Plot Spoilers: Why is “Downton Abbey” different from “Northanger Abbey?

from xkcd

English majors aren’t supposed to talk about plot. If we do, it’s to classify it or to discuss how it works as a device to achieve some other desired effect. This incilination is, in part, because we’ve been told that ‘good’ English majors pay attention to both form and content. We all know from our introductory coursework that a good paper addresses not only about ‘what’ happens in a book, but ‘how’ the book uses that ‘what’ to function as a work of art. We also know, of course, that the form and content are inextricably linked; how the plot unfolds is a function of what happens, and vice-versa. It’s tough to call plot either solely form or solely content, and one cannot exist without the other.

But there is a pervasive sense, even among otherwise disciplined English majors, that plot is a mere medium used to convey more lofty ideas–it is a neglectable, if necessary, evil. Plot, it seems, ranks lower than literature’s other formal apsects. It is this sort of hierarchy that fuels intradisciplinary prejudice against genre fiction, which, as opposed to “literary” fiction, is pejoratively called “plot-driven” (a distinction that novelist Colson Whitehead snubs with his relatively recent zombie novel Zone One). The idea is that popular authors appropriate, reuse, and recycle existing narrative frameworks without adding anything new of artistic value. More radically, plot is considered an ideological force used to control mass-market consumers who, unlike us enlightened English majors, don’t know any better.

Whether or not it is because of some false distinction between “higher” and “lower” forms of art, I find it difficult to read for pleasure anymore. After all, reading is what I do for work now. I instead find myself turning to TV shows for a break–as though they aren’t texts, and I could somehow watch them without evaluating imagery or characterization or scene sequence (Hint: they are, and I can’t).

Approaching my leisure-watching from this academic perspective, I also could not care less about spoilers. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to a ton of texts that make a joke of chronology and stopped caring about watching anything unfold in order: I’m unabashedly, for instance, watching the most recent fourth season of Game of Thrones at the same time that I’m catching up from half-way through the second season. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been behind on the reading for an English class before in my academic career (Oops, was I supposed to keep that quiet? Oh well…the cat’s out of the bag now), and I have come to terms with the fact that class discussion is going to happen whether I am caught up or not.

In any case, I agree with Madeleine Davies of Jezebel when she argues that people need to “Calm the F**k Down about Spoilers”; responding to those who comment complaining about a lack of “SPOILER ALERT” warnings on internet articles dealing with popular culture, Davies portrays the “grief” of “learn[ing] a pivotal plot point before [they’re] ready” as “inevitable,” and therefore ridiculous to complain about. She acknowledges the effects that technology has had on media consumed for leisure and its reception, both the good and the bad: “everyone watches TV online these days,” she says, “so who are we to expect you [whiners] to adhere to a certain schedule?” The cost of this freedom of choice is that one is more likely to come across recaps, responses, and exclamations by excited viewers; Davies recommends “avoid[ing] the internet entirely for a few days” if you don’t want the plot of your favorite show spoiled (not that avoiding the internet would be any protection from my friend’s boyfriend, who, much to the chagrin of our friend group, Googles and resolves a GoT cliff-hanger while we’re still all sitting on the couch).

However spoilers are fated to surface, Davies suggests that “not being caught up on TV is your problem” and–like my own occasional need to catch up on reading–“not anyone else’s.” Her point is that “spoilers don’t have to ruin a TV show for you (and if they do, you probably weren’t appreciating that TV show to begin with)”–a conclusion which surely buys into that idea that there’s ‘more to’ a ‘good’ show/book/whatever than plot. Or perhaps, by contrast, it irons over the distinctions others have made between genre fiction, adaptations of genre fiction, and other more “literary” texts. Not that I expect to see angry spoiler comments on The Reader’s Thoreau any time soon.

What about you?  Do you get upset when your Facebook friends ruin Game of Thrones (a show, by the way, that is an adapatation of a series of genre fiction books) because you were too busy to watch it Sunday night? Is there a reason that most of us don’t complain to our professors about ruining the ending of Northanger Abbey, but still post with idignation when someone on the internet ruins this week’s episode of Downton Abbey? Say so in the comments.

3 Replies to “Plot Spoilers: Why is “Downton Abbey” different from “Northanger Abbey?“”

  1. Back in December, the mid-season finale of season four of The Walking Dead aired. My family loves this show, and because this was a particularly dramatic and pivotal episode I was eager to discuss it with them when I got home for Christmas Break. While my brother and I had watched it, my father did not get the opportunity until a couple weeks later. He was adamant that we were not allowed to say anything about the show at all while he was in the house, even if it had nothing to do with that episode.

    It was awful. My father got legitimately upset every time one of us slipped, even if it wasn’t an important detail. How he managed to have a social media presence those couple weeks without finding out that Hershel was killed off in the episode is still beyond me. It led me to wonder why this information would be so devastating to him. It’s not like we could describe how every single zombie looked and just how heartbreaking it was to see Hershel decapitated — as Greg said, we should focus on form in addition to content. Watching a TV episode (or a movie, or reading a book, etc.) is an experience and if knowing one plot point ruins the whole thing for you, well then I agree, you’re not doing it right.

    If we watch solely for content, then aren’t commercials technically spoilers too? Even if the show’s pilot episode hasn’t aired yet, the commercials still give us a good idea of what the show will be about. I think that the fact that we as a culture don’t see commercials as spoilers shows that it’s not solely content that we’re watching for. We want to find out the exact way that the writers intended us to and the same way that all other fans found out. If you know ahead of time what’s going to happen, you watch it differently. For example, when watching the movie Titanic, you go in knowing the boat is going to sink, and therefore watching Jack and Rose fall in love seems all the more tragic. I don’t think it’s the content we’re really afraid of knowing; we’re afraid of not finding out the way we’re supposed to.

    1. I like how you articulate our uneasiness with spoilers as a fear “of not finding out [what happens] the way we’re supposed to.” That’s a feeling with which I can definitely identify.

      I do wonder, however, why this is different with shows, genre fiction, etc. versus “literary” works; trying to target authorial “intent” (a word that you use a couple of lines before in your comment) is unfashionable, if not a complete gaffe, in current literary criticism. Is there something inherently different about audiovisual media, or is it purely an aesthetic hierarchy thing?

      Maybe it’s not as much about intent as it is about common reception–feeling like part of a community. The reach of the internet factors into our want to, as you say, find out “the same way all the other fans found out.” I’m thinking, in particular, of online spaces like Tumblr that circulate around fandom; to understand it and get the jokes, you want to replicate the same viewing experience as others.

      Still, I’m circling back: why is this experience expectation not the same for “literary” books? Perhaps it’s different because so many so many others have read them that that particular ship sailed a long time ago. Davies does flirt with the idea of a spoiler expiration date. But then what about contemporary books written for an academic audience? Or maybe there are people who would be totally annoyed if I ruined the end of Dante’s Commedia (SPOILER: he gets to Paradise).

  2. I actually just replied to another blog post about a professor who used spoilers to grab the attention of his students. He was finding that his class wasn’t really paying attention to him so he said that if they continued talking in his class he would reveal a character death in Game of Thrones. I thought this was a pretty funny technique especially since it worked. All of his students stopped talking and were more attentive than ever.

    I think that I don’t usually mind spoilers because I’ve always been the person who reads the last page of the book before getting to the end. I guess I just can’t wait to find out what happens so I ruin it for myself. However in recent years I’ve tried to stop this habit so that I can stay surprised. I think that spoilers have become more of an issue with Game of Thrones as of late since the show is so unpredictable and main characters deaths are fair game. As someone who has read all of the books that are released I like to threaten my friends who only watch the show by revealing spoilers. However I watch the show with my one friend who continues to get frustrated whenever I reveal even the tiniest detail. I never realized how anything I say can be a spoiler. I always thought that if I just hid who dies, I was doing well in not revealing the show. However just mentioning any discrepancies between the books and the television show reveals something about the show that the viewer doesn’t know yet. For example, I mentioned how in the books a character just made a bad choice in the books. This frustrated my friend because it revealed that the character still is alive at this point in the series and therefore will survive all of the conflicts in the show. We constantly have this debate over spoilers because while I believe I am not revealing too much, he gets irritated when I let slip any detail that may reveal something huge.

    I believe that if you are really concerned with finding out spoilers in a show that was adapted from a book series, you really should just read the books. I think it is a little lazy and annoying for someone to yell at someone who has read the books for revealing a plot detail, especially when the books have been out for years. I think this article kind of sums up my feelings on spoilers in a humorous way.

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