Call me crazy, but spoilers don’t bother me. I remember years ago just blinking when a librarian colleague complained that a review she’d read revealed the end of a book. She asked me whether I thought it wasn’t the duty of the reviewer to keep key plot points under wraps, and my utter lack of response visibly frustrated her. It just hadn’t occurred to me.
Some background is probably in order. The vast majority of my review reading has been done as a professional librarian, when I typically read four or five different review journals in order to select books for my collection. Although I made notes of books I would like to read as I went along, my primary purpose was to find books the people I served would like to read. (Sometimes it was a challenge to keep those roles appropriately separated and not just buy all the books that appealed to me. Aware of this, I overcompensated with an act of self-sacrifice: I decided not to buy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.)
And actually, getting spoilers helped me do my job, which contributed to my bafflement at my colleague’s frustration. Knowing whether or not the dog dies at the end of a book makes a big difference in whom I will recommend it to and when, and not having to read every blessed dog book that I bought—in addition to all the other ones, natch—thanks to thoughtfully placed spoilers was a real relief.
More than that, though, my pleasure as a reader doesn’t seem to revolve around surprise but around how the author takes me to it. Knowing that Jane Eyre marries Mr. Rochester in the end didn’t spoil my delight in seeing how she reaches her decision. I cite this example quite deliberately, as I read Jane Eyre long after high school and college, after my book group read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which positively revels in its unwriting then restoration of the ending of the Brontë classic. Having been clued in by Thursday Next, I just sat back and watched Brontë take me there.
(I should add that I think I probably would be cross being fed a spoiler about a whodunit, but since there are so few whodunits in the children’s-lit arena, it just doesn’t come up.)
But moving into the children’s and teen editor’s chair has made me keenly aware that many people don’t share my nonchalance about spoilers. Even though “studies show” (a study from the University of California at Santa Cruz, specifically) that knowing the end of a story actually increases the reader’s enjoyment of it, I find that many, many people insist on guarding themselves against spoilers. And apparently I need to help them do this.
One of the first kerfuffles I had with a publisher involved our spoiler of the end of Anna Smudge, Professional Shrink, an adventure story written for 10-to-12-year-olds. Their publicist was concerned that potential buyers reading the review on such sites as BN.com would get to the spoiler and not buy the book. I wondered to myself how many 10-year-olds have their own credit cards and read professional reviews before hitting the “buy” button. Probably not many. I did not bow to their request that we rewrite the review, but I did try to keep spoilers in mind after that, at least for books that people who might possibly have credit cards and read reviews could be interested in.
So, in editing a review, I will sometimes find myself wondering, “Is this a spoiler?” and I will ask the reviewer to clarify. With my corps of reviewers I have worked out a rough set of guidelines. If the event in question occurs within the first third of a book, I consider it fair game. Our readers need enough of a plot summary to decide whether or not they would like to go ahead and commit themselves to a book, and I have to hope that finding out plot points that occur early will not diminish their enjoyment of it. As the book proceeds, I try to become vaguer and vaguer about specifics, though.
All this caginess can backfire, though, when a reviewer’s assessment hinges on the end of a book. After some discussion, a reviewer and I decided to change a specific cavil about the disclosure that a character’s pregnancy resulted from date rape to something more wishy-washy—and then the publisher contacted me to ask if the reviewer had even read the book, as clearly she hadn’t taken the ending into account.
Sigh. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.