Keeping mum in the age of spoilers.
For about four months I have kept a secret. Because few people knew that I had it, the difficulty wasn’t in resisting others’ demand to know but in quashing my own desire to tell. Still, the challenge was significant. The value of a secret seems to increase for the holder in proportion to the level of interest it will attract from its potential audience, and in this regard my secret seemed quite valuable.
In April, after several years writing reading-and-teaching guides for various publishers, I was hired to work on Knopf’s guide to the forthcoming English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. A few weeks later, I found the galley at my doorstep. The only information I received about the book, other than its title, came in the form of a brief note of encouragement: The novel would be much shorter than 1Q84, the nine-hundred-something-page tome that preceded it. One other fact, recovered by way of a quick Google search: Colorless Tsukuru sold more than a million copies during its first week on sale abroad.
We often come to a book already knowing something about it—we’ve seen it mentioned online. My experience with the Murakami novel was entirely different. It was chosen for me; I knew nothing about it. No one I knew had read it or recommended it or tweeted about it. Because I was working from an early galley, there was neither cover art nor jacket copy to inspire any preconceptions or early opinions. Though it had been published internationally, there was, quite remarkably, little information to be found online. My copy of the novel was—fittingly, given its title—without color. There were only the black words on the white page and my thoughts about them. And so I read what will undoubtedly become a popular work as if it were obscure.
It wasn’t until after I completed and turned in the guide, when I mentioned casually in an e-mail that I might like to write an essay about the novel, that I received strict instructions from my editor to refrain from discussing or writing about the book before August. No explanations were provided, nor did I inquire further. In the ten years that I’ve written these types of guides—though I have received early copies of work by many high-profile writers—this was the first time I received instructions to keep everything about a book secret. And yet, I realize that, without having been asked, I’ve always played the role of secret keeper as if there were some unspoken contract, an acknowledgment that the information isn’t fair game until it is available publicly. To read something before it is accessible to all is both a privilege and an unfair advantage.
Though discussions about books are a part of my daily life, my thoughts about this book, for these months, remained—truly—private. The instructions not to write about the book in the months that followed made me self-conscious of the value of my private experience, and with this increase in awareness came a proportionate desire to tell.
Thousands of Murakami fans who would have loved to hear any information about this new book were only a keystroke away, and in my everyday life there were—there are—always people who want to talk about books. At panels and conferences, through weeks of workshops, master classes, and talks, I met hundreds of people who wanted to talk mostly about books. So we talked about books. We talked about them every day, at every meal, on every walk to and from a classroom. And while conversations such as these commonly turn to a discussion of books that one is reading or has recently read, I did not talk about the Murakami novel, though it would have been the natural thing to mention.
During this time—while I was keeping the secret—there was one book that happened to be with me wherever I went: Book One of Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical series My Struggle. I had picked it up because I had seen his name repeated online with such frequency that I began to wonder, like so many others, Who is this Knausgaard? Though I hadn’t yet made it past page fifty, I was aware that he was an author who had become famous for his thorough revelation—3,600 pages worth—of so many of his secrets and the secrets of others. Though I wanted to read the book without prejudices and preconceptions, it was impossible. Literary venues and social media sites are teeming with posts about Knausgaard: some feeling about his work or observation about his personage, some opinion about his worthiness as a writer, assessments of what he has done and predictions of what he will do next. Not only was I trying to avoid spoilers about Book One, but I was doing a desperate dance to avoid the ruination of Book Two and Three as well. The books’ success, meanwhile, seems to be fueled by both secret and spoiler—our desire to both reveal and receive the secret. It is, one could say, a series of books fueled by our love affair not just with secrets, but with secret-revealing.
A spoiler, even when disguised as a careless remark, is both the detritus of a secret soon to be expired and the proof that knowledge is a commodity. We are willing to give away closely held information in exchange for the chance to brag that we ever had it at all, and, more specifically, to exclaim that we had it first. Technology has made the revelation of the secret that much more glamorous—a confession can reach a wider audience. The pleasure of releasing a secret to a single person is multiplied.
But the secret is valuable long before it is spoiled. It allows us the time to think our own thoughts undiluted. Literary discourse—the public exchange—depends upon private experience for its worth.
The value of my secret has decreased as time has passed, is decreasing as I write this, and as of today—Murakami’s publication date—has become null. People have begun to talk about the book, to post their thoughts and opinions about it online. Reviewers and critics have already begun to weigh in. People are tweeting and posting. In a short time, millions will have read the same book that I have read. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,” writes Murakami in Norwegian Wood. Unless, it so happens, you’re able to read those books before anyone else.
Je Banach is a member of the residential faculty in fiction at the Yale Writers’ Conference. In 2013 she was awarded the Connecticut Artist Fellowship for Prose. She has written for Granta, Esquire, Guernica, Bookforum, KGB Bar Lit, L.A. Review of Books, PEN, and other venues.