Reviews: To spoil, or not to spoil

Cover image I was talking to a friend recently about the novels we were reading. Hers was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which you may know is longlisted for this year’s Man Booker. I knew that there was a twist in it both from Twitter and mentions in the trade press but not having read it yet myself I didn’t know what it was – I tend to avoid reviews until after I’ve read the book which may seem strange to you but it works for me. Even if I had read it I would never have dreamt of revealing said twist which seems to be a crucial part of the book so I was amazed when she told me that she’d read a review in the national press which had spelled the whole thing out. This seems downright rude – an open and shut case of bad reviewing – but it got me thinking: what makes a good review? It seems to me that the bare bones of the book should be outlined followed by a critique picking out particularly impressive points and those that weren’t, all wrapped up in a little context where it’s relevant. I’m not a fan of long reviews but I know some people like them. What do you think makes a good review? Do you like to see quotations? How interested are you in the author? Do you like comparisons to similar novels? How about plot, particularly tricky for crime novels?  And what about those spoilers – just how far should a reviewer go?

29 thoughts on “Reviews: To spoil, or not to spoil”

  1. A post that raises a lot of v interesting questions! Like you , I’m not one for long reviews either ….nor do I like plot being regurgitated . I prefer some salient points to be highlighted whether that be style , characterisation or whatever . And spoilers are a total no no ! I read the same review as your friend ( it was in The Guardian) before I read the book too !!!!

  2. I read that ‘guilty as charged’ review and that has put me off reading the book – for the time being at least. I do try not to give away too much of the plot when reviewing a book – perhaps just enough of the set-up and problem to incite someone to want to know more. But otherwise it’s just repeating the blurb on the back of the book or the brief summary on publishers’ websites or Amazon or Goodreads.
    Sometimes I like long reviews. I was an English Lit student, so I have a high tolerance for long and sometimes spurious analyses or interpretations (perhaps because I like to disagree with them). But, above all, I want an honest opinion: this is what I liked about the book, this is what didn’t work for me, any relevant background information (sometimes it helps to know a little about the author, especially with translated fiction).

    1. That’s a good point about translated authors, Marina. I like to include a short synopsis when reviewing but nothing very detailed, and of course honesty is important. My policy is not to review books that I wouldn’t recommend to a friend.

  3. I never spoil anything and if I do, I write something like “contains little spoilers” and make the text red so that no readers get their reading experience frustrated by me. I think it is because I read crime fiction that I hate spoilers. And about quotations, sometimes I do, but because they can be applied to everyday life or are phylosophical. Nothing that gives away anything important on the book.

    1. I think reviewing crime novels must be the hardest as regards spoilers, Elena, but advance notice when they’re unavoidable seems to be the best policy.

  4. Really interesting question, Susan. I think I read the same review and was also surprised by the spoiler but it did also make me want to read the novel. As a novice reviewer, I’m learning as I go along, but what’s interesting for me is to identify the things in the novel that I connected to personally and also any lessons I can take into my own writing. I also like to quote from the novel itself but set out in a way that readers can easily skip it if they wish to. So far, my readers don’t seem to mind. Yet as a consumer of reviews, I prefer those that are shorter than many of mine tend to be!
    I certainly try to avoid spoilers but have found, on occasion, that it’s tricky to communicate my enthusiasm for a particular work without giving something away. Tricky, but not necessarily impossible. Liz Jensen, in her review in the Guardian, says “there’s no way of reviewing this novel without disclosing …”. I suppose I’ll find out whether I agree with her if and when I come to post my own review.

    1. Ah, you’re the first person so far who hasn’t minded the twist revelation, Anne. For me there are much more informal ways to deal with choosing what to reveal and what not in blogging than in a printed review – it’s possible to simply say there’s a twist but I’m not going to ruin it for you. I’d hate to think I’d ruined a book for some one by telling too much.

  5. I should open by saying that I am a book review blogger, so my views aren’t impartial.

    I like the way we do things, which is why we do them that way 🙂 We don’t rehash the story because that’s what the blurb’s for and we don’t want to include spoilers. If you start including spoilers then you take away the reason for the reader to read the book, they already know what’s going to happen.

    We have a short notecard review at the top, that then goes on Amazon and Goodreads. That gives people a summary of the main points, were the characters good? Did the plot work? Were there glaring grammatical issues? If people want to stop there then they still have a good idea about the book. They can however continue on and read the full review, which is usually somewhere from 300 – 600 words long. That gives an indepth review of the editorial content of the book with small things from the book to expand on the points. For example, we may say that a book is fast paced and character focused, which means that the setting isn’t particularly well fleshed out. That however works very well because the first person point of view and the personal nature of the overall plot arc distracts the reader from that potential issue.

    I like reviews which give an honest insight into the book, which tell me if the book is good from a technical standpoint without ruining the story. I want to know if its worth my time, without being told what happens beforehand.

    1. Oh, I like the idea of a tease, Vicki! Too much detail can be confusing, I think, and a bit tedious for the reader.

  6. Really interesting post! I read a review in a newspaper of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which also gave away the twist, but I didn’t realise it was one until I read some reviews on blogs which didn’t mention it. I think reading that review has meant my experience of the book will be changed, and I haven’t picked it up yet.

    I try really hard not to put spoilers in my own reviews because I think it can ruin someone else’s experience of a book. It can sometimes be difficult to express certain points, but I don’t think it’s impossible to write a review without spoiling elements of the plot.

    1. Thanks, Gemma. I dont think it’s impossible to avoid spoilers, either, although sometimes it does need a bit of thought and nifty footwork around the twist. I hope you haven’t been put off the Fowler entirely.

  7. I also read the review in the Guardian but thankfully had already read the book. I would say to people, please don’t let this put you off – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is definitely worth reading. As for twists, okay mention them if you have to (is it really necessary?) but there really isn’t any need to reveal them and certainly not specify which page they are on. I also agree with Vicki that too much detail in a review is offputting.

    1. Revealing the page number seems almost malicious! I think mention of a twist might pique a reader’s interest but I would avoid any detail.

  8. Interesting topic. If it’s a professional review I think all spoilers should be avoided, definitely. Blogging, however, I like a little bit of a spoiler, but a warning so when the blogger goes into deep detail I can skip to the end. I like a bit more detail in blog posts, especially if I’ve read the book as it allows for discussion. Although, perhaps that should depend on how long the book has been published for.

    1. You’re right about the difference between professional, particuarly printed, reviews, Alice. Bloggers’ posts can often develop into a conversation. I prefer to avoid spoilers, although as Elena pointed out, that’s harder with crime novels. I think we’re all duty bound to flag up any if we’re going to go into twisty plots in any detail.

  9. I do not want to know the plot in any detail – a vague indication will do for me. I read a review on Euro Crime recently and it was not actually a review but a rehash of the entire plot. I don’t think the reviewer actually had on opinion or anything to say so they just described the plot -at length!

  10. I’m in broad agreement with all the comments here. I’ve recently got to a point where I try not to mention there are twists in a story at all (apart from in the new Sarah Waters as it’s her trademark) because as a reader you start watching for them and then it can spoil the story, either because you’re alert and spot the clues or simply because you’re waiting for something to happen and one person’s twist is another person’s plot development.

    1. Good point, Naomi. There are times when it’s such a dramatic turning point that it’s hard to avoid signalling it but I think forewarned is forearmed.

  11. I find that with reviewers I don’t know or trust I tend simple to read the last paragraph where they will be summing up their thoughts, thus escaping too much detail. As far as spoilers are concerned I suppose sometimes is necessary but it should always be prefaced by a warning. For the most part a good reviewer can tell you enough about the book for you to make a judgment as to whether or not you want to read it without needing to go into that much detail.

    1. I use a similar tactic with print reviews, Alex. Mine involves reading the first and last paragraph. I know that you review lots of crime novels and I’m sure you could give the Guardian reviewer a few lessons on how to avoid spoilers.

  12. That book was spoilt for me when I read a review containing the twist stating this isn’t a spoiler it’s common knowledge… Well I didn’t know. I never put spoilers in my review even though it is then sometimes hard to fully explain what I liked (or didn’t like.) I’m not fussy about the length of a review, variety is good.

    1. Hmm.. it may have been common knowledge in the reviewer’s small world but not everyone’s. I’m sorry that the book’s been ruined for you, Cleo.

  13. Outside the trusted circle of reviewers whose style I know, I always scan down the paragraphs to get to the opinion before deciding whether to read the review. Spoilers aren’t necessary and not to mention them and yet to share something of the reading experience is one of the challenges and joys of reviewing.

    Sometimes there are small revelations in books that can make such pleasurable moments and I never reveal what they are, because I so want other readers to have that authentic experience themselves. A definite no no for me.

    1. Absolutely right about those’pleasurable moments’, Claire – the kind that make you smile in recognition of a small piece of the picture falling into place to reveal so much more.

  14. Pingback: Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in May 2016 | A Life In Books

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