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.