Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to glance at the end of any novel I was reading to get an inkling of how it would turn out. It may have been a quirk of youth, the same way that modern youngsters playing platform video games research what ‘cheats’ are available to help get them onto the next level.
(Of course non-fiction usually plays by different rules, especially those titles on the scholarly end of the spectrum: the old advice on writing essays — “Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve just said” — generally applies, with the work’s conclusions revealed on the back cover or dust jacket (or, as in the case of papers, in the Abstract). The principle here is less what you conclude and more how you get to your conclusion.)
So. Spoilers. You either hate ’em or love ’em.
From the identity of the perpetrator in a whodunit to the denouement of the latest Star Wars film half the world, in a sticks-fingers-in-ears-and-sings-loudly kind of fashion, doesn’t want to know and the other half — these aren’t accurate statistics, incidentally — are beside themselves with anxiety not to know the outcome. (For the sake of completeness I ignore the third half who don’t give a damn either way.)
Back in August 2011 a BBC News item informed us that, in the case of short stories at least, Spoilers ‘do not ruin stories’, study says; in fact they “can actually enhance enjoyment”. The theory, detailed in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, is that spoilers help the reader to process and understand the plot, allowing them to “enjoy the journey as much as the destination.”
I can understand that these days we are so bombarded with information that some of us feel time is too limited to waste on trying to fathom out what’s going on, that like baby birds we need our nourishment pre-digested so as to process it more quickly. As the man said, “So many books, so little time.” There’s so much to get through and we seemingly don’t have the leisure to indulge in re-reads when the logjam of new material is blocking our journey downriver. I do understand that.
Commitment, then, seems to be the problem with many of us — commitment in terms of time, energy, emotions. Another answer to the question “Why would someone read the end of a story before reading the book?” has been identified as risk-aversion. For those of us who don’t like suspense, knowing the outcome of a story is definitely a way of managing the anxiety that can be raised by the plot. Is it because we don’t want fiction to mimic real life? Because everyday living, even when seen as humdrum or predictable — in which we get up, go to work, have our meals, watch television, go to the pub — is still full of unknown hazards. We could get knocked down crossing the road, contract that seasonal virus, have our homes flooded or hear of a loved one’s death. Why would be want to increase our quotidian stresses by not knowing how the made-up storyline pans out?
One online commentator justifies such cheating in three ways:
The first reason is similar to my motive for peeking ahead at movies: conserving emotional energy.
The second reason is that the beginning of the book hasn’t caught my attention enough and I’m starting to evaluate whether it’s worthwhile for me to invest in reading the rest of the book.
The third reason is simple curiosity. I want to know who’s standing at the end and where these people may show up during the story.
The first two reasons are already familiar to us: they’re about commitment, essentially. The third is down to human nature. In this we are like most of Nature generally: to explore is to survive, I suppose, and doing it efficiently increases the chances of survival. Like Pandora or Bluebeard’s wife — and it’s not just a female trait, whatever the fairytales imply — if there’s a secret we want to weasel it out, the purpose of Life, the Universe and Everything. What do we want? All the answers! When do we want it? Now!
Now, I see reading a book as analogous to going on holiday. Sometimes if a lot of money is involved — is committed — then I’d want to know almost day by day, hour by hour, where I’m going, what I’m doing, who I’ll be with, what resources I’ll need. The research involved — looking at travel guides, planning outward and return journeys, pre-arranging itineraries to tourist spots — are all equivalents of spoilers. But at other times, especially with casual breaks, I just want to chill out and take what comes, see where my steps lead me, let happenstance rule.
Applying this line of thought to fiction means that a five-hundred-page novel, for example, represents a real personal investment. A doorstopper of a book can, like a sojourn abroad — indeed like life itself — provide multiple plot-lines and a cast of thousands, with no guaranteed happy ending. On the other hand, when I re-read a book it’s like taking a vacation in a familiar destination: I’ll spend the time examining my surroundings more, soaking up the atmosphere, taking the time to engage with the locals, all having already known what to expect.
That’s the best kind of spoiler, to my way of thinking: one gained after a first visit, so that a re-visit allows you to appreciate that experience more intensely despite already knowing the outcome. After all that’s something we’re unlikely to duplicate when, at the end of our lives, we face the ultimate spoiler, Death.
“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
— J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan