Spoilers. Is the ultimate taboo in modern-day reviewing appropriate for Swedish Book Review?

Posted on 26th January 2016 at 12:27 by SELTA Web Editor

SELTA member and regular contributor to Swedish Book Review Sarah Death reflects on the thorny issue of spoilers.

Two experiences this week have finally prompted me to write a piece that has been forming in my mind for some time. The other day I read two Danish newspaper reviews of a new book translated my colleague Anne Marie Bjerg: a volume containing the Selma Lagerlöf novellas Dunungen and Tösen på Stormyrtorpet (Gyldendal), neither of which had appeared in Danish previously. Both reviews of these classic stories, which have, after all, been available for over a century in a neighbouring language fairly easily read by Danes, were complimentary. I was struck, however, by the fact that one reviewer felt the need to avoid revealing how the plots of the two stories developed.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio’s Today programme this week, an interview with Patricia Routledge (Patron of the Beatrix Potter Society) about a late, unpublished Beatrix Potter story that has been found in the author’s archive at the V&A, was full of remarks from the interviewer about ‘getting into trouble’ if they gave away too much of the story – even though Patricia Routledge had already told us she had only been allowed access to the first few paragraphs. I was put in mind of the translators of the Harry Potter books around the world, who were sworn to contractual secrecy as they scrambled to meet their unfeasible deadlines.  

In an age when publishers and booksellers love to generate excitement round an ‘event’, the Beatrix Potter case is perhaps understandable, but when future new editions or productions of such well-worn classics as A Christmas Carol, Anna Karenina, Miss Julie, A Doll’s House, or Conan Doyle’s cliffhanger ‘The Final Problem’ appear, are reviewers to tie themselves in knots trying not to reveal the endings, just in case they inadvertently spoil the surprise for a few people? Will Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well ultimately have to be re-titled? Has the appreciation of literature really been so infected by our love of crime fiction and the conventions of reviewing whodunnits that our enjoyment potential has been reduced to the frisson of not knowing how a story ends? In my view, the whole phenomenon has been allowed to get out of hand.

And it is not only in the case of established classics that the modern spoiler phobia is misplaced, in my view. More seriously for my own work, every time I review a fiction title for Swedish Book Review nowadays, I have to consider whether my plot outline should be left incomplete. Reviewing Jerker Virdborg’s Skyddsrummet Luxgatan (The Lux Street Bunker) for the spring 2016 issue, I ended up writing one full text and then an abridged version – with possible spoilers excised – which I then submitted for publication. In other reviews I have sometimes trodden the tricky path of trying to hint at the ending without stating it outright, as for example in my review, for our Finland-Swedish themed issue, of Ulla Lena Lundberg’s novel Is (Ice), which is now, gratifyingly, about to be published in a translation by Tom Teal (Sort Of Books).

Although it is always SBR’s aspiration for its reviews to interest non-Swedish-speaking publishers enough to make them consider acquiring translation rights to the books, the majority of the titles we cover are unlikely to become available, at least in English, within a short period of time, and in many cases they never will. That makes it pretty ridiculous for us to have to avoid revealing endings, especially as the very publishers we are trying to attract will by definition want to know as much about the plot as possible, just as they do when commissioning formal reader’s reports from SELTA members.

It would be fascinating, and very useful for SBR contributors and editors, to receive feedback not only from publishers but also from other categories of reader on this subject.