Like Jennifer Richler, I have the most recent season of Downton Abbey tucked away on my DVR, though I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. But because of the internet and, especially Twitter, I already know what big plot turns I’ll find when I do sit down to enjoy it. Yes, spoilers are everywhere, and unless you live under a rock, it’s impossible to avoid them.
In this article Richler summarizes the research into exactly what spoilers spoil: “Studies show that anticipation and suspension of disbelief are both key ingredients in a pleasurable experience—and spoilers have a tendency to kill both.”
Russell Smith discusses a growing trend: “collecting bad early reviews of canonical books and putting them up as a kind of lesson in perseverance for aspiring writers.” He calls these reviews
interesting because of what they show us about changing standards of criticism. The New Statesman’s 1925 review of The Great Gatsby includes a whopper of a plot spoiler – it tells the whole story, right down to Gatsby’s climactic death. That suggests that these critics thought of themselves as essayists rather than as adjuncts of the bookselling trade.
Smith also looks at the same tendency to criticize literary classics in “a simultaneous contemporary re-evaluation of the classics going on at social reading sites like Goodreads. Here, too, one finds completely fresh and often angrily populist responses to works regarded as sacred to those in the literary business.”
I’ve always been vaguely uneasy when I hear people say they don’t like a particular novel because they couldn’t identify with any of the characters. I read literature to learn about aspects of life beyond the scope of my own experiences. I don’t expect to identify with characters. I expect to learn how they deal with the vagaries of their own lives.
In discussing this question, Evan Gottlieb first points out a basic difference between literature written in the 17th century and earlier, and literature written during and after the 18th century:
Prior to the 18th century, most authors in the Western tradition didn’t worry too much about whether their characters’ motivations seemed realistic to readers; their conceptions of character were largely static or symbolic, and their protagonists were exemplary or humorous as a result.
Only in works of the 18th century and later does the notion of character depth and development become a real issue. Therefore, the question of identifying with characters can only be applied to literature of that period. And here’s what Gottlieb has to say about this question:
And so we return to the question of whether fictional protagonists need to be relatable in order for readers to enjoy ourselves. If relatable merely means likable, then I think the answer is no: many classic fictional heroes and heroines, including Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, are not particularly likable. But if we expand our definition of “relatable” to mean psychologically plausible, then I think the answer is yes. We may not always like, or even approve of, fictional protagonists like selfish Catherine and obsessive Raskolnikov. But I think we have much to gain from learning to recognize reflections of ourselves in them, even — or perhaps especially — when we want to deny any resemblances. There are, of course, many other good reasons to read literature: for entertainment, for instruction, for inspiration. But from the 18th century onward, novels have shown themselves to be remarkably effective, durable technologies for encouraging us to extend our understanding to others, no matter how different or unlikable they might initially appear.
Here he seems to be getting at what has always made me uncomfortable about readers who want to identify with characters. I don’t need to identify with characters, but I do expect a good piece of literature to allow me to understand them. This is, perhaps, a small distinction, but I think it’s definitely one worth making.
For decades Willa Cather has been a peculiar enigma in 20th-century American literature: beloved by ordinary readers for vivid evocations of frontier life in novels like “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” but walled off from closer personal scrutiny by some of the tightest archival restrictions this side of J. D. Salinger.
Jennifer Schuessler has good news for fans of Willa Cather, who was thought to have destroyed most of her letters and ordered that any surviving ones never be published or quoted. Next month The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, “an anthology of 566 of the roughly 3,000 letters that turned out to have survived, scattered in some 75 archives,” will be published. These letters will provide scholars a chance to learn something about the life and personality of an author who wanted to be known solely by her books.