I launched A Dribble of Ink with a review of Terry Brooks’ The Elves of Cintra (which you can find HERE), a review I am particularly proud of because, as far as I can tell, it was the first officially published review of one of this year’s biggest Fantasy releases. I was also proud of it because it was the first official review I had written as a blogger. I take pride in the fact that I put a lot of thought into my reviews, often taking extensive notes throughout my time reading the novel, and spend a fair amount of time gathering my thoughts before weaving them into a comprehensible review.

One area with which I take particular care is that of spoilers. I’m of the mind that they have absolutely no place in a review at all and write my reviews accordingly. This article was originally prompted by another review for Terry Brooks’ The Elves of Cintra written by Drew Bittner for popular online magazine SFRevu, which you can find HERE (but, if you haven’t yet read The Elves of Cintra, beware of heavy spoilers!).

This article isn’t directed towards anyone in particular, SFRevu is a terrific publication, but rather towards a particular subset of reviewers who seem to feel entitled to take the plot points of the novel (twists and all), abridge and paraphrase them, throw in a peppering of opinion and then call it a review.

As a reader, I feel that reviews of this nature serve little purpose for myself. I generally look to a review when I’m on the fence about reading a particular book, curious to see what other readers and critics thought of the novel and then judging, based on their experiences, whether the book will be worth my time. So why then would I want the reviewer to detail to me the events and plot points of the novel before I had ever read it? How is this in any way a critique and not just a summarization? I personally read novels for the enjoyment of the twists and turns of the plot, the development of the characters and the emotional impact that a story can have on me. A review such as the one written by Bittner essentially takes away a third of this equation and lessening the enjoyment I can find in the novel.

As someone who reviews novels myself, my problems with reviews such as this stems from my inability to comprehend the purposes behind spoiler-filled reviews. As I mentioned earlier, most readers look to reviews when they are trying to decide whether or not they want to read a novel, and I would assume that most of these readers would not like significant portions of the story spoiled for them beforehand. So, in the interest of reaching as wide an audience as possible with a review, why would someone want to riddle their review with spoilers that effectively limit their audience? I understand the idea behind discussing specific events in a story and using them to illustrate your different thoughts and ideas about a novel, but I feel that these intricacies are better saved for discussion, perhaps on an internet forum, among those who have already read the novel and can provide more rounded discussion and counter-arguments.

My other major argument is that a review that focuses on detailing specific story events generally only contains about 15-25% content that the author can claim as their own, the rest is simply a summarization of the novel being reviewed. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the writing we are told to do in high school: full of quotations and citations, but bereft of opinion and individuality. Hardly inspiring for a reader and mind-numbingly dull for the writer.

In the end, I feel that a successful review does not tell the reader how the story is told, but rather how well the story is told. I care little for story details, in fact, the less the better. I can find a perfectly good synopsis on the dust jacket of any book I’m interested in; instead I’m interested in knowing how well the author portrays the story they have set out to tell. How readable is their writing? How cringeworthy is their dialogue? Will the pacing replace my sleeping pills or my caffeine pills? I don’t give a damn about the twist on page 139 until I read the novel, and I’m not going to read the novel until I know how good of a job the author has done.

As with most everything though, there’s always a silver lining, and these spoiler-filled reviews are no different. A year from now, when Terry Brooks publishing his next novel, I will always know where I can go to find a nice refresher course on The Elves of Cintra… but then again, wouldn’t Wikipedia do a better job?

So, in review of my review of reviews I feel that critics need to take a step back and really ask themselves what it is that their readers want. For, in the end, a review is less about the story and more about the emotions, opinions and instincts of the critic as they read and reflect upon the novel. I think that some people happen to lose sight of this fact and in turn do a disservice to their own readers, an incident that needs to be addressed by anyone (blogger, journalist or reader) as they sit down at the keyboard and begin to type their ever persuasive argument about the quality, or lack thereof, of the latest novel to leave their “to-read” pile.

  • Bookie Monster August 6, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    I really hate coming across spoilers in a review–the biggest culprits being the Amazon-know-it-alls.

    Not to come off as snobby, but a lot of these aren’t “reviewers” but “summarizers”. I came across several spoiler-laden reviews on high-profile and established sites. The mind boggles how they get away with it.

    The entire point of a review is to convince the reader to buy or avoid a book, not take the choice away from them.

  • Tia Nevitt August 6, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    When I write my reviews, I write it with the spoilers, then I go back and take the spoilers out. Writing it with the spoilers gives me the satisfaction of actually writing down things I liked or disliked. However, I need not keep it.

    When I put up my post on THE HIDDEN WORLDS this morning, the first draft had spoilers. Hopefully, I managed to get them all out.

  • The Book Swede August 7, 2007 at 12:10 am

    I dislike spoilers, too. I will mention character names and certain things occasionally but I certainly don’t (I hope??) give much away. If the story is called “Dragon”, I’ll mention the fact that there might be a Dragon, but apart from that I try to stay clean! :)

    I tend not to go beyond the blurb. I figure if it’s on the blurb, then by the time they buy from Amazon, etc they’ll know of it so know harm mentioning that bit in my reviews.

    I find it difficult to take notes when I do my first read, but I’ll often very quickly re-read the book taking notes or thoughts down then.

    I then tend to write my reviews on paper first (I find it channels me better!) for my first few tries, then when I finally get around to typing it up on the computer, I’ll occasionally rewrite it then.

    Probably why it’s only about two review a week at the moment! I’m sure I’ll get better though.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ve bored you all there, but anyway,



  • gavsstudio August 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I’m having a bit of flap over the review I just did of Winterbirth. I’ve already gone back and added to it to clarify a few points (as I don’t believe you should do more than edit typos or really nonsensical sentences after you’ve posted something). I don’t think I expressed my thoughts clearly enough. It’s rather weird reading something and thinking that’s not what I really meant at all.

    I try to convey the good and the not so good in the authors final product and if they achieve something readable.

    I don’t though mention that many plot points – as has been said the blurb is mostly enough and the twists, turns and bumps in the road are there for the reader to enjoy not for the reviewer to signpost. Though mentioning stuff from the beginning is ok as you’re only saying when they start from and not where they end up.

    It’s like showing a bit of ankle to entice a reader rather than taking everything off, which then leaves nothing to the imagination.

    I do try and say though when I’ve expected one thing and got another so other readers don’t get caught out.

    As a reader if a reviewer is starting to give to much plot away I skim to the end just to see if they said yes or no but I tend not read those reviewers after that.

  • jkdr97 August 8, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    I want to say that I agree with you on this topic. I fond reviews of HP7 prior to reading the book and found that the spoilers, although they didn’t necessarily give away the plot of the book, removed some of my anticipation to know what was going to happen. I look forward to reading a book to be able to get lost in it’s “world” and I don’t appreciate it when someone ruins that before I have the chance to read it.

  • aidan August 8, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    RE: Bookie
    Amazon reviewers are indeed the biggest culprit of this type of review… but at least they have the ability to fall back on the fact that they aren’t professionals.

    It’s when I see these types of reviews in professional publications that my blood really boils.

    RE: Tia
    That’s an interesting way of approaching reviews! I’m not the type of person who feels the temptation to put spoilers in my review, but it’s great that you’ve found a way to resist that temptation!

    RE: Chris
    I agree with you that the blurb on the back is a pretty safe way to judge how far to go with spoilers in a review.

    I know how you feel about writing stuff out by hand first. I used to write all my writing out by hand (even half a novel!) and then use the entering of it into the computer as a first edit. It’s a very time consuming process that I’m glad I got rid of!

    RE: Gav
    Gav, that’s very interesting indeed about your recent review. I know that for me even just a few days of contemplation can change my opinions on novels, movies, music, etc… and sometimes it is worth a second look.

    Perhaps that would be an interesting series of “reviews” to write, tackling novels several weeks after I’ve first reviewed them!

    RE: jkdr97
    Harry Potter was a big one for me. I avoided the Internet as much as I possible could in the week coming up to the release of the book so that I could avoid any spoilers. I also made sure not to read any reviews before I was done the novel. I didn’t want to spoil anything!

  • Drew Bittner July 11, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Interesting comments, Aidan.
    I feel we can always learn to do our reviews better– some authors and publicists (I know from having asked) do not mind that a review summarizes a book; some prefer that the book be as little described as possible.
    All in all, I summarize as part of my reviews because I believe readers should know about what I’m discussing. Talking about a book in a vaccuum– giving ungrounded descriptions of how an author handles plot, character, etc.–seems empty if you haven’t said anything at all ABOUT the story.
    It is possible that I give away lots of spoilers. It’s certainly something I can and will discuss with my editor at SFRevu. Feel free to leave comments on the site– I have a review of GYPSY MORPH coming up this month.
    But you might want to be careful, ’cause I talk about the book’s contents fairly extensively.
    Drew Bittner, SFRevu

  • Ernest Lilley - SR Editor, SFRevu July 11, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Aidian, All,

    Good comments all, and fair points too.

    As one of the gatekeepers of SFRevu, and the person primarily responsible for the rules of the gate, I agree wholeheartedly that spoilers don’t belong in good reviews…but they tend to creep in because the reviewer gets caught up in telling the story…which is the author’s job…rather than telling the reader what they need to know to decide if they want to go get the story.

    As a reviewer myself, I give a lot of thought to how much to reveal, and I think that my reviews will be found to be heavy on what the book “feels” rather than a blow by blow of what happens. That’s fair game in literary criticism, but even there only if used to demonstrate a point. It’s the opposite of what reviews should be do, which is to basically tell a reader whether or not this is a book that they will like.

    The job of the editorial staff, and the reason we have one, is to keep reviewers on target…and sometimes we don’t do the job as well as we should. Of course, it can be hard to tell from where we sit…and we do bounce back a fair number of reviews for just this point. To some degree, we can use blurbs as a guide for how much to give away but even there too much is often shown, so we try not to consider it a license to reveal.

    Though reviewers should be sensitive to the issue, the buck stops on the editor’s desk, and though some things are bound to slip through, we take that responsibility seriously and will try to do a good and consistent job.

    One comment on whether or not Wikipedia can do any of this better. Wikipedia is a great resource, but it hews more to criticism than review. One of the things about SFRevu is that we have a collection of reviewers with different tastes and perspectives, and are not looking for consensus on any given book. Ultimately, “I liked it” is a valid review, especially if the review manages to communicate what was, in the reviewer’s humble opinion, likable. None of this is to dismiss the value of literary criticism, which is in its own right terrifically important, especially to the development of both readers and writers. A book may be easy to read, and fun in the bargain…but that doesn’t mean they can deliver the impact of a really well crafted novel.

    Ernest Lilley
    Sr. Editor, SFRevu

    You might like to take a look at the SFRevu style guide, to see our comments on spoilers and other things: http://www.sfrevu.com/php/Review-id.php?id=2301

  • Ernest Lilley - SR Editor, SFRevu July 11, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Dang. Where’s an editor when you need one? Misspelled Aidan, not to mention the odd “they” for “it” If Aidan feels like fixing both, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings. – Ern

  • aidan July 11, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks for dropping by guys. I singled out SFRevu and Drew’s review in particular because it was the latest culprit, but by no means was I trying to lay a blanket statement upon the web site or even Drew as a reviewer, I was simply using it as an example of what I consider a poorly written review.

    I think that plot analysis is an important form of discussion and you’re both right that it’s hard to properly qualify statements and opinions of a novel without being able to delve into the exact reasons why you feel that way. That being said, I think that an imformative review (one that is, in theory, helping people make a decision whether they’re interested in purchasing/reading the novel) is not the place for that kind of contemplation.

    Rather, I think discussion like this should either a) be labeled differently or b) be conducted in a more organic and conversational environment like a forum. A different label (such as ‘Afterthoughts’, or something along those lines), forewarns potential readers that they’re walking into spoiler territory and also allows the author of the article to properly explore the nuances of the novel – plot, character, twists, dialogue, etc….

    I think one of the most important things for a reviewer – especially one who avoids spoilers – is to build a trust between themselves and their readers being honest. If I’ve been following a reviewer long enough and find that their opinions are generally very similar to mine and always consistent, then it’s good enough to me for them to say, “This book was great” or “This book was trash”. Ultimately I think a review, coupled with the information released by the publisher, should be enough to inform a reader whether they’re interested in a novel and if they are likely to enjoy it or not. I don’t necessarily believe that they have to be combined.

    If spoilers must be included in a review, I think that a lot of reviewers could learn from Larry, of OF Blog of the Fallen fame. He takes a very literary approach to reviews and there was a great discussion about the matter at his blog HERE. That all being said, I still don’t read Larry’s review before I’ve already read the novel and have formed an opinion of my own and am no longer afraid of spoilers.

    Were Drew to have better utilized the use of spoilers and plot elements to qualify statements made in the review, rather that just regurgitate a summary of the plot and ruin twists for readers, I would have been much less inclined to burn it at the stake like I did. You both mention that sometimes spoilers are necessary to qualify a statement about a novel, which I utterly agree with, I just don’t think Drew was following this rule. If you go back and read the review, you will find an unopinionated synopsis of the novel for the first two-thirds and then only in the final third does the actual critical look at the review begin.

    I appreciate web site’s like SFRevu that take a professional approach to online magazines. The fact that you do have an editorial staff (no matter whether a dudd review slips through the cracks now and then) adds a layer of professionalism that is sometimes lacking in the blogosphere. Reviews, like the one of The Elves of Cintra hurt that image, unfortunately. Looking at the style guide you’ve provided, I find it interesting that a diverse opinion from a variety of writers is part of the mission statement for reviews, but that you have a rather rigid style guide that directs the way your writers should write their reviews. I think that style and originality are as important to a review as any sort of qualified opinion.

    In any case, thanks again for dropping by and getting this conversation going again! It’s sure made my work day a hell of a lot more interesting.