Slate's Spoiler Rules

I love reading rules for spoilers.  Working out an etiquette for when, and where, and how much it's okay to talk about art that came out recently, or art that isn't too popular, isn't the biggest ethical debate on the internet.  It's not the biggest problem posed by the changes in media over the last ten or twenty years.  But, maybe for that reason, I think it's the most fun. Slate is tackling this question specifically as it relates to the new Netflix original series, House of Cards. House of Cards was released all at once, today.  There are 13 episodes, apparently 1 hour each.  It seems to me that makes this show, as far as consumption etiquette is concerned, more like a book than a TV show or a movie.

Sam Adams, the author of the article, draws a distinction between "Push" and "Pull" messaging that I hadn't thought much about before, and that I really like.  Posting on Twitter or putting a spoiler in a headline is a push.  writing in the middle of an article or deep in a comment thread is a pull.  I feel I was intuitively aware of this difference, but it's nice to see it spelled out.

The usual discussion of expiration dates turns up in the form of "by next Thursday, it’s fair to expect that those who care most about not having any detail of House of Cards revealed in advance will have worked their way through the entire thing."

The other two bits are just basic rules about life and art:  Don't be a jerk, awesome advice, and great art can't be spoiled.  Or, great art can't be ruined by spoiling.  It might lose a little bit, but experiencing a good story is worth it even if you know how it ends.  Nobody watches a show just waiting to find out what the last plot point is.

Relatedly, Slate is starting a podcast explicitly about spoiling movies for the purposes of discussion.  Now, they're doing Warm Bodies.  If you've seen it, check it out.

Review: Flight

Everything is spoilers. So first of all Denzel Washington is a great actor and I've never seen him be bad in anything.  This movie was no exception -- if you're looking for a good movie re:actors, Flight nails it.

But I think this is the second time in a row Denzel Washington has tricked me into watching a religious movie.  I mean, the commercials made it clear that this movie had a lot to do with alcoholism.  They did not make it at all clear, though, that it was about the struggle between drug abuse and salvation through God.  It was basically an ad for AA.

(The other movie I'm referencing, by the way, is The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action movie in which (SPOILER!) It turns out the book is the Bible, and it magically grants the main character the ability to survive all sorts of ridiculous challenges as though he were sighted.

Last note:  The lawyer is great.  Seriously, Don Cheadle is awesome.

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower -- full disclosure, I never read the book. I own it, because I remember a lot of people in high school telling me how great it was and how important it was to them.  But I didn't get through the first 20 pages.  I don't think I hated it, I think I just picked a bad time to start reading a serious book. Anyway, I enjoyed the movie.  It was hard to watch -- very "Real-life," in the way that means "Sad."  I don't normally like that kind of movie, but they did a good job.  Even though I never read the book, I was glad to see that the original author also wrote the screenplay and directed.

There was a lot of stuff where I wonder if it was in the book or not, but since the writer wrote both, I don't think it matters much.  There's a recurring point, not really a plot point, but events, where an english teacher gives the main characters classic books, the kinds of books that make huge impacts on nerdy kids' lives.  I wonder if Stephen Chbosky was trying to write a book like that on purpose.

Spoilery reviewing below the fold.

I said before that this movie was sad, and that I don't normally like that.  I mean it was the kind of painful sad, where one of the major themes of the movie is "Sometimes, for some people, life just really sucks."  It's all about high school, and that's an easy setting for incredibly dark, painful stories.  It's a lot more believable (and, in consequence, more painful) that kids will screw things up the way they do in these kinds of movies than adults, like when Charlie kisses Sam in front of Mary Elizabeth.  That hurt a lot to watch.

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but I remember figuring out when I was in high school that, statistically, the fact that bad things happen to everyone sometimes means bad things happen to some people all the time.  And it's not that they bought it on themselves, or they're bad people, or they're doing something wrong.  It's just that every time you try to pick yourself up, there's a chance it will go horribly wrong.  So it's almost necessarily true that for some people, whenever they try to make their lives better, it will go horribly wrong.

But this isn't that kind of movie.  The message of this movie wasn't "Everything sucks," it was more like "It gets better."  Which is a super-important message.

Spoilers!

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.)

Yet, still.

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.