My kids are incredibly spoiled. I don’t mean “spoiled” in the traditional child-rearing sense; they aren’t brats (at least not that often), nor do they expect to get something for nothing (at least not that often). But they are spoiled in a pop culture sense. Last fall, I started reading the Harry Potter books with my older son, who is just about to turn nine. After we finished the first book, he went over to the shelf, picked out the seventh book and immediately read the Epilogue, thereby defusing the suspense that gives the series much of its allure. It didn’t bother him in the least to know (spoilers ahead, if you’ve been living under a rock since 1997) that Harry defeats Voldemort and Ron marries Hermione and Professor Snape is a good guy after all. What’s more, he regularly asks me to spoil things for him. “Daddy, who kills Sirius Black? Does Hedwig die? Does Snape become headmaster in book 6 or 7?”
Certainly these are not the most awkward questions a parent gets asked, but the reader in me balks, and my answers are invariably shifty. “Ohh… we don’t know yet. We’ll have to see.” Invariably this produces an irritated response. “Just tell me!” he wheedles. I want to say: “Be patient. Savor the surprises and you’ll enjoy the experience more.” But I know I’ll sound like Andy Rooney (“Remember carbon paper? It was so much easier than this new-fangled Xerox thingamajig.”)
My son doesn’t want to wait for a story’s plot to unfold in the way the author intended. He wants all the answers now. Not only is he immune to the charms of an unexpected plot twist, he actively hates surprises. My own attitude is exactly the reverse. I expend a great deal of time and way too much energy trying to avoid spoilers. Up until about five months ago, for instance, I had ignored Breaking Bad (“What’s that? Oh, like Weeds, but with meth? Pass.”). When I finally gave it a chance, I couldn’t stop watching, and I devoured the first three seasons on Netflix. Now I’m frantically trying to avoid any information about the fourth season, which finished airing in the fall. My success has been limited: the show’s getting a lot of attention lately. I now know the shock image from the season finale, if none of the narrative context that surrounds it.
Spoilage can leap across genres and formats. I decided to delay watching HBO’s Game of Thrones until I read the George R.R. Martin fantasy novels on which the series is based. Later, while idly skimming an IO9.com post called “The Most Undignified Deaths In Sci-Fi and Fantasy,” I stumbled across a paragraph that covered the HBO show and spoiled the end of the first book (and a good deal of the second book as well.)
Perhaps my son has the right idea. His disregard for—even distrust of—the traditional narrative structure fits well with the hyper-linked, everything-all-at-once philosophy of the current information age. Maybe one day soon it will be impossible to remain unspoiled—not only impossible, but beside the point.