N.b. I first wrote this piece under the supervision of Professor Sebastian Gardner and submitted it as coursework for the MA Philosophy programme at UCL. I've improved it a lot since then though, and am really quite proud of it. When I planned it and did the original research for it back in the summer of 2016, it appeared that it was to be the most thorough and deep account of why spoilers are a bad thing that anyone had ever given, at least in the English language. I don't know if that's still true now, or indeed whether it was ever really true, but, as I discuss briefly in the essay, spoilers, at least in my time in academia, seemed a long, long way from being popular topics of study, so I wouldn't be too surprised on either count. I'm proud of the piece for its tangents as much as its core argument though – particularly the part towards the end on the importance of recommendations in navigating our way through all the fiction there is out there. I think of that part often.
I intend this essay as a polemic against a fairly uncontroversial cultural institution, the fiction review. To be a bit more precise, I’m going to argue, in the first and larger part of this essay, that fiction reviews seriously undermine the abilities of works of fiction to have certain kinds of value for us (even if we normally don’t notice this), and then, towards the end, that, although fiction reviews can also enhance the abilities of works of fiction to have value for us, and can help us have in advance some idea of what value works of fiction might have for us, other things can fulfil these purposes equally well, and without the drawbacks of fiction reviews. These, at least, are my main claims, though I’ll also make others, most of them to the effect that if the phenomenon of fiction reviewing were to pass into history, the world would be better for it.
What I mean by a fiction review is any piece of writing intended to inform people’s decisions of whether or not to read/watch/listen to (hereafter: take in) a particular work of fiction by providing a descriptive and evaluative account of its contents. As I will sometimes flag up, other things, similar to fiction reviews, are deserving of criticism for similar reasons, but my focus will be on fiction reviewing, as it’s such an established, uncontroversial, even respected part of the culture and business of fiction production, and it seems to me particularly indefensible.
There is, I should say, a certain type of writing that’s typically called ‘fiction reviewing’ that is not fiction reviewing in the sense I have in mind here. Though substantively similar to fiction reviewing in the sense I have in mind, this type of writing is different essentially in that it’s end is not to inform people’s decisions of whether or not to take in particular works of fiction but simply to evaluate the qualities or achievements of particular works of fiction, to estimate their value to the traditions they are parts of or the world-at-large – and consequently this type of fiction reviewing is not aimed specifically at people who have not taken in the works in question, and so does not refrain for their sake from discussing certain aspects of the works (big late twists, for instance) or from discussing any aspects in great depth. Call the type of fiction reviewing I’m focusing on in this essay Informative, and this other type Evaluative. In practice, they do of course overlap a great deal, as Informative fiction reviewing often has as a secondary end the defining end of Evaluative fiction reviewing, and vice versa. Late in this essay, I’ll effectively argue that Evaluative fiction reviewing is enfeebled in so far as it is made to double as Informative fiction reviewing; so long as it is not made to double as Informative fiction reviewing however, I have no issue with it. Thus, from this point on, any reference to fiction reviewing will, unless otherwise specified, be a reference to Informative fiction reviewing.
One thing I am not here going to discuss is the question of what precisely fiction is, nor do I think I need to. In describing the qualities of fiction that render its reviewing bad, I will, more accurately, be describing the distinguishing qualities of an unnamed category of things, distinct from whatever category of things the word ‘fiction’ might plausibly be judged to refer to. There could, on some plausible definitions of ‘fiction’, be works of fiction the reviewing of which would not be bad and which therefore don’t fall in this unnamed category, and certainly there are things normally identified as works of non-fiction that fall very much in this category, but I think most things normally identified as works of fiction do fall in this category, and indeed the category consists mainly and most obviously of things normally identified as works of fiction. For these reasons, and for simplicity’s sake, I will speak of ‘fiction’. In order for what I say to be strictly-speaking true though, the word ‘fiction’ will here have to be taken to refer to the above-mentioned unnamed category.
I am also not going to discuss in much detail what the proper role of the critic is, to use the established terms of that debate. In other words, in objecting to one particularly common type of fiction-concerned writing, I’m not going to give much of an account of what I consider to be unobjectionable or laudable types of fiction-concerned writing. I’ve said that I have no issue with the end many pieces of fiction-concerned writing have of evaluating the quality of particular works. I can add that it seems to me important that pieces are written to help people understand and appreciate the particular works they’ve taken in. I don’t know to what extent these two purposes amount to the same thing or are mutually compatible. I also think there are innumerable kinds of productive discussion that can be had about particular work of fictions and indeed that particular works of fiction are apt to invite or occasion, and actually I for one would be perfectly happy to read, on the subject of any fiction work that interests me, an assemblage of entirely unschematic reflections, provided they were insightful.
Finally before getting underway, a brief note on my sources for this piece: while I will draw on the work of various philosophers of art, there is no go-to body of philosophical literature on fiction reviews as such; the closest thing to a philosophical paper on fiction reviewing that I’ve found is a somewhat journalistic piece by David Shaw, entitled ‘The Ethics of Spoilers’. I will refer to Shaw a few times because he makes succinctly some points that would not have occurred to me to make if I hadn’t read his piece, and, more importantly, because his view is, it seems to me, the mainstream anti-spoiler view – I think most people, certainly most people with some distaste for spoilers, would be quick to agree with the substance of what he says in his piece. I however take a more radical view, the rightness of which I think most people would need some convincing of. Shaw does not have any fundamental objection to fiction reviewing; he only wants reviewers to be careful not to disclose certain kinds of information, especially without clear prior warning.
Speaking of which, as my concerns about fiction reviewing are mostly concerns about people being given accounts of the contents of works of fiction before taking them in for the first time, I should, for your sake and to avoid seeming a bit of a hypocrite, warn you that I am going to discuss the contents of some works of fiction… not much, and mainly very well-known works. You could at this point look at the ‘works of fiction’ section of this essay’s bibliography and then, if there are listed there works that you haven’t yet taken in, postpone reading it until you have. If you don’t have time for that, reading this essay will, I hope, nevertheless be worth it.
I’ll proceed by expanding on the first of my above-listed main claims – that fiction reviews seriously undermine the abilities of works of fiction to have certain kinds of value for people. There are, it seems to me, myriad values that any work of fiction can have for people that it won’t be able to have to such an extent if they take it in after being given a descriptive and evaluative account of its contents; however, I think I can identify three broad kinds, which I’ll now talk through. I’ll be talking, in all cases, about the first time people take in the work – on any subsequent occasions, their memories of it amount to a descriptive and evaluative account of its contents. The loss of value I’m now going to describe does however have repercussions for all subsequent engagement with the work, or so I’ll assert.
Probably the values most obviously at stake here are of a kind in that they’re essentially hedonic and relate particularly to plot, broadly construed. As Shaw puts it, ‘a person’s enjoyment of a film, book or play can in large part stem from not knowing what will happen next’. Imagine starting some version of Peter Pan and not knowing that these kids, these perfectly ordinary kids, are about to fly off to Never Never Land… and then, even when it becomes clear that they are about to fly off to Never Never Land, not having much of an idea what Never Never Land is or what goes on there – it would just be so incredibly exciting, wouldn’t it? And isn’t it sort of obvious that a review, or equally a typical trailer or blurb, could seriously undercut excitement of this kind? As indicated in my introduction and discussed later at some length, it is, in practice, a cardinal principle of fiction reviewing not to give away any details of big late twists, and this principle is obviously based on a recognition of the broad kind of value that I’m referring to, but, as the Peter Pan example hopefully helps illustrate, it is far too limited a recognition. Values of this kind, would, I suspect, be very difficult to clearly delineate and itemise in full. Still, here’s an attempt to identify some of the main ones.
In the first place, we value surprise. This is of course not to say that all our experiences of surprise are welcome experiences, nor even that the surprise element of such experiences is at least always in some sense welcome. And certainly I don’t deny that there are fairly common moods and temperaments to which surprise is anathema. All I mean to claim when I say that we value surprise is that surprise itself does, not unusually, give us pleasure, or certainly add to our pleasure. This seems to me a fairly common-sense claim. If we arrange a surprise party for someone, we do so with the belief that the surprise will add to the pleasure they experience learning of the party and perhaps even then participating in it. I do find it a bit harder to think of a case which very clearly shows that surprise gives us pleasure even when its content (a party, a present…) is not something that would give us some pleasure anyway – in other words, a case which shows that surprise independently gives rather than just enhances pleasure. This proposition is not really vital to the argument I’m making, but I think that it is true, and that seeing it is helps with seeing the strength of the argument I’m making, so I’ll have a go. Suppose you arrive at work one morning and, to your surprise, all the walls have been painted a different colour; you were ultimately indifferent to the colour they were before and you’re ultimately equally indifferent to their new colour; still, chances are the unexpected change will itself give you a certain kind of vague pleasure, some small amount of welcome stimulation; indeed the change alone might give you a little bit of pleasure, even, that is, if you had expected it; probably though, the unexpectedness of it will heighten the pleasure – that said, the distinction here, between change and unexpected change, is a trickier one than it may at first appear. In others words, the value of novelty is not easy to distinguish clearly from the value of surprise. It might be, for instance, that in valuing novelty we are valuing, after the starker initial surprise, a series of instances of milder surprise. Suppose you had been informed that, when you entered the office this morning, the walls would be sky blue rather than beige; expecting this, you nevertheless probably couldn’t have expected a lot of the mainly subtle and difficult-to-describe details of the experience of it, and so, for a time, you probably will still be mildly surprised whenever you look up from your desk. Even so, you’ll have no difficulty understanding if a colleague suggests not informing another colleague, away on holiday, of the change, ‘so that it’s a surprise’. Of course this example, developed like this, does beg the question of whether, if you’re given an account of the contents of a work of fiction before taking it in, much of the surprise value it could have for you mightn’t actually be left intact – my response to this question is basically there in the previous sentence, but I’ll soon turn more directly to the challenge it poses, and also to a closely related challenge that can be posed with reference to the Paradox of Suspense. For the moment, the important point is that, as the game of peekaboo that parents play with their young children perhaps suggests rather better than the example I’ve just given, surprise can itself be a basic form of entertainment (or its active ingredient, so to speak), and certainly a work of fiction’s ability to surprise us can be part of what we value in it.
We also value puzzle-solving. This seems to me even more a common sense claim. Hence Sudoku. Hence jigsaw puzzles. Someone might say that we only value the feeling of achievement that accompanies the impression of having successfully solved a puzzle, but I don’t think that’s likely… Maybe all or most of the joy in puzzle-solving is the joy of success, and we experience that joy as we feel we are making progress with solving the puzzle, which is typically more-or-less from the moment we start attempting to. In any case, this point is also not crucial to the argument I’m developing. This value of puzzle-solving relates to the value of surprise, in that surprise often indicates a puzzle to be solved; at least, it implies our expectations were off, so we’ve got some reconfiguring to do – only perhaps in many cases that reconfiguring will be too easy/automatic to reasonably be called puzzle-solving. As this point suggests, the puzzles of fiction are not concentrated entirely or even primarily in the mystery genre. Rather, from the moment we start taking in any work of fiction, we are presented with innumerable puzzles: who is this person being focussed upon right now? Why are they being focussed upon? What will happen to them? What has happened to them? What is this all about? We are detectives from the start, and, as games like Cluedo and their inspirations in fiction-writing illustrate nicely, we like being detectives.
The puzzle-solving value that works of fiction can have for us blurs into yet another, that of interpretation. Watching a film, say, probably the most basic puzzle we’re tasked with solving, and one we’re constantly tasked with solving, is: what does the configuration of colours and sounds we’re experiencing signify? Or, in other words, what are we seeing and hearing? What is this a representation of? (Also: What modes of representation are being employed?) There are of course analogous basic puzzles with other media. In order for the types of puzzles mentioned in the previous paragraph to be even grasped, let alone solved, a lot of more basic puzzle-solving needs to be undertaken first, which, incidentally, is not to say the solutions to these more basic puzzles need be or in all but unusual cases are other than provisional, incomplete, quite vague at the point when they’re built upon, or that they’re ever unchallengeably definite and precise. In any case, I think it’s something we often enjoy, this interpreting. Perhaps such enjoyment is to be experienced most clearly or purely (which is not to say most intensely) in things like our engagement with certain kinds of abstract or semi-abstract painting, or sometimes with cloud formations or even Rorschach tests. These latter examples, of things that are not intended to be interpreted in any specific way at all, suggest a point that is, I think, very important to make here – namely, that there is a great deal of independent creativity involved in interpretation. Feagin observes:
‘It is now a nearly universal view that the task of an artist is not (or, for the die-hards, not merely) to mimic reality. But the autonomy given the artist is often denied appreciators and critics, whose experiences and remarks are presumably supposed only to mimic the artwork, and are defensible only insofar as they can be justified by pointing to features of "the work itself." Though thinking of artists and audiences as ''them'' and "us" may be comforting to those of us who feel we are unimaginative and uncreative, it belies what is required from the audience to appreciate art. It is unfortunate that for many this seems too much like work, but then many have misunderstood the “free” character of this activity and how it is different from mere puzzle-solving and "coming up with the right answer."’ (1984: 47)
‘A creator is one who makes others create,’ says Paul Valéry . Currie’s description of works of fiction as guides to the imagination maybe also helps bring home the point: our own imaginative skills and resources are vital to the experiences, wonderful or otherwise, that we have taking in works of fiction. (The expression ‘taking in’ is perhaps not ideal, as it perhaps suggests passivity on the subject’s part, and the engagement I mean it to denote is far from passive.) We create the bird or mask or fight scene from the blotches of the Rorschach test. We also, watching a film, create, from the images we see and the sounds we hear, all of the structures, the story, the characters, the developing themes – everything that we will afterwards think of as the film. We are simply given far, far more guidance in the second case. Feagin emphasises that this interpretation, so creative or ‘free’, is distinct from ‘mere puzzle-solving’. I also have identified the interpretation value that works of fiction can have for us as distinct from the puzzle-solving value, and I think what distinguishes the one from the other is most essentially the amount of creative freedom involved. The solution to a whodunit puzzle, for instance, is not something we are really free to determine (I suppose it might be in some unusual cases, but even in those cases I suspect the scope we have tends to be pretty limited). As I’ve said, however, to even grasp a whodunit puzzle, we need to first develop working solutions to a lot of more basic puzzles, and here we have more freedom. This might seem like a paradox, but it isn’t – the important points are a) that many possible combinations of solutions to the innumerable more basic puzzles will give rise to the whodunit puzzle and its solution(s), and b) that the guide, the work of fiction (that is, the textual evidence in sum), will point away from combinations of solutions to the more basic puzzles that don’t give rise to the whodunit puzzle and its solution(s), while not pointing, or not pointing so specifically, with respect to myriad other details of the story you’re creating with its help. More-or-less analogously, many possible interpretations of the blotches of a Rorschach test will accommodate the roughly triangular shape of a particular prominent blotch. Of course it’s a very crude account I’ve given here of the puzzle-solving and the interpretation that, in taking in works of fiction, we are engaging in. I hope it is, as well as suggestive, just about sufficient to give some credence to my claim that there are these two elements of the activity of taking in fiction, and that they are both often sources of enjoyment. Maybe we can understand better why we enjoy interpretation when we bear in mind the creativity of it. The idea that we enjoy essentially creative activities is not a novel one.
Now, it seems to me pretty clear that the abilities of works of fiction to have for us the values just described stand to be undermined by fiction reviewing. Surely roughly in so far as we’re given an account of a work of fiction’s contents before taking it in, we will be less surprised by it than we otherwise would have been, and puzzle-solving and interpretative work will have effectively been done for us. This actually isn’t quite true, as I’ll explain later, but it’s largely true, so bear with it. Someone could conceivably reply that any such value that the review divests the work of will be there in the review, meaning that a person who reads the review before taking in the work won’t lose out. So, fleshing out this view for clarity’s sake: having, in advance of watching Peter Pan, read a review, or read a typical blurb or watched a typical trailer, you won’t be quite so excited when, watching it, you see these kids are about to fly off to Never Never Land, nor as you’re shown what kind of place Never Never Land is and what goes on there – but that’s OK, because what excitement you don’t experience at this point you will have experienced when you discovered these things reading the review or the blurb or watching the trailer. I am unsatisfied with this reply to my concerns for many reasons, though I think the principal reason is that I don’t see how the puzzle-solving or interpretative elements of the enjoyment that I believe the review-reader will miss out on when later taking in the work of fiction could be at all significantly accommodated in the review-reading. The same goes for the blurb and the trailer. In such accounts of the contents of works of fiction, we are fairly straightforwardly given solutions to puzzles, given interpretations – that’s basically what’s meant by “an account of contents”; being given an account of contents is simply at odds with independently creating and with independently deciphering contents. Of course in interpreting the review, we create and decipher its contents, but clearly that can’t be equated with creating and deciphering the contents of the fiction work. Perhaps my definition of a fiction review (in my introduction) is too loose, and some long, unconventional piece of writing fitting my definition could accommodate more of the value it would divest the work of fiction of, the puzzle-solving value especially .
Another kind of response to my concerns could come from some of those familiar with the Paradox of Suspense. People can experience suspense without uncertainty about the outcome – so why not surprise? Perhaps even puzzle-solving and interpretation are, like suspense, not so ruined by foreknowledge as one might expect. People do very often massively enjoy works of fiction after reading reviews of them, and often even when they know the works so well that they remember large chunks of them by heart. I think that in this case, the case of massively enjoying works of fiction that we’ve taken in many times and are intimately familiar with, what we’re enjoying is, in some ways, quite different from what we enjoyed the first time we took them in – they now have different value for us, and different types of value, as well as probably some very similar value, and some, perhaps, that is different but tracks the value they had for us upon first acquaintance. No doubt the sometimes subtle but reliable imperfection of our memories also plays a role here. I’d love to go into this more, but it would be getting us too off-track, I think. Also, just a reminder: I’ll discuss later how reviews – though crucially not qua reviews – can give us access to value that works of fiction can have for us. Anyway, back to the point at hand – I do expect that, generally speaking, if you’re given an account of the contents of a work of fiction before taking it in, much of the surprise value it could have for you will be left intact, essentially because there is so much more to experiencing something directly than there is to being told of it. But – and this is the crux of my rejoinder – I’m pretty sure that not all of the surprise value it could have for you will be left intact. Some will be lost, maybe a relatively small amount, maybe not. And if you took in a particular work enough times, you could, I think, deprive it almost entirely of its ability to have surprise value for you. (I expect that similar, though surely a bit less extreme claims could be made about the effect of repeatedly taking a work in on its ability to have puzzle-solving and interpretive value for you.) As far as I know, those working on the Paradox of Suspense tend to agree that suspense at least diminishes with confidence of the outcome, and then with repeated exposure to the initially suspenseful situation. Smuts (2009) sees as a problem with Gerrig’s proposed ‘moment-by-moment forgetting’ solution to the paradox that it cannot explain this phenomenon. The value of suspense, incidentally, would probably be covered in a more comprehensive account than the one I’ve just given of the hedonic, plot-related values works of fiction can have for us.
So that’s the first of my three broad kinds of value out of the way. Incidentally, I have the impression, based on my limited reading, that, for much of history, fiction’s capacity to have this kind of value for people was, in some obvious respects, not very well-explored, by today’s standards. At least to Ancient Greek and Roman audiences, and to medieval and Renaissance audiences in England, the basic plots and settings and characters of the works of fiction on offer were substantially familiar, from popular legends and histories and older works of fiction. I don’t want to overstate this point: there’s obviously plot in an important sense in the twistings and turnings of dialogue, and the same nominal setting or character presented in two different works of fiction authored by different people, a millennium apart, could surely, in most cases, be reasonably described as two very different settings or characters. Still, from where I’m standing, it does look like starting in the 17th or early 18th century, around the time of the advent of the novel, there was very significant new exploration of fiction’s capacity to have for people this essentially hedonic, plot-related kind of value. Going completely off track now, it may even be that, by the end of the 19th century, fiction writers – swinging the other way, as it were – had become overly preoccupied with exploring fiction’s capacity to have this kind of value for people, and were paying rather little attention to other kinds. This is at least suggested by Paul Auster’s account of why Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger was so revolutionary:
‘It is a work devoid of plot, action, and – but for the narrator – character. By nineteenth-century standards, it is a work in which nothing happens. The radical subjectivity of the narrator effectively eliminates the basic concerns of the traditional novel.’ (250)
Anyway, to start getting back on track, I have no idea whether the phenomenon of people taking a purely escapist approach to works of fiction is quite a new one historically, but it seems to me clear that a work of fiction typically has this kind of value I’ve been discussing even for someone taking a purely escapist approach to it; indeed this kind of value is, I think, typically the core kind of value a work of fiction has for someone taking an escapist approach to it. (It would perhaps help me keep what I’m saying clear if I stipulated that valuing a work of fiction essentially in this way is definitive of taking an escapist approach to it.) However, for someone taking an essentially different approach, that of a literary scholar, for instance, a different kind of value is also at stake here, less directly plot-related, and less hedonic, though hardly separable from hedonic values, such as those just discussed and that of learning – learning itself can be enjoyable, I think (with Aristotle, among others). You could call it an intellectual kind of value. We sometimes value really understanding works of fiction, understanding them in a more profound way than the person who takes an escapist approach to them does. We sometimes value discerning and thinking through the great complexity of works of fiction, the many interpretations they admit of and the relations between those interpretations. We sometimes value what we can learn from works of fiction, about how to live and what to believe and what to care about, or far more specific things. We sometimes value trains of thought that works of fiction don’t dictate to us but do forcefully prompt or inspire. These values interconnect, of course.
What is it about fiction reviews – more specifically, about accounts of the contents of works of fiction received in advance of taking them in – that I think risks preventing works of fiction from having values of this intellectual kind for people to the extent that they otherwise could? In short, it is their propensity, already mentioned, to reduce the likelihood of people forming independent and potentially different interpretations of these works. If, as I started taking in a work of fiction, I had a pre-established understanding of what in this work was happening and about to happen, I could not feel nearly so great a need to work at my understanding of what I was taking in (at least not ordinarily), and I’d be at risk of suffering from confirmation bias. Possibly I’d also miss out on insights that would otherwise be by-products of my more urgent contemplation. Though this is debatable, and case-dependent, I’d guess – my contemplation might also be freed up to concentrate on other aspects of the work. (I’ll return to this later.) What’s more though, if I’m given an account of the contents of a work of fiction before taking the work in, and that account concentrates on particular aspects of the work of fiction (aspects of its moral scheme, say), this will probably cause me to, when I do take in the work, especially notice and think about those aspects of it, at the expense of others, to which my attention might more naturally have been drawn. Again, the concern has to be that an opportunity is missed to respond in an independent, in a sense unbiased way – I can always see what others have to say afterwards. Finally, as the great assets of works of fiction are not things these works possess independently of how they’re interpreted, it’s important to note that if the interpretation that I’ve got from a review and that I unthinkingly more-or-less take for granted as I start taking in the work of fiction the review concerns is in fact one that is incompatible with appreciation of some or all of that work’s great assets, and if confirmation bias then works its dark magic, I won’t get to appreciate or benefit from appreciation of those assets. And perhaps, if I move on from that work of fiction unimpressed and so never return to it, or do later return to it but only to have my confirmed bias further confirmed, I never will. (I doubt somehow that a determination to approach fiction reviews in a sceptical frame of mind would suffice to cancel out this risk; I suspect the harming process is too insidious. But maybe I’m wrong about this.)
So far I’ve discussed only the descriptive element of the accounts given in fiction reviews. A note on the evaluative element now seems appropriate. If you read a review in which aspects of the work of fiction it’s about are lambasted, are you, when you’re later encountering those aspects in the work itself, likely to be giving them the benefit of the doubt? And what if it was a professional fiction reviewer, a renowned one, one you admire? Famous/infamous experiments, such as those of Stanley Milgram, have suggested that a great many of us have a strong disposition to accept the dictates of authority figures to more-or-less the bitter end. Could we perhaps see the acting in a certain film as bad purely as a consequence of having, before experiencing it for ourselves, heard some prominent film reviewer wittily express disdain for it? And could criticism like that also have the effect of pre-directing our attention? Could it cause us, as we start watching the film, to be looking out for what little we already know of it – the badness of its acting?
Lots of what I’ve just said is more-or-less on the speculative side – I hope that’s been clear. To counterbalance this, I’m now going to give a couple of examples of personal experiences – or, in the second case, a near experience – of the kind of loss of value I’m on about. They are maybe not ideal examples; if you start taking in a work of fiction having read a couple of reviews, you’re of course not ordinarily going to see clearly what you’re missing out on as a consequence. I developed the concerns I’ve just explained after I observed that, as a general rule, the less I know about works of fiction when I start taking them in, the more I enjoy them and the more I find myself having interesting thoughts about them and, I later discover, dissenting views on them.
Before watching Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time, I read several reviews and watched at least one trailer. I learnt from my research that the film is a tragedy essentially because the main character’s escape to a magical world is all in her mind. After all, if the magical world is not all in her mind, the ending is, on paper, basically a very happy one: she escapes the horrors of the war, and becomes the wise and beloved ruler of this magical world, with her parents, who had apparently died, ruling beside her. Couldn’t be better really, could it? I don’t remember whether Mary Corliss’s review in Time was one of those I read, but it might have been:
‘Most "adult" is Del Toro's belief that the world into which young minds soar or retreat is fragile indeed. The ending should not be revealed, except to say I've never encountered it in a children's book nor movie. While Ofelia burrows into Pan's labyrinth, the world outside — the real one — plays by a harsher, more violent, set of rules. Learning the difference is the beginning of maturity, the end of childhood innocence.’
When I watched the film, I understood the last scene straightforwardly as the last sequence of thoughts that passes through Ofelia’s mind before she dies. It was several months later that a friend convinced me, partly by pointing out the parallels there are to be drawn with The Devil’s Backbone (to which del Toro declared Pan’s Labyrinth a ‘spiritual successor’), that an equally or perhaps more credible interpretation sees the magical world as absolutely real and our sense of tragedy as inseparable from our (perhaps unconscious) recognition that, in our world, the world in which Pan’s Labyrinth is a film, there is no such escape or salvation for that child, who really represents all children caught up in the horrors of war. In The Devil’s Backbone, it’s by the end simply undeniable that the supernatural elements aren’t merely figments of anyone’s imagination; in Pan’s Labyrinth there are details that apparently show this too, though they are more subtle – subtle enough to leave you in some doubt. If you’re in doubt like this, you are in a position that resembles that of the main character – she also cannot know for sure that it’s not just her imagination. This doubt is also similar to the doubt of the religious believer, and this similarity ties in with a prominent, well-worth-exploring religious theme the film has. It now seems to me that interpreting the magical world as clearly and indisputably all in her head, as Corliss and other reviewers do, isn’t conducive to getting the most out of the film. So, at the point when I started watching the film for the first time, I already had, thanks to the reviews I’d read, a particular interpretation of a central element of it, which limited my appreciation of it and which the experience of watching it didn’t itself do anything to unsettle.
Notes from Underground completely stunned me when I first read it. I had never before been confronted with such a vivid and believable and full depiction of such extreme, on-going, self-propagating despair, of a person so broken, so warped, so full of hate and self-hate, so incapable of friendship or any kind of joy, so absolutely bent on misery, just so absolutely pitiful. I hadn’t known anything about the novel’s contents in advance of reading it. Afterwards, I read the scholarly introduction to the edition I had – it was by Richard Pevear, and the translation was by him and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky. In this introduction he disparages accounts of the novel that talk of the ‘tragic (or at least “terribly sad”) essence of its vision’, objecting that they ‘overlook the humor – stylistic, situational, polemical, parodic – that pervades Notes from Underground’. He goes on:
‘Dostoevsky certainly put a lot of himself into the situations and emotions of his narrator; what distinguishes his book from the narrator's is an extra dimension of laughter. Laughter creates the distance that allows for recognition, without which the book might be a tract, a case history, a cry of despair, anything you like, but not a work of art. […] The underground man's book is a personal outpouring – harsh, self-accusatory, defiant, negligently written, loosely structured – a long diatribe, followed by some avowedly random recollections (“I will not introduce any order or system. Whatever I recall, I will write down.”) It claims to be genuine, if artistically crude. “No longer literature, but corrective punishment,” the narrator finally decides. Nietzsche thought he could hear “the voice of the blood” in it. Dostoevsky's novel is something quite different. It is a tragicomedy of ideas, admirable for the dramatic expressiveness of its prose, […] admirable, too, for the dynamics of its composition, the interplay of its two parts, which represent two historical moments, two “climates of opinion,” as well as two images of the man from underground, revealed by different means and with very different tonalities.’ (1993: iii)
So apparently, what I engaged with was more the underground man’s book than Dostoevsky’s. And, if I did, I’m very glad I did. Because it doesn’t sound like I would have been moved nearly so much otherwise. Could I have been, while also understanding what I was reading as humorous, parodic – while also laughing all the while? It doesn’t seem plausible. And if you’re authoritatively informed that what you’re about to read is pervasively funny, that’s surely going to have implications for the way you proceed to read it. A review could easily do something like this. (I wonder, incidentally, whether Nietzsche was describing the underground man’s book as something distinct from Dostoevsky’s. I am, as you might expect, sceptical about readings according to which there is throughout this ‘extra dimension of laughter’ – indeed, in some of the most moving scenes in the book, it would seem to me a little obscene to claim there’s an extra dimension of laughter – but this is an argument for another occasion.)
Related to all this, Shaw makes an interesting point: ‘most creative artists intend the audience to be a blank slate, approaching the work without preconception: knowing too much can rob the artist of the desired effect’. That must be true in many cases, as discussed in some of the next few paragraphs. I do vaguely recall fiction writers complaining about spoilers… Having said that, maybe for some literary scholars and historians, for instance, there’ll be some non-coincidental value to being effected by a work of fiction as the writer desired; for the rest of us though, that value will be coincidental, a consequence of the overlap, which there surely will always be to some considerable extent, between being effected by the work as the writer desired and being effected by the work in the way that results in it having for us individually the most value that it can have, which is what really matters here – I mean, if there weren’t that overlap, the work would have a preponderance of its value for us by accident, and what are the chances of that? To answer my own question: Actually, in many ways, not all that small – given how similar to one another most of us are, how limited the basic materials of fiction are, and what a tight weave of trends and analogies and dialectics and dittos the inclusive canon of fiction is, but still. Of course I don’t mean to be dogmatic; this is a much disputed area, I recognise.
So now onto the last of my three broad kinds of value, which the Notes from Underground example also calls attention to. If the value just discussed could be called intellectual value, this one could, about as appropriately, be called emotional value. Or character value, maybe. (I’m not satisfied with the schema I’ve developed here, but also not absolutely sure a much better one is possible – these values, and kinds of values, seem to mix and overlap a lot, and in a messy way, as my comments at the start of my discussion of ‘intellectual value’ hopefully do a little to illustrate.) This time, I’ll start with a couple of examples, and then comment.
Slumdog Millionaire. Do not show me on all the posters and case covers the older Jamal and Latika together and smiling delightedly in a shower of confetti; don’t tell me, in letters almost as large as those of the title, that this is ‘the feel-good film of the decade (Robbie Collin, News of the World)’; let me seriously, entirely feel the possibility, each time it arises, that Jamal will never see Latika again. Let me journey more with the characters than above them, in some godly void; let me share, to the best of my ability, all of their despair and then elation. Let me, in the moments after Latika has said she does not know the answer to the jackpot question, wonder whether the tone of the film’s title is wistful or cynical or perhaps even mocking, but feel confident that it is not a simple factual description of its subject.
Another, better example: About Elly, a real favourite of mine. There is, in the first half of the film, very little drama or intrigue, not really any serious complication even; we’re just watching some old university friends going on holiday with their young families, accompanied by this girl Elly, a friend of one of them. By the midpoint, I was, like all the characters (with the possible exception of Elly), almost entirely at ease, in a cheerful, holiday-going frame of mind. I, like the characters, had no idea what was coming, no suspicion that anything at all traumatic was on its way , and therefore, when the moment came, I was hit by it just as they were; I could absolutely feel their sudden panic, and then their desperation, and finally their growing despair. No review I might have read in advance of watching the film could have failed to, to some non-trivial extent, deprive me of that incredible experience – even mentioning that there is this big twist halfway through, without giving any further details of it, would undermine the important surprise element of the experience at the very least.
We value relating emotionally in certain ways to the characters in works of fiction, and some of those ways are sometimes jeopardised by our having knowledge of the contents of the works of fiction before taking them in. I purposely speak so vaguely, because there’s a lot going on here, and a lot of debate about it . I don’t want to wade into this debate too much, but I will now discuss a recent contribution to it by Carroll (2011) that might seem to problematise what I’ve said in giving my two examples and does therefore, in an important way, push me to clarify my meaning.
Carroll observes that
‘[…] generally there is a significant differential between what we know and what the characters know, and this, of course, can have a discernibly different impact on what is felt on both sides of the audience/fiction divide. In some cases, we know more than the characters; we tremble for them as they plunge ahead ignoring clear and present danger. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes always knows more than we do, so we never share his aplomb in the face of peril.’ (168)
I have remarked that, ‘I was hit by it just as they were; I could absolutely feel their sudden panic’ and claimed that this would have been impossible if I’d known about ‘it’ (the cause of their panic), in advance. I’ve also said, ‘Let me journey more with the characters than above them, in some godly void; let me share, to the best of my ability, all of their despair and then elation’, and implied that knowing how things will turn out for them effectively prevents me from doing this. As Carroll points out though, works of fiction often themselves tell us in advance what will happen to characters, or, if they don’t do this, they in other ways cultivate the knowledge differential he speaks of, and so prevent us from engaging with characters as the remarks of mine just repeated might seem to suggest I want to be able to. In fact Slumdog Millionaire surely does this in some ways, with all it’s jumping around in time. Do I have to start criticising some works of fiction in ways much like I’ve been criticising reviews? Do I have to grant that, at least as far as our valued ways of relating emotionally to characters are concerned, being given accounts of works of fiction in advance of taking them in can’t actually do any serious harm, despite my impressions to the contrary? The basic point Carroll makes in the above quote is one of a series with which he fairly comprehensively discredits the popular infectious identification model (IIM) of audience member-protagonist emotional relations, ‘which requires that the audience member be in an emotional state that is type-identical with the protagonist’s precisely because [the protagonist] is in that state’ (177) – this might seem like the model implicit in my remarks.
To respond to these objections, the last first: there is nothing in my remarks that especially suggests IIM, as there is nothing in my remarks that especially suggests being in emotional states type-identical to those of the characters precisely because they are in those states. E.g. ‘I was hit by it just as they were; I could absolutely feel their sudden panic’ – I’m not saying I could feel their panic because they were feeling it and I was infectiously identifying with them. Maybe there was something a bit like that going on, but it’s more complicated – indeed, all of the non-IIM ways of relating emotionally to characters that Carroll describes seem to me likely to have, to varying degrees, played roles in my feeling the characters’ sudden panic, as I put it. Above all, I think this was a case of my emotions being type-identical to those of the characters ‘because of our independent [and coinciding] appraisals of the relevant situation’ (177). In other words, what was suddenly causing the characters to fear was also suddenly causing me to fear. A child was drowning or maybe already drowned, and it was seeming increasingly likely that Elly had gone in to try and save the child and was either drowning or drowned as well, somewhere in the brute expanse of sea. It was a shocking, visceral scene, I remember.
Carroll is obviously right that often there is a significant differential between what we know and what the characters know, but I think it’s important to observe that there are also many works of fiction that keep this differential as insignificant as possible. About Elly is one such work of fiction – most crucially, we never know a significant amount more or less than the central characters do about what’s happened with Elly, or how it’s happened. We are as stuck and confused and horribly uncertain as they are. This, I think, is absolutely something the film’s creators intended. The extent and, more generally, the nature of the knowledge differential clearly play a massive role in determining the nature of our emotional relationships with the characters. And actually, if many works of fiction keep the knowledge differential insignificant, and in the other ways identified by Carroll ensure that our (emotional) experience taking in the work of fiction is as similar as possible to that of its central character or characters, many other works of fiction, through the same mechanisms, ensure that our (emotional) experience taking in a work of fiction is as similar as possible to that of a pure onlooker, someone who has just seen and begun secretly following the central character or characters. Examples of this kind of work of fiction – the first that come to mind – are Andrea Arnold’s films Red Road and Fish Tank. And this certainly seems a natural/obvious enough emotional relationship for works of fiction to afford us. It is essentially the emotional relationship we have to any unknown person we are confronted with, as they walk by in the street or sit down at the desk opposite us in a new class. It’s the polar opposite of the emotional relationship we have with a character whose emotions we are always made to share as much as possible, which is also, it seems to me, a natural/obvious enough emotional relationship for a work of fiction to afford us – such a work of fiction goes furthest in helping us answer the familiar question, ‘What would it be like to be such-and-such a person?’. The two might be called Self and Other types of fiction-afforded emotional relationship. Just to give a tiny bit more detail of this spectrum I find myself describing, a work of fiction narrated by the close friend of the main character, themself a marginal character, would, by default, afford us a less extreme Other type emotional relationship with that main character, though such a narrator might withhold information… A present tense first-person narrative, meanwhile, would obviously lend itself to more of a Self type emotional relationship with the narrator.
Of course the nature of the knowledge differential plays a crucial role in determining not just the nature of our emotional relationships with the characters, but also the puzzles we’re working at solving as we progress through the work, and the consequent interests and insights we develop – if we’re told at the start of a work of fiction what happens at the end of its story, the main puzzle we’ll be trying to solve throughout will probably be ‘How does this story get there?’, rather than ‘Where’s this story going?’ This is a very different angle. Our focus will fall very differently. Storytellers with particular ideas of what they want their audiences to get out of the core stories they have to tell (think of true stories of historical events, for instance) can of course put knowledge differentials to use accordingly. And, even more commonly perhaps, knowledge differentials are used in this way simply to heighten the entertainment, to draw audiences in – the scenes in the first half of The Constant Gardner, for instance, would risk, to many audiences, seeming rather dull, if they weren’t preceded by a flash-forward showing the gruesome death of one of the two characters who feature most prominently in them. This heightening of the entertainment is, of course, courtesy not least of the puzzle that gruesome opening scene presents audiences with: ‘how,’ they wonder throughout the following scenes, ‘do things come to that?’ All of which is to say there’s a very crucial difference between, on the one hand, works of fiction themselves telling us in advance what is going to happen as their stories progress and, on the other, fiction reviews telling us what happens in works of fiction in advance of our taking them in. Shaw’s point about most fiction writers intending their audiences as blank states perhaps ought to be recalled here. And I find myself imagining a study of fiction reviews, sort of in the Marxist tradition of literary criticism, exposing the ways in which reviewers have, over the years, directed their readers to, when taking in the works of fiction their reviews concern, work at solving puzzles quite different from any they otherwise would – puzzles like, ‘Where are the early signs of the rabid anti-Americanism of this film’s ultimate message?’, to give one kind of extreme example.
That brings to an end my discussion of the third of the three broad kinds of value that I see fiction reviews as undermining in the works of fiction they concern. Now, nearing the end of this part of the essay, I just want to note that some research suggests that undermining the abilities of works of fiction to have some of these kinds of value for us may directly result in their abilities to have other kinds of value for us also being undermined. For instance, it seems that when we’re surprised, a) our emotions, whatever they then happen to be, are intensified and b) we’re more able to learn (Barto et al, 2013). Perhaps then, if, taking in a work of fiction, we’re not as surprised as we otherwise could be, we also won’t be learning from the work as much as we otherwise could be, and our emotional relationships with the characters won’t be as strong as they otherwise could be. Meanwhile, Mar et al survey an experiment suggesting that the extent to which people’s personalities are changed by works of fiction is proportional to the extent to which they are emotionally moved by those works (2011: 829-30). And that seems very plausible, especially in the light of Currie’s wonderful account of how we can get moral insight from works of fiction (1995). Starting out on this project, I was perfectly willing to concede that there are many kinds of value that works of fiction can have for people that they aren’t going to be any less able to have for them as a consequence of those people receiving accounts of the contents of those works of fiction before taking them in. I’m far less sure about that now. You can imagine someone deciding to read a novel set in Tudor England purely because he’s interested in Tutor England. You might think he doesn’t really stand to lose from reading a review. It’s not about the plot, or the surprises or the suspense for him. It’s not about formulating an independent interpretation or being very intellectually stimulated or anything like that. It’s not about having any kind of relationship with the characters. It’s just about what he can learn of Tutor England. (This is fairly hypothetical, of course – why wouldn’t he want these other things, to some degree, if they’re on offer? Still, he might sacrifice them somewhat, in order to gain something, some assurance that the book is worth the read or some stoking of his excitement, from a review.) But this research is suggesting that, in consciously or unconsciously sacrificing some of the surprise value the novel would have for him, he would also be undermining his ability to learn of Tudor England from it. Arguably also there are certain things about Tutor England that can be learnt through vicarious experience, but not otherwise, or at least learnt far more easily through vicarious experience than otherwise – if so, this Tudor England enthusiast’s ability to attain that knowledge would quite possibly be undermined by his reading a review and so having knowledge of the characters’ fates that the novel would have given him only as the characters themselves acquired it. Or take a far less obvious kind of value that a work of fiction could have for someone. Mar et al also report that:
‘Knobloch-Westerwick and Alter (2006) conducted a very clever experiment in which some participants were provoked by an experimenter who gave rude and negative feedback on a task, evoking feelings of anger and aggression. Some of these participants were also led to believe that they would be able to retaliate against this experimenter later on. When given the opportunity to read a number of articles in the intervening time, females from this group spent an increasing amount of time reading positive articles, ostensibly in an effort to dissipate their negative mood. Males, on the other hand, spent less and less time reading positive articles, presumably in an effort to maintain their negative mood in anticipation of the possibility for revenge. Thus, in this case, it appears that men selected media to enforce and maintain a negative mood (i.e., anger) whereas women used media much as Zillmann (1988) hypothesised, to alleviate or extinguish their negative feelings.’ (2011: 820)
Presumably works of fiction could play the role of articles in the experiment described here – I mean, I’ve read works of fiction that have made me angry, and even some that have made me angry about rude people generally (Patrick Hamilton’s novel Hangover Square comes to mind); I’ve also read many works of fiction that, either by encouraging my compassion or my disinterested contemplation or by just cheering me up considerably, have inclined me to be forgiving and not to be so bothered by recent experiences of rudeness. The point I want to make is that, if it’s at least true that our emotions tend to be intensified by surprise, and therefore that a state of affairs that we are unsurprised by would be unlikely to anger us as much as the same state of affairs would if it did surprise us, a review could certainly make a work of fiction less valuable as a sustainer of anger. Emotions and values are hardly separable, is maybe the basic point here.
Shaw clearly thinks that there’s some amount or there are some types of information about the contents of works of fiction that reviewers can productively and entirely harmlessly disclose, but he does nothing to establish this, and I find it difficult to imagine how any such thing could be established. One other kind of defence of reviews might centre on the claim that it’s simply worth it – all the evils I’ve been speaking of are, at least sometimes, worth our improved ability to judge which works of fiction to take in and which not to, and/or our improved understanding of the works as we take them in, and/or the stoking of our excitement, and/or our somewhat appeased pre-established appetite for the contents of the work… I do not deny that reviews can have these benefits for us; I turn to the first two in the next part of this essay, and argue that other things, harmless in comparison to reviews, can have these same benefits for us; the third and fourth, I’ll try and address briefly now. A friend, to whom I put some of the central ideas of this essay, wrote to me: ‘i have often also dreamt of approaching a film with a complete 'innocence', but my lack of will is debilitating... if there's a film i want to watch i will usually have devoured every bit of material [on it that’s] out there before i get to the cinema or click on it on netflix or something’. And I can certainly sympathise. Shaw also notes ‘the undeniable existence of what have been termed “spoiler fans”’, that is, ‘people who actively seek information about [for instance] the forthcoming events of a TV series and enjoy finding out the facts before they are actually broadcast’. Shaw offers a solution to the puzzle of spoiler fans:
‘I would argue, however, that although the information that such people seek is the same as that that spoilerphobes seek to avoid, the very fact that they want to obtain this information before watching the broadcast means that it doesn’t make sense to call any such information a spoiler – perhaps “scoop” would be a more accurate term. Thus those who buy TV magazines in order to find out months in advance what will happen to their favourite characters in soap operas are not really looking for spoilers; they simply can’t wait for the broadcast so they seek out scoops.’
But this solution seems to me mistaken, and Shaw guilty of failing to consider the possibility of people, without realising it, having experiences they’re yet to have deprived of value that those experiences would otherwise have had for them. I hope that the substance of this essay up to this point has served at the very least to illustrate that that possibility should not be ignored in this context. Whether the future losses of value I’ve attempted to describe are in some cases worth the stoking of the excitement and the slight appeasement of the pre-established appetite that spoiler fans are presumably seeking I cannot say with certainty, but I suspect that they aren’t, or only very rarely are. Maybe if the spoiler fan would, in any case, not have got anything much from the work… Anyway, I ceased to be a spoiler fan, or became far less of one, as a result of considering the many points outlined above, so perhaps other spoiler fans could be converted in this kind of way. Shaw also says that ‘spoilers can damage not only one’s experience of a work, but also one’s anticipation of that experience.’ And, to make a point in a sense more at home in the next section of this essay, there are other ways in which I can stoke my excitement before taking in a work. For example, if a new Coetzee book is coming out soon, I can read or re-read older works by him. One final response I’d have to spoiler fans would be to refer them to the literature on the Stanford marshmallow experiment, for example.
I’ll now expand on the second of what I called, in my introduction, my main claims – that, although fiction reviews can also enhance the abilities of works of fiction to have value for us, and can help us have in advance some idea of what value works of fiction might have for us, other things can fulfil these purposes equally well, and without the drawbacks of fiction reviews.
What do I mean when I say that fiction reviews can also enhance the abilities of works of fiction to have value for us?
Well, in the first place, works of fiction are sometimes difficult to understand and appreciate, and I have no doubt that reviews can and do help people overcome such difficulty. I earlier said: ‘Surely roughly in so far as we’re given an account of a work of fiction’s contents before taking it in, we will be less surprised by it than we otherwise would have been, and puzzle-solving and interpretative work will have effectively been done for us’. But, in fact, in some cases, some pre-established familiarity with a work of fiction’s contents may be necessary for us to be able to, as we’re taking it in, understand it enough to be receptive to its surprises, or indeed some of its puzzles, or opportunities it offers for interpretive creativity. For these kinds of reasons, if you attend a narrative ballet, you usually find a complete plot summary in the programme. Scholarly introductions to written works of fiction from cultures very different from our own might be another good example here. Relatedly, I wondered earlier whether, having read a review of a work of fiction in advance of taking the work in, my contemplation mightn’t be helpfully freed up in some sense – maybe, not feeling any need to work out the basics of the plot set-up, I could dedicate more thought to imagery, or something like that. It seems to me there must be something to these kinds of thoughts. Second readings can of course be very worthwhile. In any case, if these are ways in which fiction reviews can sometimes play a genuinely positive role in shaping our overall engagement with works of fiction, they are, as the ballet example I think brings home, not ways in which plain and simple plot summaries (such as those typically found in encyclopaedia entries on works of fiction), couldn’t play an at least equally positive role. What’s more, plot summaries, devoid of evaluative content , could serve these purposes with less risk – I’ve discussed how the evaluative accounts in fiction reviews can have the effect of biasing us against aspects of the works of fiction they concern (or in favour of aspects – still potentially a bad thing), and even the effect of concentrating our attention on weaknesses, or at least what strike the reviewer as weaknesses, of the works. (Incidentally, none of this is to say that it isn’t often a mistake on our part to simply assume we won’t be able to understand or appreciate much in a work of fiction without such help, or not to endure a largely confused, unappreciative first experience of a work of fiction before seeking out such help – getting a descriptive account of the contents of a work of fiction in advance of taking it in is probably never going to be without some cost. But again, I don’t want to be dogmatic here. We don’t have unlimited time on this Earth, after all.)
Also, I’m not out to deny that fiction reviews can contain very high quality analysis. They might not merely help us grasp the basics of what’s going on in a complicated work but also significantly enrich our understanding and appreciation of any work, far more than a simple plot summary could. Accepting the reasonableness of the concerns outlined in this essay, someone might say it’s best to read fiction reviews after taking in the fiction works they concern. But reading a review afterwards rather than before, we are, in an important sense, not reading it as a review. We are not reading it in order to help us better judge whether or not we should take in the fiction work – and, recall, the defining purpose of a fiction review is to help us better judge on that point. I think it’s true that what value of this kind there can be in a fiction review can’t be contingent on its being a fiction review; indeed, if any given fiction review were reworked as something other than a fiction review, the value in it of this kind might well be thereby enhanced – certainly it would be disencumbered. Basically I’d just encourage those who want to write about works of fiction to address their pieces to any who have already taken in the works they concern, whether it’s descriptive and evaluative accounts of the contents of those works they want to write or not.
Actually, I’ve explained at some length why fiction reviews can insidiously be very bad for their readers, but now I might productively say a few things about how they are also bad for their writers. The fiction reviewer’s defining end is to inform people’s decision of which works of fiction to take in and which to give a miss, and his means to this end are, equally definingly, the descriptive and evaluative accounts he gives of the contents of works of fiction. That the descriptive and evaluative accounts are merely means to this very particular end is important. The fiction reviewer does not engage in purely free-ranging discussions about the contents of works of fiction. Far from it. In deference to this very particular end, he recognises himself as having certain positive obligations: to give an overview of the work, to describe its basic ideas or basic concerns, to identify the likely intended audience/market, to note significant strengths and weaknesses, etc. Of course he also has some understanding of what it is people take in works of fiction for, and so recognises various additional negative obligations: not to give away details of any big late twists, of course, but also not to go into too much depth on any part or aspect of the work. If this understanding of his were adequate, the reviewer would not be able to understand his mission to entail any of the above-listed positive obligations and, in his published pieces, would ordinarily not think it right to say much more than ‘watch this film’ or ‘don’t bother with this book’. Roughly to the extent the fiction reviewer understands what it is people take in works of fiction for, he will, assuming he’s a kind person, feel himself constrained by negative obligations; and even if he does have a typically inadequate understanding of what it is people take in works of fiction for, he will still have to recognise himself as quite significantly constrained by those basic negative obligations already mentioned and by many positive obligations. (I’ve spoken of what obligations the reviewer recognises or understands to be entailed by his end of informing people’s decisions of which works of fiction to take in. In practice, fiction reviewers are probably, for the most part, following established convention and editorial guidelines, without contemplating particularly deeply the end of their endeavours and the ideal means of attaining it. In practice also, fiction reviewers do, as I said in my intro, normally more-or-less vaguely understand themselves as having other ends, besides informing people’s decisions of which works of fiction to take in, but they do all – necessarily, to qualify as fiction reviewers in my sense – have this as an end, and not one that can be trumped by any other. Thus these obligations or constraints are integral to fiction reviewing, this logically indefensible enterprise…)
Now, assuming the fiction reviewer is in the business because he is sincerely interested in fiction (or even, more specifically, what makes fiction good or bad), why would he want to accept these obligations/constraints? It seems to me obvious that, as a general rule, the less you can reveal details of what it is you’re discussing, the less worthwhile that discussion of yours can be. Similarly, if the interesting, original comments I have to make on Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus all concern the confusion of its moral scheme, why should I go out of my way to summarise its general plot or assess the quality of Lily Cole’s performance?
What’s more, because of fiction reviewers’ basic negative obligations, i.e. their obligation not to give away the ending and their obligation not to describe any part or aspect of the work in great detail, their assessments, at least as they appear in writing, are normally and often necessarily pretty unsubstantiated. (This is why, to return briefly to a claim I made in my introduction, Evaluative fiction reviewing is enfeebled in so far as it’s made to double as Informative fiction reviewing.) Fiction reviews, even by professionals working for respected publications, tend not to offer much compelling analysis, and so tend to come across, to me at least, as strangely glib or unreasoned, sometimes even knee-jerk; implicitly, we, the readers, are to value their conclusions not essentially because of evidence they adduce in support of those conclusions but because fiction reviewers are themselves members of a kind of elite – fiction audiences listen, and are expected to listen, to fiction reviewers more, if only slightly more, in the way patients listen to doctors than in the way juries listen to barristers. Of course fictin audiences do often disagree with fiction reviewers – patients do, not so irregularly, disagree with doctors – but the general tendency to revere and defer to popular and expert opinion in the culture of fiction really worries me. I look in horror at, for instance, Sight & Sound’s Decennial Polls. (I’ll leave aside such questions as whether the project of the poll makes sense, is achievable and is worthwhile.) How is there such widespread agreement? Yes, these (well, most of these) are incredible films, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of other films that are, in their own ways, similarly incredible, if not more so. Why then are those polled so consistently going for these few? And the conservatism! You must know, or at least recall at some point hearing, a statistic along the lines of: there have been more films made in the last ten years than there were made in the previous hundred. And representatives of more cultures and demographics are able to take part in filmmaking these days too. And filmmakers now have easily unprecedented resources, including an unprecedented number and variety of great films to learn from. So, again, how is it so consistently judged that all the top ten or twenty (or however many it is) greatest films ever made came out more than 30 years ago. (It’s not a poll of the most influential films ever made. If it were, it would certainly have to look very different. ) Surely, it’s just reverence of established opinion! Alexander Huls, in The Atlantic, defended the poll, saying:
‘[…] the real gauge of greatness is the tried-and-true test of time. A real classic can't just seem timeless. It must show itself to be. There are many movies that are substantial enough to resonate a few years past their release, maybe even a decade, before they lose something and vanish from the forefront of film appreciators' minds. And there are some films that don't become acknowledged masterpieces till years later. A true classic reveals itself when it survives 20, 30, or 40 years and still manages to resonate deeper than most other films.’
Sure, time to think about a film will help me better judge it, and the more films I watch the more films I’ll have to measure any one of the films I’ve watched up against, but I suspect that if films fade from our minds over 20 or 30 or 40 years, it’s normally less because of qualities the films do or don’t have than because of the courses our lives happen to take. True, the larger the number of people who see any given film in the first place, the less we have to fear that it will be forgotten simply because of the courses people’s lives happen to take, but a) many great films do, for reasons entirely unrelated to their quality, not get seen by many people in the first place, and b) social history takes a certain course, and we’re all, to greater or lesser extents, dragged along, at the same time as our own lives are constitutive of this course. For these same reasons, if a film starts to first get some attention and renown decades after its initial release, that could easily be because it’s become relevant/topical or – sheer luck being a crucial factor – a few more people have at last seen it. I don’t really understand the idea of perspective as Huls invokes it here. I do however observe that there is no mention in this passage or elsewhere in his article of any possibility of engaging in reasoned discussion or analysis to ascertain the quality of films. Rather, there is just a kind of faith in the collective effort of film appreciators’ to, in time, accurately sense the quality of films, apparently in some essentially mystical way. Where is the argument according to which, for instance, Apocalypse Now is better than, for instance, The White Ribbon? I want to examine that argument, but I fear there aren’t many film reviewers who would have the courage or, to be frank, the expertise to make it, who wouldn’t, if asked to do so, quickly resort to some hypocrisy, an insistence on the fundamental subjectivity of aesthetic judgments or a more or less brazen appeal to some incarnation of popular opinion, for film reviewers are, it seems to me, more in the business of stating verdicts than stating cases. On this basis we can even speculate that fiction reviewing influences negatively people’s habits of thinking about, assessing, analysing fiction – this is the template, these are the norms, of the only kind of formal discussion of fiction most people regularly come across.
Even the word though. ‘Review’. Re-view. To view again. The original idea, I’d guess, was of a closer, more analytical, retrospective look to follow the initial flow of impressions. It might be interesting to examine the whole history of reviewing, of writing under that label, and see how the set of conventions that now define it – or, rather, how the different sets of conventions that now define the various, quite different types of writing that now appear under that label – came to do so. In any case, I can imagine, in an ideal world, writers noting at the end of their re-views the works of fiction that they recommend their readers take in in the coming week and that they will concentrate on in their next re-views.
Recommendation does seem to me something of tremendous importance. You might think that, if I now don’t read reviews (or watch trailers or read blurbs normally ), my choice of what works of fiction to take in must now be pretty uninformed and therefore often pretty poor. But I don’t think it is. The fact is that to have a pretty good idea of whether or not a work of fiction is worth taking in, you need do no more than note the opinions of those (groups and individuals) whose opinions on such matters you’ve learnt to hold in high regard and who do have some experience of, or some relevant connection to, the work. In other words, you need do no more than gauge recommendations. Recommendations are multiform. The names attached to works of fiction – directors, actors, producers, translators, editors, introduction writers, publishers and production companies – are recommendations. (Consequently, a work can arguably be recommended to you before anyone has experienced it, or at least experienced it in its finished form.) ‘Greatest Ever’ or end-of-year ‘Best of’ lists contain recommendations, obviously. Awards and nominations are recommendations. As are festival selections. Indeed, of such things, recommendation seems to me, in the end, also the most important social function . Not only intended recommendations, but also approving or sometimes even just interested references are recommendations. Legacies – linguistic, social, cultural, artistic, personal – can be recommendations, and necessarily are to anyone interested in understanding the language, society, culture, art or person in question. And recommendations can be graded not only according to who or what made them, but according to the passion and regularity with which they have been made, and they can be sought out as easily as received, or more so.
And, also worth noting here, recommendations from and to people we know personally can be additionally valuable to us, in that they, and any discussions that result from them, can feed productively into our relationships with those people. In the first place, if people draw our attention to wonderful works of fiction we might otherwise have missed, we’ll of course develop a sense of gratitude and a desire to reciprocate, and potentially in ways other than by recommending works of fiction to them. As will they us. Quite simply, a good recommendation can reasonably be thought of as a kind of gift. Then also we can get insight into people from taking in works of fiction they recommend, and we can normally do so even more from discussing those works of fiction with them. Thinking about it, I doubt that I could be understood very well by someone who had not read certain works of fiction that are important to me, and I’m surely far from unique in this respect. Will Self speaks of ‘those seminal reading experiences that, like first loves, are incised on the brain and the heart’. Quite so. And then there are more intricate ways in which recommendations to and from personal acquaintances can feed productively into relations with them: such recommendations can, for instance, be instrumental to the development of the kinds of personalised vocabularies and fields of reference that often help distinguish/adorn close personal relationships; the themes and traditions of such relationships are apt to derive partly or wholly from them, or just be elaborated and embellished by them. A shared taking in of a work of fiction is a kind of shared experience, as, more obviously, is any shared discussion about it. And the experiences constituted by the taking in of great works of fiction are of course – as said – easily memorable, even formative ones. I think some relationships of mine have more-or-less been built on the mutual making of reading and viewing suggestions, and resulting discussions, though those relationships have matured to encompass much more – indeed the nature of the recommendation-based discussions has been, and probably to some extent had to be, conducive to their maturing in this way. It strikes me that you could even have a discussion or debate largely through – that is, made up of – such recommendations. Indeed, it could be an extraordinarily good discussion or debate, given the capacity that great works of fiction have to show us things in very affecting, humanly detailed ways. For this reason, it seems very likely also that, if two or more people take in the same work of fiction, this will tend to have a harmonising effect on their worldviews and their moral/political dispositions, an especially important function if the people in question have to live and work together. Considering these kinds of dynamics from a different angle, I can imagine a widow, after sufficient time had passed, setting about reading or re-reading her late husband’s favourite novels. Taking the fiction recommendations of someone might be a good way of maintaining some connection to them, even/especially when other ways of doing so have become difficult or impossible. Finally, if we repeatedly recommend works of fiction to different people, and some of those people do take in those works of fiction, we will probably, as time goes by, have the pleasure of having those works of fiction (that we thought good enough to recommend, at the very least) being repeatedly brought back into our lives, in discussions with these people who’ve taken them in. And each time they are brought back into our lives, we’ll be made, to some extent, to see them in a different light, that of the particular intelligence of the person who’s taken our recommendation. And we can, of course, give others the same pleasure. We may even have the pleasure of seeing the influence of works of fiction we value at work in the lives of people we value. And again, we can give others the same pleasure. Just think for a moment how happy it would make you if you got an email from a friend, telling you that they’ve read a book you recommended and it really helped them, or thrilled them, or gave them great joy, or spurred their interest in its subject. Think how happy you can make a friend by writing to them, telling them these kinds of things. Or even someone who’s not a particularly close friend – think of the surprised happiness (‘I mean enough to you for you to actually read a book I recommended?’). And having at last read something suggested by an old friend can be a particularly good excuse for getting back in touch with them.
There are also benefits of taking recommendations from people we know personally that accrue to us quite independently, and not through improvements in our relationships with those people. For instance, probably we are better placed to appreciate a work of fiction simply by merit of knowing very well someone who appreciates it a lot – our knowledge of that someone will provide a kind of key to it: knowing their dispositions, their interests and ways of thinking, we’ll have some idea of dispositions/interests/ways of thinking that can be involved in and so enable an appreciation of it. And even if that doesn’t get us anywhere, we’ve then got someone to turn to discuss it, someone who knows us well enough, hopefully, to have some idea of why we might have struggled with it. And one final thought here: there’s surely a mnemonic value to having this social element to our consumption of fiction – I mean we’re surely, all other things being equal, far more likely to remember the contents of a book if we discuss it at some length, and perhaps on multiple occasions, with someone we’re close to who’s sufficiently into it to recommend it, or even if, as we were reading it, we were thinking a lot about how it relates to this person, their characteristics, their problems, their beliefs and tastes.
For all these reasons, I tend to prioritise the recommendations of close friends over those made not to me personally but to people in general by the fiction writers and philosophers I admire most. Of course the former can also be far more customised, so to speak.
Against all this, it is, I think, important to sometimes take in works of fiction that no one has even nearly recommended to us, essentially to avoid the risk of recommendational echo chambers. In doing this, we are of course doing something for the recommendational circles in which we move as much for ourselves individually. I mentioned that taking in the same works of fiction as others can have a harmonising effect on our worldviews, but the harmonisation of worldviews is itself something that we need to be a bit wary of, for reasons that Mill in On Liberty starts a good discussion on. And in fact, making this kind of effort is perhaps especially important now, in the age of online taste- and ideology-based communities and predictive algorithms.
(Obviously, much of what I’ve said in asserting the importance of recommendation when it comes to deciding what works of fiction to take in could equally be said in asserting the importance of recommendation in other areas of life. To be clear, I think that one of the areas of life in which recommendations are most vital is in our navigation through the vast number of fiction works there are out there, and that is, in part, precisely because of what a vast number there are out there, and, in part, because of the nature of fiction, the nature of the kinds of value it can have for us, and the threat, described above, that other potential navigational aids pose to its having those kinds of value for us.)
Of course people often want not simply to take in some fiction but to take in some fiction that will influence their mood in a certain way (Mar et al, 2011: 819) – cheer them up, for instance. A system of pure recommendation can’t itself accommodate this, but look, I can reasonably assume that, for instance, Northanger Abbey would influence my mood in roughly the same sorts of ways as other Austen novels I’ve read have, without knowing for certain anything in particular about its contents. And there is of course a great deal of information, often vague, about the contents of particular works of fiction that is liberally dispersed throughout all kinds of social discourse, and a great deal that is packaged in the ways we refer to and organise works of fiction – by author, as mentioned, but also by historical period and by school or tradition, by nationality or culture of origin, by age-appropriateness, and by genre, of course. Shaw observes that ‘a hard-line anti-spoilerer would argue that even calling some of Shakespeare’s plays tragedies is to spoil them to some extent’. And what about titles? They can give away even more, sometimes. Death of a Salesman, anyone? A Man Escaped? And of course, recommendations can also be spoilers, in a sense. So, for instance, if a person recommends a film to me and I know enough about that person to value his recommendations, I’ll have some idea of what qualities he will have to have identified in the film in order for him to now see fit to recommend it to me in the way he does. I know, to take a personal example, that if a work of fiction is suggested to me by a certain grandfather, that work is likely to be dogmatically Christian in its apparent core message. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised to find works of fiction he’s recommended either gently, suggestively Christian or even apparently secular in this respect on enough occasions now not to be too certain, when about to take in another work of fiction he’s recommended, of the essentials of the worldview behind it, and therefore not to derive from the fact of his having recommended it a particularly potent spoiler. The unreliability of inferences from pure recommendations is their saving grace, and also, there is typically not a great deal that we can infer about a fiction work from the qualities of the recommendation(s) we’ve found or been given for it. Typically there’s not a great deal we can infer from genres or titles or the kinds of references we find dotted about popular culture either, at least if the works are of a high quality, i.e. not generic (in the derogatory sense of that word). I have identified myself as at least a harder-line anti-spoilerer than Shaw is, but I am not generally concerned about this stuff. No doubt sometimes we approach works of fiction with regrettably large amounts of information on them gleaned from popular culture and the way they’re presented to us, but such information is normally nothing compared to the detailed accounts in fiction reviews. Still, it’s normally enough, I think, to guide mood-managerially motivated choices of what works of fiction to take in.
Also, many of the ways in which we refer to and organise works of fiction can be played with creatively by fiction writers. I wrote earlier of how knowledge differentials are vital in determining the nature of our emotional relationships with characters and the focus of the puzzle-solving activities we engage in; of course things like titles and specified genres and authors’ reputations can often have these kinds of influence too. Take titles, for example. Titles, well-used, can be integral parts of fiction works, I think. A classic example is Bicycle Thieves. For most of the film, there is only one bicycle thief, the illusive antagonist – the original Italian title Ladri di biciclette has even been mistranslated as The Bicycle Thief in the US. In the final scene, the protagonist himself steals a bicycle, so that in the end there are, in the film, two bicycle thieves, strictly speaking. This doesn’t itself make the US title a bad one. Indeed, Bob Graham defended the mistranslation in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, saying, ‘Purists have criticized the English title of the film as a poor translation of the Italian "ladri," which is plural. What blindness! "The Bicycle Thief" is one of those wonderful titles whose power does not sink in until the film is over.’ What Graham presumably likes about the title “The Bicycle Thief” is that it gives us, once the film is over, the surprise of realising that it was (also or exclusively) describing the hero all along, and thus a nudge to think again about our appraisals of both hero and villain. Illustrating nicely a point I made earlier, he of course can’t spell this out or make the argument more fully because, to do either of these things, he’d have to reveal the big late twist and possibly also describe parts of the film in quite some detail – he’d have to, in other words, break the inherent rules of fiction reviewing. We have to suppose that he at least did these things in the private of his own mind before or while he was writing the review. If he did though, he didn’t do so well enough, it seems to me. Because the title “Bicycle Thieves” also has some ‘power’ – in fact it has more, by my reckoning, and apparently that of the film’s creators. The title “Bicycle Thieves” doesn’t really take anything away from the surprise at the end or the nudge to think again about appraisals of both hero and villain. If American viewers have thought, ‘so he’s the bicycle thief of the title (too)!’, viewers elsewhere have thought, ‘so he’s one of the bicycle thieves of the title!’ What “Bicycle Thieves” has over “The Bicycle Thief” is that it encourages the realisation that in the right circumstances all people are bicycle thieves. The film presents this incredible cross-section of post-WWII Roman society, as this one guy searches high and low for his stolen bicycle, becoming more and more desperate, and then, in the end, he (of all people!) steals a bicycle, so that he could almost have started the film again, just with somebody else, anybody else, as the hero, and he as the villain this time, and this could be repeated again and again, until everyone had had their turn as both the hero and the villain. This is the prism of the film. We see the people of Rome, a bunch of bicycle thieves, some active, many more, like the hero at the start of the film, latent. “The Bicycle Thief”, as a title, maybe even obstructs this realisation.
So yeah, I said film reviews can be useful to people in helping them have in advance some idea of what value works of fiction might have for them – but other things can also help people in this way, and without, at the same time, perversely, divesting the works of significant amounts of value they could have for people.
There is a question of responsibility that has perhaps been conspicuously left to one side in this essay. I say fiction reviews are a bad thing. Well, who do I hold responsible for doing something about them? And what precisely do I want done about them? Of course to answer these questions thoroughly, I’d need to spend a while now engaging in quite a different sort of philosophy. I hope though that after all I’ve said already, I can uncontroversially add – or in fact repeat, more-or-less – that I advise those who want to take in works of fiction not to read reviews of them first, and I advise those who want to write about works of fiction not to do so for people who haven’t already taken those works in, and, as for editors who don’t want to lose the readers their publications’ reviews currently attract, I’d advise them to explain the forthcoming change to readers and then start publishing the kinds of re-views described earlier, along with the also-mentioned recommendational addendums. I’d be surprised if there were any significant dips in sales.
-- Acknowledgements --
My thanks to Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, who was kind enough to give me some feedback on two pieces of film criticism I sent to him - an email I wrote in response to his feedback was, in effect, the first version of this essay. Also to Felix Bazalgette, a discussion with whom, quoted in the text, was crucial to helping me work out some of the basic thoughts I described in that email. To Sebastian Gardner, who formally supervised me writing this essay in the run up to submitting it as coursework on the Philosophy MA programme at UCL – while timing failures of my own prevented him from doing anything like as much to help as he no doubt could have, he did give me some very important pointers. To David Shaw, for, upon request, immediately sending me his piece ‘The Ethics of Spoilers’ – I was having a bad day that day, which he made significantly better. To Seio Saks, for helping me better understand Pan’s Labyrinth, as discussed in the text. To the Philosophy in the Mountains group, for providing feedback on an early draft. And last but certainly not least, to Natalie Ogonek for significant help with research and proofreading.
-- Bibliography --
Barto, A., Mirolli, M., & Baldassarre, G. (2013). Novelty or Surprise? Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 907. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00907
Bartsch, A., Mangold, R., Viehoff, R., & Vorderer, P. (2006). Emotional gratifications during media use – An integrative approach. Communications, 31 (3), 261-278.
Batson, C. Daniel (2009). These things called empathy: eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. MIT Press. 3-15
Beardsley, M. C., & Wimsatt, W. K. The Intentional Fallacy. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1946): 468-488
Carroll, Noël (2011). On some affective relations between audiences and the characters in popular fictions. In Amy Coplan & Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 162-184.
Currie, Gregory (1995). The Moral Psychology of Fiction. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (2):250-259.
Currie, Gregory (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge University Press.
Currie, Gregory (2012). Literature and Truthfulness. In James Maclaurin (ed.), Rationis Defensor. 23-31.
Dworkin, Ronald (1985). A Matter of Principle. Oxford University Press.
Feagin, Susan L. (1984). Some Pleasures of Imagination. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43 (1): 41-55.
Hamsun, Knut. Hunger (1890). Afterward by Paul Auster (1970). Canongate, 2011.
Mar, Raymond A., Oatley, Keith, Djikic, Maja, & Mullin, Justin (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition and Emotion 25 (5):818-833.
Nussbaum, Martha (1985). "Finely aware and richly responsible": Moral attention and the moral task of literature. Journal of Philosophy 82 (10):516-529.
Shaw, David (2011). The Ethics of Spoilers. Ethical Space 8 (1).
Smuts, Aaron (2009). The Paradox of Suspense. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2009 (6.1):1-15.
Renninger, Leeann, & Luna, Tania (2015). Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. TarcherPerigee.
Sheppard, Anne (1987). Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Oxford University Press.
Wollheim, Richard. Art and Its Objects (1968). Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Works of Fiction
In order of appearance:
J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan (1904), or any adaptations
Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (1890), translated by Sverre Lyngstad, with an afterward by Paul Auster
Guillermo del Toro’s films Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Notes from Underground (1864), translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, also introduced by the former
Danny Boyle and Simon Beafoy’s film Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Asghar Farhadi and Azad Jafarian’s film About Elly (2009)
Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown’s film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Vittorio de Sica and co.’s film Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Corliss, Mary & Corliss, Richard. ‘Pan / Sexual’. Time. May 27, 2006. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1620701,00.html
Graham, Bob. ‘Bicycle Thief Rides Off With Viewers Hearts’. San Francisco Chronicle. November 6, 1998. https://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Bicycle-Thief-Rides-Off-With-Viewers-Hearts-2980162.php