I was talking to a well known London literary agent the other day. He said that one of the weirdest things about publishers is that they never admit when they haven’t read a book, for fear of looking ignorant.
And he added that his favourite question for anyone he reckoned was bluffing was to ask them, ‘So what did you think of that ending?’
Not the ending, which any literary charlatan could easily shrug off with an ‘OK’, or a ‘so, so’, but that, as in implying it was unexpected or surprising in such a way that it demanded immediate and thorough debate.
The agent said that the reason it’s such a great ‘liar trap’ is because, if you haven’t read the ending, then you have no choice but to change the subject. Or leave. And either way you’ve been busted and thoroughly caught out.
All of which got me thinking, How important are surprise endings in novels? Because it’s a weird one. In some novels, knowing the ending doesn’t ruin the read at all. In fact, some of my favourite books are precisely that because they bear being re-read over and over, possibly because they have the depth and complexity to allow for different readings, depending on your mood and whatever life stage you might be in, but mainly because the ending is a thematic gathering point, a place of satisfaction as much as revelation.
But in some books – and this is particularly relevant, I think, to the crime genre – knowing the ending can completely ruin the read, certainly for a first reading. Crime novels are so often about the unravelling of secrets, about the skilful witholding of information, and that mesmerising series of twists and turns that leads to a logical, yet unexpected, denouement.
How often have we heard terms like, ‘Yeah, but I saw that ending coming’ used in a derogatory fashion, suggesting that the author in question didn’t have the skill to hide it from us sufficiently? And, inversely, how often have we heard phrases like, ‘That was brilliant. I never saw that coming at all’, offered up as the highest form of accolade?
We like surprises in books. And with crime novels, we love them. We adore that point when we’re blown away by what a merry dance we’ve just been led. And what we hate – well, what I hate, anyway – is when someone ruins that surprise.
And it’s not just crime books, either. A case in point: I was recently having a chat with another friend, about movies this time, and we got onto the subject of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which I was looking forward to seeing the following day (something I’d not mentioned to my friend).
Being a film critic for, amongst others, the still-brilliant-after-all-these-years Empire film magazine, this friend of mine had been fortunate enough to have attended a press screening already.
I asked the obvious question: ‘So, does it live up to the brilliant trailer?’ At which point, he launched into a dubiously articulate dissection, which I assumed was a precis of his review, only then he said this: ‘But what really annoyed me was when you got to the big reveal at the end, and you found out that **** ** ***** *** ****.’
That’s right. He gave away the ending, the ending of a film I’d been itching to see, partly because my curiosity had been so piqued by the trailer, but also because I’d loved (at least half of) the previous Alien movies, certainly enough to want to know ‘the dark truth’ of their genesis.
But – and here’s the crunch - did this spoiler spoil my trip to the cinema to watch Prometheus? Yes. Very much so. Utterly, in fact. Because I didn’t bother to go. Why? Because knowing what happened at the end had completely punctured any desire I had to be a part of that vanguard of viewers, that first fortunate wave to learn the secret. I marked it down for one to watch on DVD instead.
And that’s why we all have a duty to keep the endings of novels, as well as movies, to ourselves. And why we have a similar duty to chastise our friends and any reviewers – be they bloggers, or on Amazon, or in the mainstream media – to keep their mouths shut and their typing fingers still when it comes to spoilers.
Otherwise, instead of surprise endings, all we’ll have are endings. Or, as in my case with Prometheus, not even a desire to witness any beginnings either.