A digression, inspired by a recent comment exchange, over the nature of spoilers. I’ve always made a point of making this a spoiler-free blog. I’d like to think that you can read my reviews and go away knowing whether or not you’ll enjoy a book and still be surprised by whatever lies within.
But it’s clear that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a spoiler, from other readers to blurb writers to cover designers to Dame Agatha herself. So I thought I’d set out my thoughts on the matter and see what other people think too.
First of all, let me say that I’m probably over-sensitive about such things – that’s the whole point of the blog after all – so apologies in advance if you think my views extreme. Let’s take an example first of all – and, by the way, if you’ve never heard of the film The Sixth Sense but may in the future want to watch it, look away now. That’s probably nobody, but a warning never hurt.
There are two ways to watch The Sixth Sense. The point of it, by the way, is that it has a massive twist. One of the great film twists, I’d say. But it’s a twist in a film where you probably wouldn’t have been expecting a twist – it’s a ghost story after all. If you were one of the lucky few who watched it before word got out, you could have watched it and been taken aback. If you weren’t one of those few, you watched it looking for the twist, and I think about half the people I know spotted it, and half didn’t (including me, by the way). But for me, I would much have preferred not to have been watching it so clinically, I’d have preferred to have just been surprised. So even saying “it’s got a great twist that you’d never expect” isn’t what I want to hear.
I know this isn’t a universal view. A number of thrillers have been released in recent years where the fact. Take the recent novel I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh – which I haven’t read by the way. The first two quotes on the book are:
“A terrific, compelling read with an astonishing twist that floored me. I loved it and did not want it to end” Peter James
“A hugely assured and gripping debut and a twist that made me green with envy” Mark Billingham
Now, I don’t know the nature of the twist but the implication is that more than just a revelation of whodunit. And if I read the book, I’d be constantly looking for it, rather than fully enjoying the quality of the tale being told. Most interesting, of the sixteen author quotes on Amazon, these are the only two that refer to THE twist – one refers to the “unexpected ending” and a few others refer to “twists” but I presume this means that the notion of the one great twist is what is going to sell the book – the Peter James quote is actually on the front cover in an abridged form. So it seems that the existence of a single great twist is a selling point for a lot of people, hence the prominence by those people who want to sell the book. Understandable.
But looking for that twist is distracting. I recently read Before I Go To Sleep, a much praised thriller recently made into a much less praised film. As I read that, I found myself thinking mostly about what the twist would be – something that really isn’t helped by the casting of the film. But the book is much more than that and I found myself enjoying it less that I might have done. On the other hand, if the twist hadn’t been promoted, would I have even read it in the first place? In this case, yes, as Mrs Puzzle Doctor had read it and told me that I should as well without saying why, just that “it’s your sort of thing”.
So, to get back to my point – is the phrase “It’s got a great twist” a spoiler? It probably depends on the story you’re reading. The Prestige has a great twist but given the film is about magicians – indeed, as explained early on, the “prestige” is the ta-da bit of a grand illusion – you’d expect something. Similarly the other magician film Now You See Me (although “great” might be over-stating it. “Stupid” perhaps?) But The Sixth Sense being a ghost story, you wouldn’t be expecting one if someone hadn’t told you about it.
And what about crime fiction? Dame Agatha’s masterpiece – you know the one that I mean – I had great difficulty reviewing because of this idea. On the face of it, it seems like a perfectly traditional outing for our favourite Belgian but the ending blows you away. Similarly the other main “clever” Poirot (which most people seem to think is rather stupid) – knowing there’s more to it than a normal mystery actually makes this one even more obvious.
But I’m just as guilty of applying double standards here, and for the same reasons as the publishers. Take my recent review of Michael Jecks’ The Tournament Of Blood. Here, you learn the name of the killer in the first chapter and are privy to their thoughts, but there is still more to it – still a mystery to solve – but you only learn this at the end. And the reason that I mentioned this, despite my misgivings, is that I want people to read Michael’s work and I’d seen a couple of comments (on Goodreads, I think) saying things like “Loved the series so far. Started this one. Not a mystery. Threw it away. Never going to read a book again. Where’s my tin-foil hat gone?” In other words, I had exactly the same motives as a publisher who wants someone to read the book that they’ve invested in – I want people to read books by an author that I really enjoy.
The comment that provoked this ramble had similar intent. “You should read The XXXXXX XXXXX – it seems to be an inverted mystery but by the end…” The writer of the comment wanted to encourage me to read the book (although I had already said I was going to). But this annoyed me – still does annoy me in fact – because, as ever, I wanted to be surprised, not necessarily by the surprise but by the fact a surprise existed in the first place.
I’d very much welcome anyone’s thoughts on this matter – do you want to know about a clever twist at the end or not?
Well, I’ve gone on long enough on just my first issue, so I’ll make this a “Part One”. Next time, blurbs and why I try not to read them…
Oh, and by the way, this isn’t a real blog post, you’re dreaming and there’s a clown behind you…