If you really want to work up an online crowd there's one surefire way to do it. Post a review of something and give away a crucial detail of the plot without first typing the words "Spoiler Alert". Stand back and wait for the explosion. In some quarters it seems there's no greater crime than to reveal, inadvertently or otherwise, the final plot twist of a thriller or the identity of a killer. On the radio programme I present you can see the producer beginning to go pale if guests stray a little too close to a vital detail and quite often a specific pre-flight warning will be issued "not to give away the ending". It's understandable really, because nothing will so reliably generate angry correspondence as someone crossing the indistinct line between those bits of the plot you're allowed to synopsise so that people can understand what you're talking about and those bits that must remain veiled.
But I've always felt that the people who get most exercised about spoilers (and most vitriolic when they stub their toe on one) have slightly missed the point about narratives – which, crudely put, is that it's never the destination that matters, but the journey. Yes, there's a pleasure in a shock revelation – in the realisation (Spoiler Alert) that Darth Vader is Luke's dad or that (Spoiler Alert) Ophelia has only gone and drowned herself. And one understands that in pre-empting the turn of the page you've taken away the readers' opportunity to spoil the story for themselves, by guessing what happens ahead of time (always an occasion for boasting, incidentally, rather than a source of disappointment). But even so, any work of art that would be ruined by foreknowledge is surely not much of a work of art at all.
I was also nagged at by the sense that many works are far more enjoyable the second time round because you know how they turn out. This can be true even of classic mystery thrillers with a final-frame shock reveal. The first time you watch Don't Look Now it's a pretty standard piece of gothic. The second time you watch it you can properly appreciate how intricately constructed it is and spare some attention for its study of a marriage. But it's a hard case to make in the current climate. So I was delighted to see the other day that two researchers from the University of California in San Diego have actually done an experimental study into the matter. What they did was to take 12 short stories (some with an ironic twist, some conventional mystery stories and some explicitly literary) and present them in three different versions. One was unaltered, another came with a spoiler preface and the third had the spoiler information incorporated into the text as if it was part of the story.
They then got people to read them and score their reactions. And in every case the spoiled version scored more highly than the unspoiled one.
There are some obvious question marks over this finding. The subjects' memories couldn't be wiped so that a genuine comparison could be made. The results had to be aggregated from lots of readings. But even so, if spoilers really were the blight on enjoyment the spoilerphobes claim, the pristine stories should have consistently done better. But they consistently didn't. And the effect worked even with stories in which the final reveal can seem to be the entire point, such as Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Knowing ahead of time what the outcome was didn't do a thing to "spoil" it and may actually have enhanced the experience.
We know this to be true at heart. It's why tabloid newspapers can run early leaks of dramatic soap stories and boost the audience figures rather than cutting them in half. It's why Hollywood film-makers never worry unduly about remaking a well-known classic, literary or cinematic. And it's why we can return to the films and books we love with an undiminished eagerness, even though the basic motor of plot has been slipped into neutral. The best reading is re-reading. All those anti-spoiler hysterics – shrieking into capital letters at the merest glimpse of a plot-twist – have got it wrong. And in their vigilante intimidation of those who like to discuss films and books in detail, not worrying about keeping secrets, they may be diminishing the general good. We're not spoiling it for them. They're spoiling it for us.
On the make: the simple joy of everyday objects
It's often a symptom of failure when the videos in an exhibition attract a lot of attention. If all I'm going to do is look at a screen, you think, I could have stayed at home and streamed it. But sometimes you don't have any option but to stand and gaze. Visiting the Victoria and Albert's new exhibition The Power of Making the other day, I noticed that both of the big screens in the show had rapt audiences in front of them, fascinated by what they were seeing – which was essentially things being made.
In some cases human skill was involved (lots of craftsmen displaying that grace people acquire when they've done a difficult thing thousands of times and the difficulty has been polished away). But there were also machines on show. And one thing I noticed was that it didn't seem to make much difference to the pleasure of the thing whether it was machine or man.
Indeed, some of the most fascinating footage was that which showed how man could effectively acquire a machine-like regularity and precision. The real magic, essentially, lay in the transformation of matter in front of your eyes, however it was achieved. The static objects in the show are wonderful – utility transformed into sculpture (as in a leather dressage saddle) and sculpture which questions the idea of utility (a beautifully made l-shaped suitcase) but the true glamour – in the old sense of that word – is in the process.
A very moving picture of Degas
Talking of which there's a show-stopping bit of video – or film footage – in the Royal Academy's Degas and the Ballet. You come upon it in the very last room of the exhibition, which, contrary to its title, is less about dance than about the novel forms of depiction that were emerging during Degas's life. The essential thesis is this: Degas was obsessed with capturing a sense of movement and couldn't have failed to be intrigued by the development of high-speed photography (which could record fleeting movements) and the first rudimentary steps towards moving pictures (which break down a fluid motion into its component parts). His dance pictures, it is suggested, betray his interest in these technologies and the new ways of seeing they introduced. And, though you might wonder about the strength of the link, it's very telling to see Degas's own photos of models and see their poses exactly reproduced in painting. Then you get to the last room and see Degas himself, walking down a Paris street in a short loop of silent film. It's moving in all senses of the word – not only because of Degas's vulnerability (he's old and hadn't wanted to be filmed) – but also because it's impossible not to acknowledge that it takes a shortcut to the real. In aesthetic terms the image is eclipsed by everything that's gone before it. But as a record it cruelly trumps every canvas.