done that way.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

*Phew* I was able to wrestle this comment username from the hacker who stole my password.

I'm all good now OPs.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

How do we put a filter in so Not Foster can't read my comments.

I can tell his uselessness is refreshing this thread like a mouse on cocaine.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

I didn't see Vertigo until my late twenties and thought it was about living out the fantasy of a loved one's death "being a mistake" on-screen. I don't think it could be spoiled either.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Vertigo? Was that the Hitchcock movie that was remade by Gene Wilder? Cuz Gene Wilder was funny.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Still some more bugs to work out at the other site, but geez, this work crap is annoying.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Max finally noticed the Turkish hacker groups.

Heh, dumbasses, they grabbed my sites way back in 99. They're pretty good and sneaky…

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Oh crap, awesome – they're targeting Hugo Chavez… BRILLIANT TURKALOOSAS!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Oh, look, Max Power discovered A GOLD SCAMMMMMMMM!!!!!!j!!!!

The scam? Buying gold at retail prices is not the same as buying it at wholesale prices.


Let's all think back to our college days. That book you bought in the student bookstore had a 25% markup. Yes, it did. Don't argue. I know it. Intimately. Yes.

Oh, and if you wrote in that book, it would have a resale value less than a pristine version.

Therefore gold coins, while pretty and all that have a resale value less than their retail value just because of that.

Why? I don't know, the whole transactional costs of smelting it down to bullion in order for its value to be increased by it portability.

So the scam is that people are still not educating themselves about what they spend their money on.

Walk into any Times Square electronics shop and pay retail like an idiot.

Hey, look, if you insisted on paying the price I quote…how is that actually a scam? You get the thing you want. That you say yes to. At the price you were quoted.

Oh, but the they have dementia and were cajoled into paying…that's what every goddamn sales person does, regardless of industry, regardless of project.

Salespeople are there to sell.

You don't actually have to buy.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Oh, look, Max Power finally found a 6 day old article to comment on badly. Why even bother at this point.

Just type:


Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I do battle with hypocrites in the conservative side this time:

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Good news. TO get my Emergency unemployment compensation I have to answer two questions: 1) Have I worked since I was unemployed… 2) Have I left a job since my unemployment benefits lapsed…

Not bloody likely.

As hard as I look for a job I am lucky to have monthly static expenses of $550/month and benefits of $417/week.

God I need to find a job before my 5 months of emergency unemployment benefits lapse or I'll lose everything.

Totally getting a new iPhone next week though! YAY!

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Jeff Barea deserves to take over Larry King's slot.

garge (#736)

I thought about it, and I feel that it would really kill the magic if he lives in Brisbane or Minsk. There is something essential about his being nocturnal for me, mystique-wise.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

It is a sad and beautiful world!

Screen Name (#2,416)

Don't forget mysterious!

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Yeah, it's a sad, beautiful and mysterious world buddy.

ester (#6,436)

Hitchcock was obsessed with keeping the details of "Psycho" private, though. He made the cast and crew pledge not to divulge information and started a whole marketing campaign to convince viewers to keep the ending to themselves.

It's true that a great piece of art isn't spoiled when part of the plot is revealed. It's also true that a person's initial experience can be, if not spoiled, then at least affected in a way that would make Hitch growl by knowing too much going in.

More here:

Tasha Wassink (#6,439)

Hmm, I still love "The Sting" and re-watch it frequently, but if someone had spoiled the ending for me before the first time I watched it, it would have made me sad. It wouldn't make it any less of a great movie, but that initial "sting" is part of the fun.

Post a Comment