Thursday, July 19, 2007

The New York Times Spoils Harry Potter - A Little, But Still Too Much

The Evening Standard in London asked me to write a small piece with my reactions to The New York Times' publication of a review, this morning, of the 7th and final Harry Potter novel. That piece, which will be a shorter version of what follows, is being published in the Evening Standard even as we speak (actually, as I'm now writing).

For anyone who hasn't been living on Alpha Centauri (since I'm a science fiction writer, I usually use that as an example, rather than "under a rock"), J. K. Rowling and the Potter publishers have been taking great pains to prevent leakage of any story details. Now, I usually do not get all that upset about spoilers - see my other pieces on spoilers listed below - especially when the spoilers are little more than what any reasonably creative person could predict.

But this Harry Potter business in
The New York Times is something else, and much worse, and I think ... well, here's what I wrote about an hour ago for the Evening Standard...

We live in a spoiler-crazed culture – whether for a television show, movie, or novel, everyone wants to know the ending as soon as possible, before anyone else. The problem with this, however, is that once I know something of interest about a story beforehand, you may end up knowing it, too – whether you want that or not.

The New York Times’ publication of Michiko Kakutani’s review today of the final Harry Potter novel has taken this media abuse to a new level. It is one thing when some private citizen publishes a spoiler on the Web, and it goes viral. It is quite another when the American "newspaper of record" publishes a review with spoilers two days before the public release of the work.

True, The New York Times’ review did not include any major spoilers – I guess we can be grateful for that. But the publication of any review of a novel as significant as the final Harry Potter – a review which contains even the slightest giveaways of plot, which this one does – is ethically unacceptable, and only feeds the taste for more.

Because a spoiler published anywhere is inherently viral. People read it, talk about it, write about it, in an escalating cycle which has the inevitable effect of getting spoiler information to people who do not want it – readers who, in the case of this final Harry Potter novel, were looking forward to finding out each detail, in the order J. K. Rowling intended, on a sofa or hammock this weekend.

John Stuart Mill is famous for saying that people should have absolute freedom to swing their arms, as long as they don’t hit anyone’s nose. Publication of spoilers endangers everyone’s nose – it threatens the narrative satisfaction of every reader and viewer.

In the end, I don’t know what can be done about this. Certainly publication of spoilers is not a criminal offense, and the last thing we want is any government involvement in matters of the press and the media.

But in the case of The New York Times and Harry Potter we have a major insult to public taste and trust. I'd be happy to see the New York Times and every purveyor of spoiler unhappiness publicly condemned. The scoop on this story is that they owe the world an apology.

PS - I'll be posting a review of the Deathly Hallows as soon as I finish the novel - which I expect will be at some wee hour of this weekend...

More on spoilers and the enjoyment of narrative:

Harry Potter and Spoilers: Am Occasion for Basking

Spoilers for 24: Did They Lead the Producers to Change the Ending?

Lost Spoilers vs. Passions of Curiosity

More on Harry Potter:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: A Review, for Starters (Mild Spoilers)

Harry Potter and iPhone

The Elite Attack on Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the 3-D Phoenix movie review

Harry Potter and the Refutation of Illiteracy
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