(This is another case where I wrote most of the entry months ago but didn't get around to posting it 'til now.)
Several people whose opinions I greatly respect have (relatively) recently spoken out against spoiler warnings (in very different contexts):
- In April of 2005, Matt C. explained in his blog entry "Spoiled Again!" that "spoiler warnings raise plot above other elements of a narrative"--though he added, "I realize most people value plot more than I do, and are disappointed when reviewers reveal major plot points."
- In a comment on that entry, Nick M. noted: "offering a spoiler warning lends sanction to the idea that spoilers are important[, which] plays to a wrongheaded and foolish expectation."
- In a comment on a journal entry of Nick's from around the same time, gadarene (I'm not sure whether you want your RL name associated with your username) referred to "the third-grade-playground concept of 'spoilers'." (Happy birthday, btw!)
- In a comment on my journal entry about George Takei coming out, David Moles wrote: "If spoiler warnings really are required for a play that won a Tony thirty years ago, I fear for the humanity's future." Tonight (May of 2006), in a comment on an entry of mine about BSG, he wrote: "When did 'spoilers' stop having to actually spoil one's enjoyment to be spoilers?"
- And in August of 2005, Debbie Notkin wrote a piece, "On Spoiling the Plot," in her Strange Horizons column, in which she said that she can understand wanting to avoid foreknowledge of major plot twists that the author didn't want readers/viewers to know about ahead of time, but that she doesn't get why some people don't want to know anything about the plot ahead of time. (She also says some smart and interesting things about ways to enjoy a work even if major surprises have been "spoiled" for you, and various related topics.)
And I have no objection to any of those folks (or anyone else) leaving out spoiler warnings when discussing a work. I certainly don't agree with people who insist that everyone must put up spoiler warnings when discussing any work, and I recognize that most of the above comments were made in response to people insisting that everything must be tagged with spoiler warnings.
Me, although I don't like seeing spoilers, I know there are a lot of unmarked spoilers out there, even in mainstream reviews. So when I'm preparing to watch or read a work where plot surprises are important to me, I avoid reading much that's been written about that work. Sometimes I'll read reviews ahead of time with sort of the attitude of an antelope watching for predators--poised to leap away the moment that the corner of my eye catches something that looks like it might be spoilery by my standards--which usually lets me read at least the first couple of paragraphs of most reviews, which often gives me a reasonable sense of whether I'm interested in the work or not. As soon as I'm sure I'm going to see or read the work, I usually stop reading reviews; then after I've seen or read it, I often go back and read reviews to see what other people thought. (And as soon as I'm sure I'm not going to see or read the work, I start reading reviews without worrying about spoilers.)
But. (You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?) For me, personally, not speaking for anyone else: the plain fact is, I do privilege plot.
There are a lot of other reasons to experience a given piece of art, of course. And I privilege some of those, too: for example, I love certain kinds of prose styles, to the point that if a story is stylishly enough written, I often don't care if the plot is predictable or nonexistent. Similarly with certain kinds of characterization and theme. In movies, I also admire impressive action, and impressive visuals, and good acting, and entertaining dialogue, and plenty of other stuff. It all comes back to Ben R's idea of "sources of reader [or viewer] pleasure" (thanks for that paradigm, Ben; I've been finding it really useful); there are a lot of such sources for me, and a plot in which I don't know what's going to happen next is only one of those sources, and if there are enough others in a given work, I may not care about plot at all.
Nonetheless, plot is generally a major source of reader pleasure to me, and knowing what's going to happen ahead of time does (usually) reduce my enjoyment of a work, at least a little. That may be foolish or wrongheaded of me, but it's a fact of the way I experience some kinds of art, and I confess that I'm not very interested in trying to change that about myself.
Some folks, in discussing this issue, say things like "But if plot were really that important, you wouldn't be able to enjoy reading/seeing a work multiple times." And in fact I often don't. There are probably fewer than a hundred books (other than picture books) that I've read more than once, and fewer than ten that I've read more than three times (actually, The Phantom Tollbooth is the only one that comes to mind, but there are probably a few others), whereas I know people who find comfort in reading their favorite books dozens of times. Similarly with movies: I can't think of any movies offhand other than Repo Man and The Wizard of Oz that I've seen more than three times, and there are probably fewer than fifty that I've (intentionally) seen more than once. After I know what happens, I'm usually not as interested in experiencing the work again, no matter how much I enjoyed it the first time, and no matter how many other worthwhile things there are to enjoy about it. (Um, I'm sidestepping things like remakes, and adaptations from one medium to another, and retellings, and so on. I can talk about those another time; my reaction to them is more complicated than my reaction to experiencing the same work multiple times.)
Interestingly, there is one medium/genre in which knowing what happens ahead of time regularly enhances my enjoyment: musicals. I'm not sure why that is; perhaps I tend to find the plot harder to follow in musicals than in other kinds of drama, so if I know in general terms what's going on, it frees me to pay attention to other stuff? Don't know. Or maybe it's just that my expectations are more easily led astray in musicals, so knowing the plot outline lets me set expectations more appropriately. But even there, I don't tend to actively seek out spoilers ahead of time (I usually don't even read the story-summary notes in the program if I'm seeing a new-to-me play live), even though sometimes afterward I wish I had.
I mentioned expectations. That's a key issue for me: I want to know just enough about a work to let me set my expectations appropriately, because I know from long experience that I enjoy things (almost everything) a lot more if I have the right expectations going in. For me, regarding movies in particular, setting expectations often requires that I know the tone or mood of the work ahead of time; relatedly, it helps a lot if I know what kind of mood I should be in to best enjoy it. If I'm in a cynical frame of mind, for example, then seeing a movie that's full of childlike wonder is a bad idea--I won't enjoy it, even though I might like it a lot if I saw it in a different frame of mind. So when I do read reviews before seeing a movie that I know I'm interested in, one of the things I'm usually looking for is hints about what mood I should see it in for best results.
And yet, even in terms of managing expectations, I privilege plot. There have been at least two movies for which my enjoyment was partly spoiled simply by knowing ahead of time that they had twist endings, not even knowing what those twists were--much like Debbie N's friend who spent the first half of a particular movie looking for clues about the twist (though in that case the friend knew what the twist was ahead of time). If I'm focused on trying to figure out the surprise in advance, I've got less attention for all the other non-plot good stuff. This may be part of why I don't generally like mysteries much; they make me feel like I have to focus on figuring out what's really going on before the author reveals it. (And I'm not so good at that, which makes me feel dumb, and I hate feeling dumb.)
A specific example of how even a small spoiler can affect my reading: I recently read Adam Roberts's novel On. I got a little impatient with the first 80 pages or so, because there's a big plot development that in some sense starts the story moving, and it's one of the first things mentioned in the back-cover blurb. So I was expecting it to happen right at the start, but it didn't happen 'til about 80 pages into the book. This is one reason I usually don't read back-cover blurbs. (Somewhere around 40 pages in, I got sick of waiting for it to happen, so I glanced ahead to figure out where it was going to happen so I could set my pacing expectations appropriately.)
Three more examples:
- When I was in high school, a friend took me to see the movie Birdy. She had just seen it, and loved it. I was dubious, so I asked her what it was about. She said, "It's about a guy who likes birds." I was still dubious, but I went along to see it, and I loved the movie. And although in that instance my friend could have told me quite a bit more without spoiling the plot for me, I think I enjoyed it more for not knowing any more than that going into it. In fact, I adopted her description; whenever I tell people to see that movie and they ask me what it's about, that's what I tell them.
- Tigana was published over 15 years ago, and is a widely known and widely loved masterpiece of the genre. And there's a certain piece of backstory--related to the title--that I think is totally brilliant, and is part of why I'm loving the book so much. But I'm extremely glad that I didn't know that piece of backstory going into the book, because it's revealed about a hundred pages into the book, and I would have liked that backstory item a whole lot less if it had been revealed at the beginning. I would still have liked the book, but not as much.
- The pilot episode of Alias is one of my favorite pieces of TV ever. But if, going into watching it, I had known the one-sentence high-concept description of the series--the first sentence of the back-cover blurb on the DVD box--I would have enjoyed it significantly less. The premise of the series is a big surprise in that pilot if you don't already know what's coming. Again, I would still have enjoyed it, but not nearly as much.
So, with all of that as background, the reason that I employ spoiler warnings so readily (and go to such lengths to avoid even minor plot spoilers in contexts where I don't want to supply such warnings) is that if there are any readers out there who are like me, I know they'll appreciate it. Because although I don't demand or even expect it, I do appreciate it when others put such labels on things. And for people like me, knowing about the plot ahead of time really honestly does significantly reduce my enjoyment (even though it rarely completely spoils my enjoyment).
As for older works: there are certain works that are so well-known, so widely discussed, that I generally don't bother with spoiler warnings. I wouldn't generally hesitate to talk about the ending of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, for example, at least if I'm writing for an educated Western audience. But there are other works, even great works of the Western canon, whose plots are not so widely known. I might hesitate a little bit before talking in detail (without warnings) about the ending of King Lear (though I suppose knowing whether a Shakespearean non-history is a comedy or a tragedy gives you pretty big hints about how it'll end), and I would hesitate a lot before giving away the ending of, say, Coriolanus. (Actually, I have no memory of the ending of that play; I really just picked it at random from the list of lesser-known Shakespeare plays. My point is that a lot of people haven't read or seen it, and most of those probably don't already know how it ends; so for those people, being told the plot really may be an enjoyment-spoiler even though the play is hundreds of years old).
And that's why I gave a spoiler warning for Equus back in my Takei entry. It's one of my favorite plays, but I suspect that less than a third of the readers of my journal have seen or read it; I would guess that less than half have even heard of it in more than a casual sort of way, and I'm pretty sure most of those who haven't seen or read it don't know much about the plot. I strongly recommend seeing or reading it; and those of you who privilege plot the way I do probably don't want to know how it ends going into it, even though plot isn't really the point of the play.
I would go even further to avoid providing non-labeled spoilers of certain extremely plot-heavy movies that I love, even though they're relatively widely known and have been out for years. (There's one movie that has so many twists that I eventually settled on telling people "At no point during the movie is it the movie you expect it to be," and I only say that much because I would worry that the beginning would make them give up on it.)
And I haven't yet figured out a good way to talk about a few movies in the small category of works for which even knowing that there's a twist ending is giving away too much of the plot for my tastes. A couple of those, as noted above, I liked a lot less than I probably would have if I hadn't known about the twist; another, I disliked more and more as it went on, but was completely surprised (mostly in a good way) by the ending, and I still haven't figured out whether I like that movie or not. About that last one, if I'm telling someone about it and I even say "It doesn't end the way you expect it to" or "It doesn't have a standard Hollywood ending," they'll probably see the twist coming a mile away.
I was originally going to segue from the above discussion into a discussion of my personal distinctions between criticism and reviews, and how spoilers work in each, but although it's pretty relevant to the above discussion, I think going there might double the length of this already-overlengthy entry. And also might raise the ire of y'all reviewers and critics even more than I've already done with this entry. So I'll leave that for another time.