Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What do Spoilers Spoil? The Fun.

Tl;dr Stanley Fish, consistent with his character, has a rant castigating the phenomenon of 'spoiler alerts' - it is simultaneously condescending, clueless and socially inept. Spoiler alerts are not about messing up the experience of seeing a movie or reading a book, they are about social grace and communal experience.
To summarize his argument, Stanley Fish has simultaneously asserted that:
1. Actually alerting readers/viewers to spoilers is beneath his dignity;
2. People who get upset at a lack of spoiler alerts are actually incorrect, whether they know it or not, because some spurious 'science' that he cites says that they actually like having plots spoiled;
3. Any work that can be 'spoiled' is trash.
I disagree.

I harbor a rather strong dislike for Stanley Fish's NYTimes column. First off, he is a professor of law who did not go to law school, and, usually, when I read his columns about law, I find that this fact shows. Additionally, I find his opinions regarding education to be consistently condescending, and ranging from cluelessly elitist to pridefully elitist.

Edit/Update: Mr. Fish's recent post about hate speech is actually rather well measured. I don't agree with all of it, but it is thoughtful and even-handed, and a worthwhile read. Please note I'm not saying Mr. Fish isn't a talented writer, or that his opinions universally lack merit: he often has very insightful stuff to say. However, I often find his tone very to be dismissive, and his approach to education, I believe, is a very good example of a mindset common amongst administrators and educators that contributed directly to the current crisis of higher education in my generation. The crisis is manifest both in terms of unemployment among my generation -- and though this is obviously due in large part to the greater economic situation of the country, it is also due to a lack of practical, applied education and useful skillsets -- and massive debt -- as it appears that Fish holds education in such a privileged position that cost of education is not a factor that is even up for consideration: if you get accepted, you go, end of story. These two positions, taken in tandem, are guaranteed to produce a large swath of debt ridden students with no practical skills, and I think he insists that, somehow, this is okay or 'worth it' due to the intrinsic value of liberal arts education. That is why I call him both condescending and clueless -- not because I think he is personally a jerk (though I call him one for comedic effect), but, because I feel he is callous to the crisis afflicting my generation. Oh, also, I say mean things because they are funny. Typically, however, I only do this in my writing for pleasure: my professional work product is dry and technical, and this blog is my sanity-vent. Back to the regularly scheduled blog.... End edit.

His latest column (and I admit I'm late in penning this response) is no exception. I'll summarize his argument: some recent studies indicate that viewer/reader suspense is heightened if one knows the spoilers of the plot in question. Personally, the way these studies are explained makes me question their validity. For instance:
Scholars have come up with three ways of either de-paradoxing the paradox [ed note: the paradox in question is the heightened sense of suspense despite knowing the spoilers] or denying it. Robert J. Yanal argues that repeaters mis-describe their own emotions; they might feel apprehension or fear in relation to a foreknown event, but they mistakenly report it as suspense: “apprehensiveness is not suspense, though the two often occur together” (“The Paradox of Suspense,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 1996). In short, there is no paradox of suspense.
Consistent with this, the gravamen of Fish's argument is basically that if someone thinks they enjoy spoilers, they are wrong, and science proves it.

Charming.

I don't particularly want to engage with the merits of that argument. Like I said, I think the 'science' above, is questionable. What I want to engage with, however, is the following, brilliantly detailed by his first and last paragraphs:
Over 10 percent of the comments on my “Hunger Games” column brought up the question of spoiler alerts. “Haven’t you heard of a spoiler alert?”, one exasperated reader asked. Another reader, Jim, reported that he was “trying rapidly to withdraw my forward of the article to my wife who’s in the midst of the 2nd book.” He didn’t want his wife’s experience spoiled as it would be, he assumed, if she knew how things turned out. ...

In either case, the spoiler doesn’t amount to much and alerting readers to it is not a high obligation. If “The Hunger Games” is so shallow that it can be spoiled by a plot revelation, the alert doesn’t save much. If “The Hunger Games” is a serious accomplishment, no plot revelation can spoil it.
I think it is safe to say that Mr. Fish is someone that you would simply not want over to dinner, unless you were serving dinner on top of him, because he has the social understanding of a table. I'll explain. [ed note: needlessly harsh, but I think it's funny, so it stays in.]

The allure of 'spoilers' is not only the adrenaline rush of the discovery, which, despite Mr. Fish's insistence otherwise, is a valid sensation, but, importantly the joy and thrill of a 'spoiler' is the shared experience of discovery. It is not an accident that people go out to movies in groups, or that the shared experience of television is what drives ratings, or that talks "at the water cooler" are strong indicia of cultural phenomena. In other words, spoilers are not simply a personal issue, they are about the interpersonal relationships formed around mutually experienced dramatic events. I can only assume Mr. Fish has never seen a movie, play or television show with his family or friends. Either that or they have left in disgust as he explained that there is no Island, Bruce Willis is dead and actually, the Planet of the Apes is Earth. [ed note: terrible movies chosen intentionally.]

Additionally, with regard to the second paragraph, quoted above, Fish is really being a hypocrite. He constantly exhorts people to read and enjoy the liberal arts for their own sake, yet he is implicitly denigrating a series of books that have actually persuaded millions of Americans to read. To put it another way: it is not a sound strategy, when trying to convince people that reading is a worthwhile and noble past-time, to simultaneously assert that books that excite millions of people -- the books driven by spoilers, like Da Vinci Code, everything written by Michael Crichton, half of everything written by Stephen King, the list goes on -- are shallow. I can only assume, that, again, consistent with his character, Fish wishes people were reading books that he personally approves of.

Please be assured, next time Mr. Fish opens his mouth, I'll be there to stick my foot it in.

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