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Quite a bit of attention has been given to the counterintuitive findings of this study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego’s psychology department. The gist is that when readers were told in the ending of a story before they read it, i.e., the ending was spoiled, readers enjoyed the story more. I was reminded of a Faulkner seminar I once took; we read Absalom, Absalom, and the teacher pointed out that the first pages of the book provide an outline of the entire story that follows. It’s as if Faulkner were saying, here, I’m going to give away the surprises of the plot here at the beginning, so that you can forget that crap and we can focus on the important stuff. And, indeed, one of the authors of the spoiler study is quoted saying, “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.” Faulkner would approve.
But the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn’t go over quite as well.
Isn’t that odd? I’m curious how exactly the spoilers were inserted into the stories. Did the readers sense that the altered stories were betraying themselves? I dug out one of the stories the researchers used, “The Bet,” by Chekhov (not one of his best, by the way), and it wasn’t clear to me how a spoiler could be inserted into the text without disrupting the rhythm of the piece. Maybe a skilled writer could give away the ending in a story in a way that gets the benefit without losing the reader. But, taking the study’s result at face value, apparently the lesson for writers is that they should never try insert spoilers into their stories; instead they should send spoiler e-mails to their readers before the readers have had a chance to read.
In America, to say that you could see the ending coming from a hundred pages away is a pretty terrible insult to a book. (This notion has been codified in Flannery O’Connor’s often repeated construction, that a story’s ending should seem “surprising yet inevitable.”) But this is not necessarily a universal principle. I’m not as widely read in international literature as I would like to be, but a friend who does literary translations from French once told me that the notion that endings must be surprising seems to be an idiosyncrasy of contemporary English literature. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily care so much if you can see the ending as it approaches. C’est la vie. Oui? And now the science seems to say maybe they’re onto something.