I’ve been sitting on Stanley Fish’s article, “What do Spoilers Spoil” since it was published, but it’s still a bit tricky in my mind. However, I’m tired of looking at it on my desktop, so you get what I’ve got.
In case you don’t know, last week Fish wrote a piece for The New York Times Opinion pages. Essentially, his argument was this: If spoiling a work ruins it, then the work couldn’t have been that great to begin with, because the human mind is capable of willfully suppressing knowledge and maintaining that suspense, while still being able to focus on the larger picture. Fish argues:
First-time readers or viewers, because they don’t know what’s going to happen, have access to the pleasures of suspense — going down the wrong path, guessing at the identity of the killer, wondering about the fate of the hero. Repeaters who do know what is going to happen cannot experience those pleasures, but they can recognize significances they missed the first time around, see ironies that emerge only in hindsight and savor the skill with which a plot is constructed. If suspense is taken away by certainty, certainty offers other compensations, and those compensations, rather than being undermined by a spoiler, require one.
While I see his point that in knowing what is going to happen the reader can take note of more buried aspects of the story, I still think it’s bullshit. There’s something to be said for the slow unfolding of a plot, for the uncovering of sentences and hidden meanings that you missed the first time around. That’s what makes rewatching movies so fun. That’s what makes a book someone’s favorite: the knowledge that each subsequent watch/read will bring something new to light. Or that even if it doesn’t, there can be pleasure in rereading and re-absorbing something that you already know. But to take away the suspense of a first read? That’s just kind of mean.
So although Fish believes that being spoiled “confirms the experience I have had many times of immersing myself completely in the uncertainties of a narrative whose conclusion I know, but may not actively know at the moment,” I’ll thank you not to spoil my movies/books/TV shows/etc. I’d rather find out at my own pace.