The twist in the tale

There is a long standing question in the bookish world about plot twists and unreliable narrators. It can be boiled down to: does knowing that there is a twist or unreliable narrator in a book ruin the reading experience? It would be easy to tell readers and reviewers not to reveal the twists and the narrators and/or slap spoiler alerts all over the place, but that doesn’t work for readers like me. Great twists and unreliable narrators are like catnip to me. When I see those words in a review or a plot description, I often put the book on my to-read list. But would I have enjoyed the book even more if I had been the one to discover the twist or that the narrator was lying? It’s impossible to say, but it’s fun to think about.

Alfred Stevens

When one knows that there’s a twist or a narrator from the outset, it’s hard not to look for signs from the very first page. I brace for the twist, expecting it in the very next chapter. This kind of hyper-focus makes it hard to settle into the narrative like I want to. If the book is good enough, the twist and narrator great enough, I can enjoy—even love—the book.

Not knowing, however, means that the twist or the narrator’s revelation can absolutely floor me. If I don’t know, I can read the book cleanly. After the revelation, I can re-read the book and have an entirely different text in front of me. I get two stories for the price of one.

But then we get back to the same problem. How do I find out about these books if no one tells me about them? For some readers, even hinting that there is a twist is considered a spoiler. I’m not that militant about it. My only hope for a clean read is to find out about the book and put it on my to-read list long enough that I forget why I put it there, trusting that my future self will read it eventually.

The whole thing is, with appropriate literary irony, a catch-22.

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