Dec 312012

Dial M

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Will the hero still have a pulse at the story’s end? Will the young woman have the wit to pick the man who really cares for her? Will the professor get tenure?

These are urgent questions and as a reader I’ve never wanted to know the answers before the author was ready to tell me. As a writer, I’ve assumed other readers were similarly inclined.

But maybe not.

For example:

(1) A woman I know reads widely and ardently, but will never begin a book until she’s read its last several pages. Something compels her to read the ending first. Doesn’t this spoil it for her? Evidently not. It’s spoiled for her if she doesn’t approach it in this fashion. (This only applies, I should add, to fiction. When she sits down with a book about the War of 1812, she doesn’t have to begin by reading about the Battle of New Orleans. Unless it’s a novel about the War of 1812, in which case she does.)

(2) Another woman I know, a writer herself and an omnivorous reader, always takes a book to bed with her, and insists that it be a mystery. It’s essential to her that her bedtime reading take place in a fictional world in which things are not left hanging. With a mystery, she can relax knowing that there will be resolution at the end. Triumph or tragedy, all will be resolved.

(3) “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Edmund Wilson famously wondered, showing how utterly he missed the point of what Agatha Christie was doing. And yet I re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd a year or two ago, decades after my first trip through it, and enjoyed it more this most recent time. The book’s a puzzle and a tour de force and a bit of brilliant trickery—and no, I shan’t spoil it for you—but the fact remains that my own familiarity didn’t spoil it for me.

I write several series. Sometimes the survival of an important character is in doubt, and indeed some of Matthew Scudder’s key supporting players have died over the years. So the reader’s in doubt—but not when he’s already read a later book in the series, and knows that So-and-so made the cut. Does that make the reading less enjoyable? Yes for some readers, no for others.

In 1961, I wrote a book under a pen name; a half century later, Killing Castro is back in print from Hard Case Crime. Last I looked, Fidel was still sitting up and taking nourishment, so could any present-day reader seriously expect the five Americans dispatched to Cuba could possibly succeed in their mission?

Heh heh…

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, the New York Times bestseller featuring the celebrated series protagonist Matthew Scudder (soon to be played by Liam Neeson in a major motion picure), is now in paperback in bookstores everywhere.

Mulholland Books will publish Larry’s newest novel, the Keller thriller HIT ME which has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, in February 2013.

May 252012

Noir sp

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

It’s like the lit crit version of “If you, foolish child, still believed in Santa Claus, it’s not my fault I ruined it for you.” It seems instructive in terms of that perpetual false paradigm of “literary fiction vs. genre fiction.” There seems a real desire to diminish or dismiss “suspense” as being a shallow  or ”dirty” thing. The subtext is: If we are feeling the thrill of “what next? what next?” it can’t be good literature. While Fish clearly sees immense value in Hunger Games (and his piece on it isn’t a review, after all, so I can see why he was surprised that readers considered him a spoiler), he still seems resistant to admit that suspense–sensation–is a worthy thing. He seems to view it instead as the shallow aspect we must dismiss to mine the story for more “significant” aspects. But what could be more significant about the reading experience, about stories themselves, than that sensation of: “What happens next? How will it end?”

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of five previous novels. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University and has taught literature, writing, and film studies at New York University, the New School, and the State University of New York at Oswego. She lives in New York City.

Dare Me, which Rosamund Lipton calls “arresting, original and unputdownable,” is coming from Reagan Arthur Books in July 2012.

May 252012

Snakes in my eye

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Mr. Fish doesn’t think he owes us any warning when his reviews include spoilers. I think we all deserve a warning about Mr. Fish’s reviews, not to mention his misguided opinion – and definition – of spoilers.

He starts by stating that spoilers don’t really spoil anything. But the example he gives to support that notion – that the pleasures of a first read are only different, but no better than the enjoyment one gets from a second read – has nothing at all to do with spoilers. He states: “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.”

Certainly, readers can derive different kinds of pleasure from the first to the second read of a story. The first read gives us a chance to experience the thrill of the unknown; the second gives us a chance to more closely observe the craft of the writer since we now know the outcome. But what the hell does that have to do with spoilers? A first reading of a book is not a “spoiler.” A spoiler is a giveaway of the twist without the benefit of having the chance to read the whole story. It’s what some critics – one of whom is apparently Mr. Fish – might do in a review. When a review gives away a key plot twist, the reader has no chance to enjoy the suspense of the unknown, i.e. “is Mr. X the murderer? Or is it Ms. Y?” and “will the murderer get caught?” or “will our hero survive?” Thus, the term “spoiler” is apt, because it spoils the suspenseful aspect of the reader’s experience. But when the reader learns the plot twist by actually reading the whole story, that is not a “spoiler.” In that case the reader has been able to enjoy the full experience of following the story without knowing the outcome, of trying to guess who did it, whether the bad guy gets caught, etc. Now if the reader decides to go back for a second viewing in order to observe the story from a different vantage point, for example, to see how the writer built to the conclusion, why the “solve” did or didn’t work, that’s a voluntary choice and a whole different matter. The problem with “spoilers,” is that we readers don’t get to make that choice. The review that includes spoilers makes it for us.

Now, are there some people who prefer reading “spoilers” before they read the book? I’m sure there are. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to know the ending – and as Mr. Fish notes, in fact get irate when someone even inadvertently gives it away. It’s why I always ask, before discussing a book or movie, “have you read/seen this?” Almost invariably, if the answer is “no,” it’s followed up with “so please don’t tell me the ending.”

Mr. Fish also attempts to support his premise that spoilers don’t matter with the example of the people who watch the footage of the space shuttle, Challenger,” pointing out that, even though they know what will happen, they nevertheless root for the shuttle not to explode. But just like his first-read, second-read example, the logic doesn’t hold. The Challenger example doesn’t prove that people prefer to know how a story ends. It just proves that people – particularly in the case of a true event that ends in tragedy – can still long for a different outcome. Again, nothing to do with spoilers.

Not surprisingly, this fallacious reasoning leads to an equally fallacious conclusion: that if spoilers ruin the entire story, the work had little merit to begin with. That if all the story had to offer was the twist, then a spoiler doesn’t matter because it wasn’t worth your time anyway.  Mr. Fish therefore reasons that he shouldn’t have to give a warning when his reviews contain spoilers. If the book is good enough, spoilers won’t ruin the experience.

This is an overstatement and it entirely misses the point. A spoiler doesn’t need to ruin the entire experience to have a deleterious effect. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a spoiler seldom ruins the entire reading experience. But for many of us, it does diminish the experience, and that’s bad enough. If a critic feels the need to include a spoiler in a review, then so be it. All I ask as a reader is to at least give me fair warning so I can choose. And by the way, the fact that a spoiler diminishes my enjoyment of a book certainly doesn’t mean the work was flawed or unworthy of my time. It just means that I’ve been robbed of one of the pleasures the author intended to deliver, and that I hoped to experience.

So here’s my conclusion about reviews without spoiler alerts: I look to reviews to tell me whether a book is well written, whether a story is well delivered, whether characters are well drawn. What I don’t want from critics is a review that prevents me from having a choice as to how I experience a story once I’ve decided to read it. No critic has the right to decide whether spoilers impact my experience – or dismiss any negative impact as evidence that a book is unworthy of my time. So critics,  go ahead and tell me what you think of the writing. Then get out of my way.

Marcia Clark is a former prosecutor for the State of California, County of Los Angeles, in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She has written a bestselling nonfiction book, Without a Doubt, about the case, and is a frequent media commentator on legal issues. Now a Special Correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, Clark provides coverage of high profile trials and contributes a column for The Daily Beast.

GUILT BY DEGREES, the second thriller by Clark to feature DA Rachel Knight, is now available in bookstores everywhere.

May 252012

Listen to Wisdom

A recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

This is the silliest defense for spoiling stories for those of us who don’t want them spoiled that I have ever heard. I have spoiled, accidently, a film and I was almost lynched. They were right. If it’s done to me, I feel the same. This is a case where the writer messed up and spends a new column justifying it instead of just saying, you know, I should have thought that through. There may be those who read the last page of a book, or like the previews for films to be so precise it lets them know how it’s going to turn out, but surprise has a great place, and most of us prefer it, and if we prefer not to have things spoiled for us, a spoiler alert is a nice warning to us who would prefer not to know.  Bad journalist. Bad, dog.

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, and Leather Maiden. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER, called by the Boston Globe “a terrific read [with] an unforgettable cast of characters,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.

May 252012

CobbleA recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Oz isn’t real because Dorothy was dreaming the whole time.

Norman Bates’ mom is actually dead – he just wears her clothes. 

Harrison Ford’s wife was the killer in PRESUMED INNOCENT.

If we were in the time of the height of the popularity of these films, and you were on the way into the theatre to see one of them and I stopped you in the lobby and told you these spoilers, you’d serve me up a well-deserved knuckle sandwich. Why? Because I would’ve ruined the movie for you. A child would understand that. And it takes a child-like mentality to believe otherwise.

The New York Times piece wins a gold medal in the Rationalization Olympics as it tries to support the notion that being pre-told the surprise/shocking/unforeseen conclusion to a story doesn’t necessarily take away from the movie-watching or TV show-viewing or book-reading experience.

As humans we’re wired to hope for ”The Surprise Ending” because we innately know that life itself is full of surprise endings.  Your life can end as soon as you step off a curb … or, as it did in my case … it can change forever as soon as you swing your fist at another.

I haven’t discussed this soon-to-be-confession with Little Brown/Mulholland Books prior to writing this piece and they’ve been incredible supporters of mine so I hope they don’t think I am blind-siding them.  And the truth is, I’ve never shared this information publicly before right now, at this very moment, as I type this.

But I believe enough time has passed that I can talk about it and I hope that readers understand that people change over the years.

Over two decades ago, when I was 18, I began an incarceration term in Fishkill Prison in New York for the killing of another teen in a fight over money.  I was young and stupid and I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, let alone take someone’s life … but I deserved the time I got. I was 17 when the fight happened, so the records have always been sealed.

I spent the first year in prison hiding.

The second year crying.

And the third through sixth year in the Rec Room watching TV and Movies.  The shows and films with twists and surprises and endings you never saw coming — those were the ones that stayed with me for weeks and months — those were the ones that were talked about and debated in The Yard.  Those were the ones that were special.

They helped get me through my bid. Because I knew I wasn’t alone.  Other people (even if they were fictional) had their lives turn on a dime as well — others were surprised by life’s fickle whimsies as much as I had been.

If I had know the endings of these stories before I watched them, they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective — not nearly as special.

So let that be my vote against spoilers.


Nick Santora (author)

(ps – I never did time in prison. Never killed anyone. Made the whole thing up. Now that you know that, go back and read this piece and see if it is nearly as interesting now that you how it ends.)

NICK SANTORA was a lawyer before his first screenplay won Best Screenplay of the Competition at the 2001 New York International Independent Film Festival. A co-creator, executive producer, and writer for the hit A&E show Breakout Kings and former writer and co-executive producer of Prison Break, Nick Santora lives in Los Angeles, California.

Check out Nick Santora’s new novel FIFTEEN DIGITS, and the paperback edition of the nationally bestselling SLIP & FALL,  now available in bookstores everywhere.