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A Seat at the Table: or, Towards a Theory of the Spoiler

Dining Under DifficultiesOn Monday, one of us “spoiled” something.  Here’s her statement of the case, for arbitration:

I put the big event of an episode of Game of Thrones in the title—and lead image, significantly—of a recap essay I wrote. The show had aired, so–and this is what’s interesting–it did not even occur to me that I’d be spoiling anything.  And I am not an innocent! I know all about Vulture’s rules and I remember Sybil’s death! But really it did not even occur to me that anyone who cared would not be on top of that shit.  Seriously, I put the big news in the headline because I figured it was all anyone would be talking about. I made people angry by telling the news too early, but I was mostly worried that I would inevitably be too late.—Sarah M.

The controversy about this sort of move—which is to say, publicly discussing a key event from a popular television show, in the recent aftermath of that show’s airing—is interesting to us.  Even Sarah M., who remains generally unrepentant, definitely agrees that the anger she provoked speaks to some kind of readerly (or, we guess, viewerly, but—same diff for us) pleasure that’s been “spoiled,” and even if she’s not going to change her title she’s totally down with treating that pleasure seriously.

It’s a funny idea, right?  The metaphor implies that a story’s secret is some kind of food—a fruit you want to eat, and all of a sudden it’s been spoiled, made no longer delicious or even made foul. People who spoil are like assholes running around the table, pouring Tabasco on your raspberries. But then maybe you like Tabasco on your raspberries? People are often disparaged for caring about the spoiling of their stories, as though they had too-simple pleasures or their palates were too immature—you should still like the fruit, this logic implies, even after the sugar of the secret is gone.

We Sarahs teach literature, and we totally agree that plot is not the only pleasure.  But it is a big fucking pleasure!  We are not interested in disparaging it, even if we are not always worried about it ourselves. And we’re not interested here in developing a set of rules per se. Instead, we’re interested in what the idea of “the spoiler” tells us about how people, in this modern age, consume stories.

The Feed
The Feed

Most particularly, we’re interested in how people manage their appetites when they’re eating stories together. Which is, obviously, where social media comes in. If a plot can be spoiled like a piece of fruit, social media—and more generally the feed—should be understood as a table (or trough, depending on your level of cynicism) around which we all gather to chow down and chat. When it comes to spoilers, some argue that if you don’t want to know what happened on a show last night, just stay off the internet.

As if!

What’s been most interesting about this particular GoT spoiler for Sarah B. is that it has made manifest a sort of reading practice that she’s developed precisely to manage the feed: how can I stay at the table even when I’m not hungry?

It turns out that it isn’t that hard, really, especially if you know pretty clearly what you don’t want to know; the internet-enabled skimming brain has developed for exactly this purpose: basically to help us avoid gagging and gout. So, just like at a dinner table, you pass on the things you don’t want to eat but keep your seat at the table. But if it’s ridiculous to propose that those who aren’t hungry just yet should avoid the dinner party, it’s just as naïve to assume that people with raging appetites should stay home.

And here, we might take our cue from the highly formalized nineteenth-century dinner party, with its ingrained rituals and social practices. The social media feed today offers a nearly unimaginable abundance to us (an abundance that we celebrate, oh how we celebrate it!); the nineteenth-century dinner party, too, offered a luxurious richness. And all the guests recognized that the richness must be managed. The hostess nods her head and everyone turns to their left at the same time.

Oh, that it were that easy!: people who watched look to the left, fake fans who didn’t [zing!—Sarah M.] to the right.  Our current dinner party has a million forks, and there’s actually a lot of disagreement about when to use which.

Let’s take this metaphor a little further.  Some foods, we all agree, must be served hot.  For instance, news.  It is impossible to spoil news—instead, we break it, like a crisp loaf of bread—because if it’s not hot, it’s no longer news. This is true, too, for stories that take the form of news—sports, say, or reality TV.

Maybe another way to play this out is that the news is like a shot of tequila, and obviously we should drink ours at the same time.  Lick, shoot, suck: we take the news quick, and we take it together.


But what about narrative TV, where this began? Sarah M.’s account above illustrates that she had entered a headspace where Game of Thrones had become the news.  It had to be served hot, or its crust was going to get all weird and soggy and—it’s worth saying—spoiled.  If she was totally making a category mistake, treating the fine vintage like tequila, and violating some key rules of the table [WHICH SHE WAS!—Sarah B.] she was also in a space where stories become absolutely the most delicious, because they seem real. And there are a lot of people at the table who want to eat stories that way.  You can ask these people to wait until everybody’s served, and maybe they should listen to you [THEY SHOULD!—Sarah B], but it’s worth remembering that what they’ll be eating at that point is not really what they were hungry for.

So it seems there are two kinds of appetites, two kinds of pleasures, that our table manners must accommodate. We want to make room for people to eat their in a leisurely way, to eat it cold, or nine days old like some kind of narrative pease porridge.  But the flip side is that stories aren’t just personal pan pizzas. And if it’s reasonable to expect some graciousness, some accommodation as you stash your little acorn stories away for the winter, it’s worth realizing that not every one’s metabolism works that way.  If you want a seat at the table, you’ve got to realize that not everyone has the same appetite as you.

And here’s the rub, and we’re going to going back to Game of Thrones to explain it: banquets in King’s Landing have one set of rules, feasts among the Dothraki another.

Purple Wedding


dothraki wedding

If fans have learned anything watching this show, it’s that neither is necessarily code of honor is categorically better–neither more safe, nor more nourishing. And there is just no way for the pleasures of each to coexist.  If Danny’s horde ever shows up in King’s Landing, everyone is just going to have to get a little bit less of what they want, table manners-wise.

Which is all to say that the pleasures of the feed can and should multiply one’s experience of story and plot (let’s chow down people!) but that this proliferation is only going to work if we all make some compromises (knife and fork please, barbarian horde!). And because one person’s spoiler is another’s umami, there’s very little chance that we’ll all agree on what counts as a spoiler is; so instead let’s focus on the rules and rituals that help us, each idiosyncratically, navigate modernity. By which we mean, NEVER IN A HEADLINE, MESLE. (–that’s Sarah B., unable to resist one last jab).

Sarah B.  and Sarah M.

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  1. Ahem, what if other people ate, years ago, a meal of Auroch Stew with fig jam and, though they’re not the biggest fan of Auroch Stew and not sure what they think of it all going forward for two or three (?) more books I mean uh stews with fig jam, they nevertheless liked to deny others close to them the narrative spoils of what Auroch Stew is like until that other person had reached the same narrative stew point, and then those years of stewage were ruined by some random imp coming in and kicking the stew bowl over. And the fig jam! Asking for a friend.


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