July 25, 2007
Does Peeking Spoil the Fun? (1 of 2)


Behind every wildly popular, episodic narrative stands the treat of of a spoiler. Harry Potter is definitely proof of the rule. Some of the reports and commentary online around the book's release and the presence of spoilers of various types provides some insight into fan culture.

The other day, I found a short blog entry on the New York Times website about Harry Potter fans who were camping out in front of a bookstore in Picadilly Circus. Curious about what would drive someone to voluntarily sleep on the pavement in downtown London, I read on. But what really caught my attention was not the post, but the comments after it. They weren't really about the story at all, but a debate about whether or not the New York Times review of the seventh Harry Potter Book, The Deathly Hallows, was a plot spoiler.

Comments ranged from outrage that no plot spoiler warning had been given, to disappointment that such a "reputable" and "responsible" publication defied the imagination, that it was a "crass...greedy" and a "horrible thing to do" that had shown the newspaper to be untrustworthy. Some declared they would hold it against the Times in future. Others said they thought people who really wanted to avoid a spoiler should have just ignored all reviews anyway. Others said the review contained teasers, not spoilers.

Similar debates were had on the west coast, where angry Seattle Times readers reportedly admonished those responsible for spoiling a moment some children had been waiting for all their lives. Others explained how the phrases used by reviewers (which seemed sort of ambiguous to me, personally) "ruined" the book.

Staff of The Leaky Cauldron, one of the leading Potter fan sites, urged fans to write to the Times to express their objections, and even provided copy they could simply paste into an email. The letter said that the Times had employed "tabloid tactics", disappointed millions of children (and adults), and published the review against the wished of both author J.K. Rowling and "anyone that calls themselves a true Harry Potter fan".

J.K. Rowling herself did indeed object to the NY Times review while Scholastic, her American publisher, sued an online retailer that allegedly shipped copies of the book early, and Bloomsbury, her British publisher, expressed dismay at the presence of spoilers online while denying that any of them were real. Rowling also reached out to fans directly through her website in a message two days before the book's release imploring people to "ignore the misinformation popping up on the web and in the press" and asking "everyone who considers themselves a Potter fan to help preserve the secrecy of the plot for all those who are looking forward to reading the book at the same time on publication day."

The general, looming threat of spoilers from a number of sources was evident on fan sites, and ranged from warnings that advance revelations would be ignored to notices on discussion groups that "Due to certain sick individuals posting book seven spoilers, editorial comments have been temporarily turned off."

Later today, I'm going to post some of my observations based on these reactions. In the meantime, be sure and read other C3 reactions to the Harry Potter spoiler controversy.