What Does It Take to Spoil a Book?
The Greeks get into Troy. Percival finds the Grail (but doesn’t get to keep it). Hamlet dies. Romeo and Juliet both die. D’Artagnan saves the Queen of France. Jane marries Mr. Rochester. Lizzie marries Mr. Darcy. Heathcliff does not marry Catherine. Gatsby wasn’t driving the car. Frodo destroys the ring. Boo Radley comes out of the house.
I have now just spoiled a significant amount of western literature for you. You should still go ahead and read To Kill a Mockingbird, if you haven’t managed it yet.
I’ve always disliked the term “spoiler.” “Spoiling” is what happens to the vegetables in my fridge when I don’t get to them fast enough. They become squishy and smelly and inedible. I have a hard time applying this term to a book, because the things that might make a book “inedible” to me have very little to do with the plot.
I learned to write book reviews, of a sort, as a bookseller, which meant two things: I had something positive to say about every book I reviewed, and the ultimate reason for writing the review was to get someone to buy the book. I wasn’t reviewing so much as advertising, in a very “soft” and sincere fashion. Oh, I never had it in me to gush about a book I didn’t like—I always subscribed to the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” school of book recommendations. But still, if I was saying something nice about a book, it was because I wanted people to read it. More specifically, I wanted them to buy it. From me.
I was never very good at flirting in real life, but I learned to be the worst sort of intellectual flirt in this sphere—come hither language and teasing promises, coy innuendos and devoted, flattering admiration. Pretty words are as effective as pretty eyes for drawing in the unsuspecting. And aren’t we all looking for a chance at love? A book we will just love to read?
Although I am no longer writing specifically to sell books, I am still somewhat of a flirt. Old habits die hard, and if my goal is not precisely to get people to buy the book I’m talking about, at the very least I want them to read it. But I am, I hope, an honest flirt. Now that I’m not really trying to part anyone from their money—however justified the cause—I find myself reinventing the phrase “book review” in my mind and in this column, trying to decide what it should mean.
For one thing, I expect a review to “spoil” a book. I’ve always been a little nonplussed by the righteous indignation many people express when they read a review that contains “spoilers”—important elements in the plot. I suppose there is some justification for not giving away whodunit in a brand new murder mystery. But if not knowing “what happens” is so critical to the enjoyment of a story, why, I’d never re-read a book. And that would be a sad thing, because there is so much more to a great book than simply what happens.
I expect to find out “what happens.” A critical review should examine a book in its entirety, and that includes an analysis of the plot. In fact, if I think the reviewer is bending over backwards not to reveal some twist, the whole review starts to sound a little precious to me and I get suspicious of both the reviewer and the book. Knowing what happens isn’t likely to spoil a book for me, unless I’m told that knowing what happens is all that’s worth knowing about the story. I find myself wondering, if a revealing single plot point will spoil the book, how good can that book really be? And if the entire review is fixated on teasing the reader with what they won’t tell you, how good a review is it, really?
Concentrating all your persuasive reviewing powers on tantalizing the reader with the surprise feels like laziness; as though the reviewer can’t be bothered to look beyond this one, most obvious aspect of the story. It argues a certain disrespect for the reader—this attitude that one clever gimmick will be enough to hook them and sufficient to inform them. For the person reading the review, it’s like being on the receiving end of a cheap pass from a guy who just wants to get laid.
I find I’d rather be with someone willing to go all out on the seduction. Dinner, movie, flowers, the works. I want to be told not just what happens in a story, but why it happens, what the reviewer thinks of the writer’s style and technique, what he thinks the writer was trying to accomplish and whether it worked. I’d like to hear about the author, and whether this book represents a progression or departure from previous work, and what the reviewer thinks that might mean. I want to hear about literary influences and allusions; about possible precursors and potential imitators. I want to know, I suppose, that the book mattered. That it will be worth the several hours or nights it will take me to read it.
As a book reviewer, I’m reaching for the same kind of depth and sincerity, although not always with notable success. I wouldn’t want my readers to get the idea I think they’re all easy. Looking back at the previous reviews I’ve written, I find I rarely include spoilers, even when a good discussion of the story might have demanded it. And I have at least a dozen “reviews” sitting on my computer unpublished because I couldn’t bring myself to be completely honest and in the process spoil something for the reader. It’s harder than you’d think, being absolutely honest in your opinion of a book, and completely thorough in your assessment even to the point of “spoiling” it when necessary. Much harder than tossing off flirty, teasing statements and come hither sentences. This was the most surprising and disconcerting thing I learned when I changed from writing to sell books, to writing in order to convince people to read them.
I suppose, as a reader, I’m not a cheap date. It’s going to take something a lot more substantial than the literary equivalent of “Can I buy you a drink?” to get me to go home with a book. As a reviewer, it is possible I am still simply an incurable flirt. But books do matter to me, and I want them to matter to others. So I’m willing to spring for the dinner, the movie and the flowers. And occasionally, even spoil the book.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.