#62: No spoilers

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Good morning!

This week, instead of writing about my sick cat (all I think about) or the decline of America (all I write about), I’ve decided to get publicly mad about something that has almost no stakes and causes almost no harm.

Spoilers

I took only one writing course in college—a fiction elective for non-English majors. The teacher wasn’t a super demanding or didactic type. We spent most of the semester reading short stories by celebrated authors and saying what we liked or didn’t like, no perspective right or wrong. But he did have one rule, and he shared it early on: Never write a story with a surprise ending. He said that if a story needed a twist, it wasn’t good. That the true test of a story’s quality was whether you still enjoyed it even if you knew the end at the very beginning. Evidently I found this advice compelling enough to remember it over 10 years later, but not enough to follow it. My final story for the class was about a girl wandering around a spooky house, waiting for her father to stop typing on his typewriter so they could spend time together. In the end, she discovers the stack of typed pages on his desk are blank, and he was, I kid you not, dead the whole time.

My college roommate begged me to title the story “Ghost Dad,” which for some reason made us cry-laugh, but I refused. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. My teacher’s rule had slipped my mind while I was writing it, and when I remembered I became convinced he would be so smitten by the reveal that perhaps he’d change his mind about the rule altogether. To be honest I can’t remember his reaction except that it was (fittingly) anticlimactic. I can only say with certainty that I didn’t change his mind. The story had no ideological underpinning—no truth, no humanity. It was just a cheap ghost story I made up after watching Atonement, which took place in a big house and was scored by the soft taps of typewriter keys. I listened to the soundtrack while I wrote it in some kind of smooth-brained daydream. Ultimately I didn’t defy the rule but proved it.

As much as I trust my teacher’s view and even believe it’s correct, something in my greedy little soul simply cannot abide. In fact, I’ve become so committed to the artistic value of surprise in the years since that I’ve become a menace to myself and others. I am an anti-spoiler zealot in full defiance of his theory—a protector of not knowing the end to such a degree that it’s no longer a media preference but a worldview, a way of life. If you suggest I see a movie, I don’t want to know a single thing about it. If I must see a trailer, I refuse to watch past the first 15 seconds, at which point any information beyond the most basic premise is revealed. “Tonight, on Love Island,” makes me rage. Why, please, why are you showing me a montage of what happens right before I watch it? I’m already rotting my brain, the least you can do is preserve the single drip of dopamine I am afforded when two random 22-year-olds from Essex make out by a fire pit.

But honestly that’s the least of it. When I watched Chernobyl with my boyfriend last year, I got mad at him for googling some of the depicted people out of fear that he’d spoil the show with literal history. Last month, while watching a survivalist competition show called Alone, I had to skip the last 15 minutes of each episode because they were interviewing the cast members live about what had happened, and I was convinced I’d be able to pick out the winner just by reading their expressions. It’s not just TV and movies either: I am rereading an old book I love right now, and the other day caught myself trying not to remember what happens next to avoid spoiling the book with my own memory. And in what must be my anti-spoiler rock bottom—simply undefendable—I recently realized I hesitate to taste my food while cooking because some part of me fears spoiling the first bite.

I’d say this is simply my commitment to delayed gratification, but this preference extends far beyond reason and into absurd. It also entails some hubris—not only that my food doesn’t need tasting but that I might intuit an entire plot from marketing that’s been designed to intrigue but not reveal. Whenever I skip a trailer or teaser or “next week on…”, Avi argues I am forgoing an element of the intended experience. “It’s part of the packaging!” he says. But counterpoint, what if the packaging is stupid and bad? Or what if it’s for people who haven’t spent their whole lives ruining surprises by guessing them prematurely? In my first serious relationship at age 18, I used to imagine my boyfriend doing so many kind things—making me dinner, coming home from the grocery store with a candy bar for me, showing up when he said he wouldn’t—that whenever he actually did one, I had to put on the performance of a lifetime. What I actually wanted, what I always want, is to experience the gift as it was intended to be experienced.

According to the people fighting about spoilers online, this is what the anti-spoiler mindset mostly boils down to: preserving the illusion. In a piece for The Atlantic, Jennifer Richler argues that some part of us believes movies or stories are real while consuming them, and to already know the end erodes that, thus eroding an important aspect of the experience. But some people defy this, even prefer spoilers, like the movie critic who got mad that the trailer for Brave didn’t reveal a crucial twist, which might be the wildest take I’ve ever heard. My college roommate—the Ghost Dad one—used to read the last page of every book before she started reading it, and let me tell you, nothing displeased me more. Next time we fight about it I’m going to send her about this fairly unsubstantiated study that says people who hate spoilers are deep thinkers. She’ll hate that.

But none of this really challenges my fiction teacher’s argument, which is that good art isn’t really about twists or surprises. Maybe that’s why we’re only interested in rewatching or rereading things we genuinely like: Once the illusion’s gone, all we’re left to enjoy is everything else. In a 2011 experimental study out of UC San Diego, researchers found that, ”People who flip to the last page of a book before starting it have the better intuition. Spoilers don't spoil stories. Contrary to popular wisdom, they actually seem to enhance enjoyment.” But their proof is flawed: They asked subjects to read short stories by John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Carver—some spoiled, some not. It’s no surprise the spoilers didn’t matter in these cases; the stories are good for other reasons. I simply cannot say the same for Love Island. And so I stand both corrected and correct. I may have taken my anti-spoiler stance too far, but in my defense, much of what I consume is garbage. On that note

1. The first episode of three different and also bad television shows, in an attempt to feel something.

2. Inexplicably, a handful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch mixed with (?) marshmallows.

3. 100+ tweets from people I don’t know arguing about whether Chrissy Teigen is a narcissist, which doesn’t matter.

4. The unsettling diet of Ronan Farrow (no offense).

5. The first 30 minutes of High School Musical.

6. A very tall box of mini Toblerones, which I’m convinced was meant to be used as an in-store display. I’ve been popping them like breath mints, which seems ill-advised.

7. My nails painted for the first time in years:

8. 3 YouTube videos about the Kibbe body types, which I’ve never heard of, don’t care about, and won’t follow.

9. So many TikToks I should be arrested, including one that informed me I’m part of the 16% of people who can hear a roaring in their own ear on command, which made me feel proud. Why? Couldn’t tell you.

10. The 💖literal piece of garbage💖 Bernie Sanders brought to this interview with Maureen Dowd.

11. The reader submissions (including the winner) for a caption contest in Modern Cat, a biannual cat magazine I found at an abandoned roadside bookstore.

12. Approximately 1,000,000 runner rugs for my hallway, none of which I purchased because I don’t actually want a runner rug.

13. This:

14. An entire glass of warm salt water, gargled one sip at a time, at Avi’s insistence that it would get rid of my cold…

15. Not so much garbage as waste: The Mariko Aoki phenomenon, “a Japanese expression referring to an urge to defecate that is suddenly felt after entering bookstores.”

On the podcast this week: A case for spoilers w/ Ashley Hamilton

This week I’m bringing on my friend, comedian, and fellow podcaster Ashley Hamilton to debate me on the merits of spoilers (she’s pro) plus discuss her favorite celebrity memoirs and the state of romcoms in 2021. She also tells me a story about a bad date at the end of the episode, which I spoil at the beginning of the episode AS A TEST.

Lastly, thanks so much to Zak Rosen for having me on his podcast, The Best Advice Show, where guests share their best advice. My episode is only 4 minutes long, which we love to see:

Ok that’s all. Thanks for reading! See you next week,
Haley

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to National Bail Out, a collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers, and activists focused on ending pre-trial detention and mass incarceration through community-based advocacy.

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