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.

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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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