Giving It Away

The arrival of Philip Roth's new novel this week has got me thinking -- again -- about what reviewers should tell and what they should keep to themselves. Indignation doesn't turn on a shocking revelation the way his The Human Stain did, but on p. 54, the narrator reveals something about himself that puts the story in a completely different light. (No -- guess again -- he's not a woman.)

Last week, I was talking to Louis Bayard, the book critic for Salon, about how to handle this, and we both decided to let readers discover it for themselves, but that kind of silence can severely limit how one critiques a novel. (No, he's not a black man.) And several other reviewers of Indignation (like this one in the Huffington Post) have felt no need to let readers experience the disorienting jolt of discovery for themselves.

I'm feeling especially sensitive about this because I recently received an aggrieved note from Selden Edwards, the author of a debut novel I didn't like very much called The Little Book. He scolded me for -- among other things -- giving away key secrets. He's right, and I'm sorry. We try not to do that, but it's hard to complain about a novel's flaws without citing examples.

Last year's novel from Graham Swift, Tomorrow, was built on a rather obvious and minor revelation that the narrator endlessly delayed for maximum melodramatic effect. Most reviewers managed to keep that tepid information secret, but the New York Times blithely bared all in the first paragraph. And this spring, we had a devil of a time trying to review Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage without ruining readers' own experience of the novel. But in his brutal review in the New Yorker, John Updike claimed that "to discuss it at all is to risk giving it all away." And so he did, recounting the book's various surprises all the way to the last line.

Does this sort of thing drive you nuts? Don't keep it a secret. Tell all.

By Ron Charles |  September 17, 2008; 7:23 AM ET Ron Charles
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If a book is well written, learning the "surprise" really doesn't matter. I will lose myself in the story and the surprise will surprise me anyway...

Posted by: kbockl | September 17, 2008 10:57 AM

Count me among the people who don't want to know the plot's/narrator's secret until the author reveals it. That's like reading the last page of a mystery to find out who dun it and then read the book.

The first read of a book is for exploration. If I want to re-read the book after knowing the secrets, to see how it was set up, I'll do that.

Posted by: Rockville | September 17, 2008 3:15 PM

Yes, thank you for raising this issue! I think reviewers reveal far too much now. I don't want to know key plot points or twists in advance. Too many reviewers just seem to summarize the plot, rather than offer any insightful commentary. What is a reader to do? Skip the reviews?

Posted by: Arlington | September 17, 2008 4:17 PM

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