Don't Cry Over Spoiled Hallows

Certain Huffington Post bloggers Who Will Not Be Named have been href="">shrieking
and wailing
like angry Howlers
over the fact that some newspapers, including the The New York Times,
dared to review
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before Her Majesty J.K. Rowling
gave permission.

While it is clearly obnoxious and unethical to post copies of the
entire book online, or to reveal key plot points simply for the sake
of doing so, and without any warning to readers who might not want to
hear them, the defenders of the Wizarding faith go further. They argue
that any pre-publication discussion discussion of the book,
even a thoughtful review by a professional critic, is grounds for a href=" ">Cruciatus
Curse. The argument is that "embargoes are in place for a reason,
and entreaties from the author ... are there specifically for the
benefit of the public."

And for the benefit of the hype, of course.

There are a couple of issues here. One is about media ethics, and
that's pretty straightforward: There is no embargo on the book. An
embargo, in this context, is an agreement between two parties. We
give you an advance copy of the book, and in exchange, you don't
review it until the publication date.
But that's not what happened
here. The newspapers purchased their own copies of the book and had
the right to do whatever they wanted with them. The stores that sold
the books probably did violate their agreements with the publisher,
but that's not the newspapers' problem.

Which brings us to the issue that is really making people mad: lots of
readers don't want to know anything about the book in advance, and
reviews, even if they don't give away the end, invariably reveal some
things. Fortunately, there's a simple solution to this problem: don't
read the reviews. But don't presume that the entire "public" shares
your overwhelming desire for blanket ignorance. Rowling chastised the
Times for disregarding "the wishes of literally millions of readers,
particularly children," but it's been widely observed that the Potter
books are also popular with adults, and it is foolish, and troubling,
to say that the New York Times should tailor its news coverage to the
wishes and sensibilities of children (chronological or emotional).
There are, believe it or not, full-grown readers (and younger ones as
well, I'd hazard) who are interested in elements of fiction such prose
style, emotional weight, narrative coherence, and character
development. These folks may actually want to read a review of the
book before they go buy it -- just as they do with any other book.
Readers who care about nothing except What Happens At The End can
close the newspaper and not have anything "spoiled" for them.
Everybody's happy.

If a critic's only mandate is not to "ruin" the book for readers, at
what point can a paper print its review? Surely not the day the
book comes out, or even the next day. Harry Potter and the Deathly
is 9 billion pages long (or so I understand), and some of us
will stretch out our reading of it, savoring and enjoying it, for at
least a week. Should the Times wait until we're done and then
tell us whether the book is any good or not. What if -- gasp --
somebody decides not to pick up the book on the first day? What if
people are still buying it a month from now? Maybe no newspaper should
ever review anything.

Rowling's "embargo," and the fanatic endorsement of it, seems to
suppose that the only value in literature is in the big reveal at the
end. In that case, are the Harry Potter books worthless to future
generations? If a kid twenty years from now picks up the series
knowing, through general cultural awareness, that it ends with Harry
and Voldemort running off to Massachusetts to get married (sorry,
SPOILER ALERT), will that make the books any less worth reading? As a
fan of the series, I think not. Literature, even moderately
entertaining children's literature, ought to have meaning beyond such
petty concerns. If a review of Anna Karenina happened to mention the
big Train Scene, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be a terrible problem,
because what's really important about a book can't be so easily
spoiled for serious readers.

Though Rowling's pleas secrecy serve a purpose as far as generating
excitement, they actually do a disservice to her audience. The href="">report
that one-fifth of young readers intend to immediately skip to the end
of the book -- essentially spoiling it for themselves -- indicates that
this obsession with the big reveal is antithetical to the entire
purpose of reading books. Is it all about learning What Happens At The
End, or is it about the pleasure of the journey that gets you there?