The endless debate about spoilers keeps us consuming boring art

Major spoilers for the book Mordew follow, but you should just read the article because spoilers don’t matter.

When I first picked up Alex Pheby’s 2020 fantasy novel Mordew, I naturally scanned the book jacket copy to see what I was in for. “God is dead, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew,” the blurb began. “That sounds like a cool idea for a book!” I thought. The narrative treated the characters’ discovery of the almighty’s corpse as a major reveal that explained many of the central mysteries of the strange city of Mordew, but the marketing copy tossed that major spoiler off without a second thought.

Mordew’s curious relationship to spoilers extends to the text itself. The end of the book is a glossary that runs over 100 pages in length that spells out almost every element of the story in exacting detail. Certain entries in the glossary even seem to spoil events that happen in future books in the series. The book has a short preface that points to the existence of the glossary, while also saying that, hey, the glossary is full of spoilers, but if you want them, they’re there. It reads, in part:

There is a school of thought that says that the reader and the hero of a story should only ever know the same things about the world.

In other words: Spoil yourself if you want. Don’t spoil yourself if you’d rather. Whatever your preference, Mordew has you covered. In many ways, it replicates, in miniature, the experience of so much pop culture in 2022.

Our current cultural conversation around spoilers remains frustratingly stuck in the same gear it has been for decades now: Spoilers are bad, and we should not have to hear them. That conversation reduces stories only to their most shocking plot points. Too often, it is only interested in binary questions around which characters live or die. I’ve argued at length in the past that modern spoilerphobia, while understandable, is fundamentally antithetical to the discussion of art, as well as a historical anomaly in terms of how we consume stories.

But increasingly, that spoilerphobia also seems at odds with how people actually consume movies and TV shows, which is to say on their couches, frantically Googling things on their phones to find out what’s true and what isn’t.

Mordew wants you to think about spoilers differently, from its marketing all the way to that glossary. And that mission is in keeping with the book’s larger Marxist themes. In what ways, the book implicitly asks, are spoilers a tool of the capitalist ruling class? What good is art when you burn away everything pleasurable about it in the name of raw information? And what does it even take to spoil something? How do you possibly ruin art?

Our conversation about spoilers is stuck in a rut, even as our relationship with spoilers evolves

From our current cultural obsession with true stories boiled down into too-long miniseries to our embrace of properties weighted down with lots and lots of “lore,” we can’t seem to escape a love-hate relationship without knowing what’s coming. We hate being spoiled; we want nothing more than to be spoiled. Just put “[x] ending explained” into the search bar on Google or YouTube and see what comes up. We keep telling stories that are fundamentally unspoilable, then acting as though, say, finding out that the ship sinks at the end of Titanic is somehow a spoiler. (This type of pop culture discussion is something the internet has exploited mercilessly.)

And yet, as mentioned, we keep having the same arguments about spoilers.

I find Mordew fascinating because it’s at the center of all of these intersections. Neither the book nor Pheby judges you for however you want to read it.

While the inclusion of the glossary was very much intentional on Pheby’s part, he told me that the spoilers in the book’s jacket copy were not part of a grand master plan. His British publisher, Galley Beggar Press, is a tiny company, and when they presented him with the marketing copy — which led with “God is dead” — he had precious little time to request changes, nor did he feel particularly qualified to make them himself. So he okayed the copy. When Tor, one of the world’s largest publishers of science fiction and fantasy, picked the book up for US distribution, the company didn’t change the book jacket blurb. The book has sold extremely well, and he thinks that big spoiler might be the reason why.

“It’s the kind of spoiler that makes people buy books,” he says. “Prior to its release, everyone was saying, ‘What a great concept! I’m going to definitely buy this book.’ Without that massive spoiler upfront. I’m not sure everybody would have been so attracted to the book.”

So how does Alex Pheby feel about spoilers? He finds conversations around spoilers in, say, Marvel movies overwrought.

“You don’t go into [Marvel movie] Eternals and think to yourself, ‘Okay, I bet all these people are going to die, and the world will end, and the last 45 minutes will be like Tarkovsky,’” Pheby said. “The same can be said of a roller coaster. You know you’re not going to die. That knowledge isn’t sufficient to put you off experiencing it.”

Pheby says he revisits the art he loves many times, and every time he re-reads The Lord of the Rings or re-watches the 1984 David Lynch film version of Dune, he suspends the part of himself that knows what’s coming in order to re-experience the pleasures of the art. What spoils an experience for him as a fan of fantasy and science fiction is when the story doesn’t seem consistent with the world it has built so far.

“That’s why people really disliked the last season of Game of Thrones,” he says. “It seemed to break the world. Daenerys didn’t seem to act like Daenerys, and consequently, the feeling of being in the world kind of evaporated. You suddenly felt like you weren’t in Game of Thrones world. You were in a kind of junior Game of Thrones world that a bunch of executives pulled together on the back of an envelope over lunch.”

As I neared the end of Mordew on my first read, I was surprised the book could possibly have a sequel coming out later this year. The book’s protagonist, Nathan, seemed to have things well in hand. So I looked up the second book and discovered that its promotional copy leads with an even bigger spoiler: Nathan dies at the end of book one. Whatever relationship Mordew had with spoilers, the sequel already seems to be escalating.

This brings me back to Mordew’s Marxism.


Spoilers and their relationship to relentless capitalist excess explained

The chosen story — a singular person is the only one who can save the world — is not a modern invention. After all, myths, legends, and religious texts are littered with such figures.

At its heart, the chosen story would seem to be about change. The evil Empire rules the galaxy, so Luke and the rest of the Rebels have to blow up the Death Star and defeat it. And yet the longer these stories endlessly replicate themselves, the more they become about the preservation of the status quo. In the Star Wars sequel trilogy, released between 2015 and 2019, Luke and his friends succeeded, but only briefly. Eventually, evil arose again, and it had to be defeated again. The best you can hope for is a world where not everything is evil all of the time, and any victories that might cement something good are illusory at best.

Even the Matrix films, the most forthrightly leftist mainstream chosen one story, include a healthy dollop of cynicism in their subtext about how the system will co-opt any revolutionary or rebellious movements to suit its own ends. Pheby drags that idea wholesale into the text in Mordew.

He was only ever their puppet, and they will throw him away if they wish.

The protagonist isn’t the point. The movement is.

“A class analysis of Nathan’s plight means that he will always fail. If we’re going to take a dialectics of materialism approach that we inherit from Hegel and Marx, the historical inevitability of these class-based systems is that they oppress the working classes,” Pheby said. “But there’s a longer-term historical inevitability that these systems fail because they oppress the working classes. They fail because they oppress Nathan. They create the conditions of their own overturning.”

It prepares us to see the world of the book as it is, not as we wish it would be. The use of the glossary also plays into the book’s overall point of view. Pheby wrote it from the specific perspective of a character who serves the ruling class. Therefore, the “spoilers” contained within it are things the rulers of Mordew want you to believe to be true.

But we already know how these stories work, is the thing? We know them all the way down in our bones. So why are we waiting for some authority figure to make something canon?

Just hit “play” on the next thing. It’ll be fine.

The work has little value beyond its ability to act as a conduit for story and information. Aesthetics are of secondary importance to what happens, and narrative is of secondary importance to data points masquerading as plot. As I wrote in 2019:The worst thing about spoiler paranoia, I think, is that it preferences plot above all else. …

Did you love the Oscar-winning sci-fi epic Dune?

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