clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The endless debate about spoilers keeps us consuming boring art

Is it all just part of a capitalist plot? Well?? Is it???

In this illustration, a couple watches a movie in a theater, the words “The End” on the screen.
A story is about more than how it ends.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: Major spoilers for the book Mordew follow, but you should just read the article because spoilers don’t matter.

When I first picked up Alex Pheby’s 2020 fantasy novel Mordew, I naturally scanned the book jacket copy to see what I was in for. “God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew,” the blurb began. “That sounds like a cool idea for a book!” I thought. But when I read the book, I discovered God’s corpse didn’t turn up until there were around 100 pages left in the whole book. The narrative treated the characters’ discovery of the almighty’s corpse as a major reveal that explained many of the central mysteries of the strange city of Mordew, but the marketing copy tossed that major spoiler off without a second thought.

Mordew’s curious relationship to spoilers extends to the text itself. The end of the book is a glossary that runs over 100 pages in length that spells out almost every element of the story in exacting detail. Certain entries in the glossary even seem to spoil events that happen in future books in the series. The book has a short preface that points to the existence of the glossary, while also saying that, hey, the glossary is full of spoilers, but if you want them, they’re there. It reads, in part:

There is a school of thought that says that the reader and the hero of a story should only ever know the same things about the world. Others say that transparency in all things is essential, and no understanding in a book should be hidden or obscure, even if the protagonist doesn’t share it.

In other words: Spoil yourself if you want. Don’t spoil yourself if you’d rather. Whatever your preference, Mordew has you covered. In many ways, it replicates, in miniature, the experience of so much pop culture in 2022.

Our current cultural conversation around spoilers remains frustratingly stuck in the same gear it has been for decades now: Spoilers are bad, and we should not have to hear them. That conversation reduces stories only to their most shocking plot points. Too often, it is only interested in binary questions around which characters live or die. I’ve argued at length in the past that modern spoilerphobia, while understandable, is fundamentally antithetical to the discussion of art, as well as a historical anomaly in terms of how we consume stories.

But increasingly, that spoilerphobia also seems at odds with how people actually consume movies and TV shows, which is to say on their couches, frantically Googling things on their phone to find out what’s true and what isn’t.

Mordew wants you to think about spoilers differently, from its marketing all the way to that glossary. And that mission is in keeping with the book’s larger Marxist themes. In what ways, the book implicitly asks, are spoilers a tool of the capitalist ruling class? What good is art when you burn away everything pleasurable about it in the name of raw information? And what does it even take to spoil something? How do you possibly ruin art?

Our conversation about spoilers is stuck in a rut, even as our relationship to spoilers evolves

From our current cultural obsession with true stories boiled down into too-long miniseries to our embrace of properties weighted down with lots and lots of “lore,” we can’t seem to escape a love-hate relationship with knowing what’s coming. We hate being spoiled; we want nothing more than to be spoiled. Just put “[x] ending explained” into the search bar on Google or YouTube and see what comes up. We keep telling stories that are fundamentally unspoilable, then acting as though, say, finding out that the ship sinks at the end of Titanic is somehow a spoiler. (This type of pop culture discussion is something the internet has exploited mercilessly.)

And yet, as mentioned, we keep having the same arguments about spoilers. “Don’t spoil me!” is perfectly fine as a personal stance, but so much of talking about art in 2022 is having the conversation with and about the art as you are consuming it, whether you’re going down Wiki rabbit holes or texting with friends. There are enormous issues with that, distraction from actually engaging with the work chief among them (an issue hyper-spoiled culture has in common with spoilerphobic culture). However, it feels like a fundamentally different way of experiencing a story from the imagined virgin viewing experience of the foremost spoilerphobes.

I find Mordew fascinating because it’s at the center of all of these intersections. Flipping from the events of the text to the glossary resembles nothing less than checking Wikipedia to find out what happened to former Lakers owner Jerry Buss while watching Winning Time or looking up a “complete history of Dune” video on YouTube after pausing the recent movie. Neither the book nor Pheby judges you for however you want to read it.

While the inclusion of the glossary was very much intentional on Pheby’s part, he told me that the spoilers in the book’s jacket copy were not part of a grand master plan. His British publisher, Galley Beggar Press, is a tiny company, and when they presented him with the marketing copy — which led with “God is dead” — he had precious little time to request changes, nor did he feel particularly qualified to make them himself. So he okayed the copy. When Tor, one of the world’s largest publishers of science fiction and fantasy, picked the book up for US distribution, the company didn’t change the book jacket blurb. The book has sold extremely well, and he thinks that big spoiler might be the reason why.

The cover of Mordew pictures a boy looking up at an enormous bird perched on a sea wall. Galley Beggar Press

“It’s the kind of spoiler that makes people buy books,” he says. “Prior to its release, everyone was saying, ‘What a great concept! I’m going to definitely buy this book.’ Without that massive spoiler upfront. I’m not sure everybody would have been so attracted to the book.”

So how does Alex Pheby feel about spoilers? He finds conversations around spoilers in, say, Marvel movies overwrought. As he puts it, if you don’t know that the deaths of half the Avengers in Infinity War will be mostly undone by the end of Endgame, its sequel, well, you’re either completely unaware of how superhero movies work or (more likely) you’ve found a suspension of disbelief that allows you to consume a familiar story as though it were completely new. But, Pheby says, achieving that suspension of disbelief is possible even if you’ve been spoiled.

“You don’t go into [Marvel movie] Eternals and think to yourself, ‘Okay, I bet all these people are going to die, and the world will end, and the last 45 minutes will be like Tarkovsky,’” Pheby said. “The same can be said of a roller coaster. You know you’re not going to die. That knowledge isn’t sufficient to put you off experiencing it.”

Pheby says he revisits the art he loves many times, and every time he re-reads The Lord of the Rings or re-watches the 1984 David Lynch film version of Dune, he suspends the part of himself that knows what’s coming in order to re-experience the pleasures of the art. What spoils an experience for him as a fan of fantasy and science fiction is when the story doesn’t seem consistent with the world it has built so far.

“That’s why people really disliked the last season of Game of Thrones,” he says. “It seemed to break the world. Daenerys didn’t seem to act like Daenerys, and consequently, the feeling of being in the world kind of evaporated. You suddenly felt like you weren’t in Game of Thrones’ world. You were in a kind of junior Game of Thrones world that a bunch of executives pulled together on the back of an envelope over lunch.”

Thus, a true spoiler would be something like Pheby’s proposed version of Eternals where everybody dies, which is to say a choice that seems to violate a contract the work has built with the audience. Most of the time, however, the biggest conversations around spoilers center on enormous franchises where the range of possible outcomes is incredibly narrow. To preserve an untainted experience is a weird act of faith that the rules of the world you love are still the rules of the world you love.

As I neared the end of Mordew on my first read, I was surprised the book could possibly have a sequel coming out later this year. The book’s protagonist, Nathan, seemed to have things well in hand. So I looked up the second book and discovered that its promotional copy leads with an even bigger spoiler: Nathan dies at the end of book one. Whatever relationship Mordew had to spoilers, the sequel already seems to be escalating.

Yet being spoiled on the end of Mordew didn’t really bother me. I was surprised to learn Nathan died, but Nathan’s death was completely in keeping with the book’s themes about the ruthlessness of capitalism and the viciousness of the ruling class. Which brings me back to Mordew’s Marxism.

Spoilers and their relationship to relentless capitalist excess, explained

One thing I find interesting about Mordew’s implicit critique of spoiler culture is that its storytelling also functions as a critique of the chosen one archetype that undergirds so many of the most popular stories of our current moment.

The chosen one story — a singular person is the only one who can save the world — is not a modern invention. After all, myths, legends, and religious texts are littered with such figures. But the chosen one archetype that Pheby chooses to engage with is one who seems to be in conversation with your Luke Skywalkers and Harry Potters and Neos. Here is a lad (almost always a lad) who doesn’t realize that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders, until he learns that only he can fix everything.

At its heart, the chosen one story would seem to be about change. The evil Empire rules the galaxy, so Luke and the rest of the Rebels have to blow up the Death Star and defeat it. And yet the longer these stories endlessly replicate themselves, the more they become about preservation of the status quo. In the Star Wars sequel trilogy, released between 2015 and 2019, Luke and his friends succeeded, but only briefly. Eventually, evil arose again, and it had to be defeated again. The best you can hope for is a world where not everything is evil all of the time, and any victories that might cement something good are illusory at best.

Even the Matrix films, the most forthrightly leftist mainstream chosen one stories, include a healthy dollop of cynicism in their subtext about how the system will co-opt any revolutionary or rebellious movements to suit its own ends. Pheby drags that idea wholesale into the text in Mordew.

In the book, Nathan is a chosen one, destined to save the people of the city, but before he can begin threatening the powers that be, he is destroyed. He was only ever their puppet, and they will throw him away if they wish. The chosen one archetype in Mordew is just another way for the ruling class to control those beneath them by letting them believe they have a chance at changing anything. Nathan lacks agency, but so do all other chosen one figures, Mordew argues, because they are all part of a story we can tell in our sleep.

Pheby specifically crafted this trilogy to follow ideas in writings by Karl Marx and Georg Hegel that posit the inevitable collapse of one system and the inevitable rise of another. Nathan might fail, but perhaps his existence will point the way forward to a society where the movement he represents ultimately succeeds. The protagonist isn’t the point. The movement is.

“A class analysis of Nathan’s plight means that he will always fail. If we’re going to take a dialectics of materialism approach that we inherit from Hegel and Marx, the historical inevitability of these class-based systems is that they oppress the working classes,” Pheby said. “But there’s a longer-term historical inevitability that these systems fail because they oppress the working classes. They fail because they oppress Nathan. They create the conditions of their own overturning.”

Neo pokes at a mirror to see if it’s real.
Neo, also a chosen one archetype, says, “Whoa.”
Warner Bros.

Therefore, being spoiled is rather the point. It prepares us to see the world of the book as it is, not as we wish it would be. Pheby makes clear from early on that Nathan is being manipulated by mysterious figures without his best interests at heart, so the more he is railroaded toward what becomes a tragic end, the less the story surprises us. The use of the glossary also plays into the book’s overall point of view. Pheby wrote it from the specific perspective of a character who serves the ruling class. Therefore, the “spoilers” contained within it are things the rulers of Mordew want you to believe to be true.

Pheby’s thoughts about how the spoilers in the glossary function as a kind of controlling tool of the ruling class made me think about how often we get mad about being spoiled because now we know “the truth” of what happens in a story before we’ve experienced it. But we already know how these stories work, is the thing. We know them all the way down in our bones. So why are we waiting for some authority figure to make something canon?

The rise of the current spoiler conversation closely parallels the rise of a hyper-capitalist internet-based entertainment infrastructure that means we all have an enormous glut of options all of the time. Every day brings a rush of new stuff, and the goal of the entertainment corporations is to keep you watching more and more of it, largely without discretion or critical thought. Just hit “play” on the next thing. It’ll be fine.

Viewed through this lens “unspoiled vs. hyper-spoiled” is just two ways to look at the exact same thing: a relationship between art and the audience that is purely about consumption. To want to know everything about a work (the hyper-spoiled approach) and to want to know nothing about it (the unspoiled approach) perversely end up at the exact same place. The work has little value beyond its ability to act as a conduit for story and information. Aesthetics are of secondary importance to what happens, and narrative is of secondary importance to data points masquerading as plot. As I wrote in 2019:

The worst thing about spoiler paranoia, I think, is that it preferences plot above all else. … There are things about movies and TV shows that extend beyond plot, like filmmaking craft and performance choices and how a shot is framed, but we almost never worry about sharing these as if they’re “spoilers,” because telling your friend, “Look out for this cool shot!” is somehow seen as different from, “Look out for the big plot twist!” But having a super-cool shot you’ll remember for ages is arguably more important to your ultimate enjoyment of a film than not knowing anything about its story in advance — it’s a spoiler too, of a sort.

This consumerist approach to entertainment is hardly new — show business has always been about getting you to spend more money on its wares, after all — but the degree to which it has started to crowd out many other approaches to entertainment feels suffocating. Corporations want you to subscribe to their streaming services, so they crank out endless amounts of stuff set in worlds you’re already familiar with, then beg you to watch it immediately. You don’t want to get spoiled, after all! When you’re done watching, you can check out endless amounts of spinoff material. Did you love the Oscar-winning sci-fi epic Dune? A sequel is coming, and a TV spinoff series is rumored. And you can buy so, so, so many print versions of both the novel and its sequels and supplementary material designed to get you forever hanging out on the desert planet Arrakis.

“Entertainment companies are so terrified of losing money that they create mediocre stuff in worlds you’re already familiar with” is just a reskin of the age-old battle between art and commerce. Yet looking at the glut of things I feel obligated to watch before I’m “spoiled,” I wonder if the real conversation isn’t “There’s too much stuff now” but “All the stuff is telling the same story, and we pretend it isn’t.” That’s why I found Mordew’s seemingly blasé attitude toward spoilers to be a highly revolutionary twist on what we expect from our stories.

To some degree, we don’t want to be spoiled on superhero movies for the same reason we might endlessly spoil ourselves on a docudrama: We want to believe we know how the world works. Mordew argues that the world as constituted really doesn’t work, and thus, it wants to actively spoil you because that’s the only way you might sit up and take note of what’s wrong. I’m not saying spoiler paranoia is a tool of the ruling class to keep you from seeing the light, but I know a book that made me think long and hard about whether it is.