I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but I can't find any older posts here. Maybe I just linked it on Facebook. Oh well. There's scientific research that very strongly suggests a counter-intuitive truth about spoilers: That they improve the reading experience. This is on my mind because Boing Boing has pointed out another study demonstrating this claim.
As a writer, and a reader, I've thought hard about the issues around spoilers. In general, I try to avoid them as much as possible. I once attempted to persuade someone to read American Gods, pitching it as: "It's about a guy named Shadow, who gets out of prison. On his way back home, he meets a strange man called Mr. Wednesday -- after that, things get weird."
If you've read the book, you know that description barely even covers the contents of the first chapter, and certainly doesn't capture the heart of what the book is about. And when I think about having described it like that, I can't help but feel like I was wrong.
Because American Gods is one of my favorite books. I've read it several times. But I knew it existed for about six years before I ever picked it up -- and it wasn't just a complete absence of interest. I was intimidated, because I knew it was supposed to be challenging and elaborate and I didn't know anything else about it. That made it scary. It made it hard to want to read.
On the other hand, the books I find easiest to pick up are the ones where I know exactly what's going to happen -- Steampunk books still have a damn-near cookie cutter structure, and Terry Pratchett is always reliable for a particular kind of funny, social commentary, and affirmation of a worldview I want to hear celebrated, via poetic justice through a heavily metaphorically resonant plot.
I know that American Gods is a better book if you know what's going on. There are subtle foreshadowings and clever buildups that seem totally banal on your first read-through, but are like bombshells if you know how everything ends. The second read is just better. That's true of every Gaiman book I've read, and every Pratchett book I've re-read. (A lot of Pratchett, I've only gotten through once. But I've read The Truth three times, and Going Postal seven.)
I can't bring myself to spoil books for people, especially not without a huge amount of forewarning. And I don't fully understand why, but I have the beginnings of a theory.
Reading a book you already understand a little bit is very nearly always a better experience than reading it the first time. Certainly, any great book is better on the second read than the first, and on the third read than the second, and so on. Stories by brilliant writers are better when they're seriously considered in the fullness of their context and outside the linear fact of their narrative than they are if read as though you were simply living the life of the narrator once, the way we live our own lives.
But that better experience is available an unlimited number of times, in whatever context and however much illumination any reader wants. Once a reader knows the story, they can explore it from a huge number of perspectives.
The fresh read, the version of the story that you only live once, is available only that one time, only the first time you read a book. And that opportunity is so fragile that it can be broken even without getting to the book.
We use stories to build the narrative of our experience, and we use stories to create shared experiences within our communities. [Spoiler Alert Final Fantasy VII] There's a whole generation of gamers who experienced a shocking, tragic moment at the end of the first disk of Final Fantasy VII when Aeris is killed by Sephiroth, permanently. That kind of shared experience is nearly impossible to replicate in such scale outside fiction, and I think a lot of people, myself included, are afraid that spoiling stories takes away the power of a story to deliver that experience.
The subsequent reads, watches, or plays of a work of fiction are deeply personal experiences, and they have more power to enrich the lives of the audience than the first pass ever does. But the first time through is the work's best shot at creating a community -- at giving people a shared, lived experience that connects them in a meaningful way.
The moment of beautiful surprise in the middle of Zombieland, the way The Fault In Our Stars ends, the way understanding builds itself sideways in the City and the City, these things create the experiences in fiction that connect us. I don't know if that would still work if stories were spoiled more often, and I think a lot of people (myself included) aren't quite ready to risk trying it out.