Stories are made of time and change, not information.
The justification for spoilers (beyond ‘I am anxious, impatient, and have no self-control’) is that you don’t need to receive the story’s info-payload at the moment prescribed by the writers — having the facts, we are told, only clarifies the story, it doesn’t diminish it. Knowing how it ends frees you up to enjoy the unfolding of the story without anxiety.
This disgusts and worries me.
We might think about stories this way:
Narrative structures aren’t vessels containing information, they’re machines for creating information in the mind of the audience. ‘Little Nell dies.’ ‘Oh, is that so? Who’s Little Nell?’ Little Nell is part of a structure which, when activated, effects psychotropism — mental transformation — in the reader. She’s not ‘contained’ in the machine The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s a gear in that machine. To put it another way: the production of fictional knowledge (e.g. ‘informing’/’teaching’ the reader about hobbit feet or the one-eyed bigot at a Dublin bar) is an epiphenomenon of the process of generating the experience of reading itself.
Fictions don’t contain facts, they contain meaningful time: algorithmically generated encounters between audience and story. The text exists to generate the experience of living through it. Characters, plot, setting, are just ‘local variables,’ generated at runtime, which cease to exist when the work is done. But more than that: the work of a fictional scene can’t simply be summarized after the fact (writing tip: if it can, the scene is bad and probably unnecessary). The story effects a set of transformations through sustained audience contact: it’s a smooth curve, flow, the path on which the fictional outcome is dependent. Alter the path, break the curve, obstruct the flow, and you lose the story. What remains are chains and gears, sprockets and lenses — pieces of the machine, meaningless outside of its working.
This isn’t a niggling narratological concern, it’s a serious cultural problem. What’s good about a story is the telling, the reading, the watching, encounter, immersion, sharing — the act of communication, the provisional formation of a network which includes reader, text, artists, imagined-artists (notions which complicate the reading experience), setting, moment… Surprise, as Joss Whedon puts it, is a ‘holy emotion,’ and even in the small doses afforded by the ‘literary novel,’ surprise is an essential element of the fictional contract. But it seems that more and more Americans are terrified of surprise. Parents, bosses, workers, people on dates, schoolteachers, students(!), and of course Discerning Media Audiences — we imbue surprise and uncertainty with anxiety (wishing not to be tested, to risk our precious selves, in a world where the Self is our only permanent or meaningful possession) and seek dumbly to control our microworlds instead of seeking out or cocreating new ones.
Serial novels (‘franchises’) sell like hotcakes, ‘literary’ fiction all but disappears. We read a dozen reviews before settling on a TV show. We ‘swipe right’ based on the literal covers of figurative books. Theaters (both cinemas and the other sort) run only remakes and sequels. We seek out films by particular studios. We welcome a new era of nakedly partisan pseudojournalism. A man who plays a businessman on television becomes president on the strength of his ‘business acumen.’ We are horrified by the news but can hardly pretend to be surprised…
In the grand scheme of things, ‘spoilers’ are a small thing. But as we reconceive what stories and storytelling are, what they’re for, we incur hidden costs. One honourable task for ‘critics’ in this fallen era would be to tally up those costs.
P.S. Scott Alexander writes authoritatively (vs anecdotally) about the value of ‘trigger warnings’, which I pass on as countermelody to my naïve carrying-on about ‘surprise’ as a pillar of fictional experience.