Michiko Kakutani and the Deathly Spoilers

(This post 100% fat-free! Woo!)

So the whole world’s been waiting 10 freakin’ years to find out how the Harry Potter series ends, and we have two days to go. Booksellers and journalists everywhere are honoring the author’s and publishers’ requests to keep it completely under wraps until Saturday. The anticipation is, of course, half the fun. Maybe most of the fun.

But now Michiko Kakutani’s already gone and reviewed it.

Rachel Sklar sums up my feelings here: Harry Potter and the Fact that I Hate the New York Times.

How on earth could you run a review of the last Harry Potter? To do so, you had to break an industry-wide embargo — and not just any embargo, an embargo that is almost tantamount to a public trust at this point, given the worldwide hype about Harry Potter and the excitement and intense emotion generated by — finally — the end to this epic series.


[H]onestly, embargoes are in place for a reason, and entreaties from the author (or the Crying Game director, for that matter) are there specifically for the benefit of the public — the very same public the NYT is purporting to serve with their rushed-to-print review (that’s the other thing: How fast did Kakutani have to read — and write — in order to dash that thing off? It’s sort of, you know, a long book).

Yeah! What she said! The wait may be killing us — but we want the wait. For the last several books, the wait — and the big unveiling — have been part of the sacred ritual of being a devoted Potter geek. And Potter geeks? Are all about the sacred rituals and whatnot. Kinda comes with the territory. Book 7 was to be the grandest, most emotional unveiling of all: the end of an era, of a decade in which many of the series’ most devoted readers passed from childhood to adulthood along with the main characters. (And many others rediscovered an obsessive love of fiction that had eluded us since childhood.)

That’s why practically everyone chose to honor the embargo, Michiko. For Christ’s sake.

Sklar points out that The Baltimore Sun has also run a review, but honestly, what are the chances that I — or any other non-Baltimore resident — would accidentally run across that? Zip. The chances of me reading The New York Times Book Review, however? Well, not as high as you might think, frankly, but still a hell of a lot higher.

Bad form, Paper of Record! May everyone involved in this decision find themselves on the wrong end of a bat bogey hex.

(Cross-posted to The Bibliophilistines.)



Filed under 09_kate_harding

23 responses to “Michiko Kakutani and the Deathly Spoilers

  1. Umm, I think you’re wrong about spoilers in general, and what’s more, you’re really wrong if you think there was anything significant spoiled in Kakutani’s review.

  2. Kate Harding

    and it’s not like knowing who lives and dies before you finish, or even begin, reading the book is going to affect your enjoyment of the novel.

    Well, I think you’re wrong about that. *shrug*

    Also, you’ll notice that pretty much everything I said and quoted (except the headline, which was just me being terribly clever) had to do with the NYT violating the embargo, not with spoilers per se.

  3. Yeah, but the embargo is stupid as well, at least the idea that you’re really going to be able to keep something completely secure. Seriously–assuming the embargo works flawlessly, does it really help hype the book? This book is going to be huge because it’s the last in a series of really popular (and pretty good) books, not because the end has been kept a secret.

  4. Not caring about the Potter series lets me off the hook from the entire thing, I suppose, but just in keeping up with pop culture I read Kakutani’s review and found absolutely nothing in it that would spoil the book: certainly not actual “spoilers” yet also nothing that would prevent a reader from enjoying the book.

    One also has the option of not reading the reviews — even after publication — if doing so risks spoilers or stomach upset. Or are fans ticked because now it’s on record that someone got their hands on a copy before they did? Who gives a shit?

    Sorry, but I think the hype and everything else associated with this book is way out of hand at this point and where I once could not have cared less, I now just want it all to be over.

  5. Kate Harding

    Seriously–assuming the embargo works flawlessly, does it really help hype the book?

    In a word, yes. In two words, hell yes.

    So does the controversy over an early review, if all we’re talking about is hyping the book. But that wasn’t all I was talking about.

  6. If nothing else, it shows poor manners. There was no compelling need to run a review; this was an attempt to sell fishwrap.

  7. Fritz

    I used to manage a large bookstore in Los Angeles.

    I used to get calls from Hollywood agents, producers, celebrities, and other rich and powerful people looking for a copy of an embargoed book.

    I was offered $5,000 once!

    I had a standing deal with one of the top talent agencies for all of my galley proofs and advance reading copies (ARCs). (Publishers send these to a very small list of bookstore owners and managers in key markets.) I would get at least a dozen every week. I’d get calls from a well-know agent’s assistant and he would ask me if I had a certain ARC. If I did, he would send a courier to come and get it.

    In Hollywood, the competition to obtain a new book is huge. Ask anyone who has ever worked as a bookstore manager there and he or she will tell you that the bribes are frequent and temptingly high.

    I’m pretty sure that a few L.A. bookstore managers opened their shipments of Harry Potter and sold them to the Hollywood elite. Imagine how much someone would pay for one! Then, think about how much a bookstore manager makes.

  8. Karla

    I am awaiting my copy of the book, I read Kakutani’s review, and I don’t believe anything was spoiled. Other than a general appraisal of the book, with no big surprises given both Rowling’s other books and Kakutani’s reviews of them, there was no information provided that you didn’t already have from the previous six books.

  9. I’m not even a bit surprised that the NYT would print the review early. I agree with what Linkmeister said, it’s essentially just very bad manners. They could have waited and posted the review Sunday.
    What I am surprised about it that Kakutani appears to have liked the book (I refuse to read the review). Didn’t she write sneeringly about the series a few books ago?

  10. Karla

    I think book 5 (OotP) was the first one she reviewed, and while it wasn’t entirely “Kakutani’ed” the review wasn’t very favorable (it also wasn’t unfair). She seems to have warmed a bit to the series since. I’d explain, but I’m concerned about saying too much.

    I’m just hoping that as in years past my copy arrives from Amazon on the day of even though I went with the Super Saver shipping (I ordered it along with Galapagos, which arrived the day Vonnegut’s death was announced).

  11. Y’know, I was pretty excited it about this. Got my copy pre-ordered and everything. And I do hate spoilers. (Some jerkwad spoiled the ending of Half-Blood Prince three days after the book came out.)

    But the hype is no longer fun anymore. It’s just hype. I’m sick of seeing headlines on Yahoo news about “WHO’S GOING TO DIE?!?!” (here’s a hint: it won’t be Harry Potter. Duh.), and how J.K. Rowling sobbed as she penned the final sentence, and how ten billion children everywhere are praying for the lives of their beloved heroes.

    This is lame. J.K. Rowling is not a terribly good writer. Her prose is clunky, her plotting is labored, and I’m getting the sinking sensation that all the ambiguities in the series I’ve come to like are largely untintentional. (I sort of doubt Rowling is going to find a way to justify Dumbledore being sort of an ass for half the books.)

    It’s fun, I won’t deny that, and I’ll tear through the last book I’m sure. But can we lighten up, just a little? The work just ain’t worth it. (In Rowling’s defense, I can’t imagine anything being worth this level of absurdity.) And a review in the New York Times that can be easily avoided by the title alone–I disagree that there’s anything wrong with that.

  12. tiffany

    I read the first half and was very upset, just the mentions of “at least half a dozen” deaths ruined part of the novel for me. if you do not follow the series how can you know what the spoilers are likely to be? I already know now the pool of people those deaths come from and am livid. So many communities have been sharing press releases but steadfastly refuse to share spoilers. This is for a very good reason. I wish J.K.Rowling could sue his ass as well as whomever put the book on bit torrent.

    By the by this is also a feminist issue as publishers wouldn’t even look at her book when they knew she was a woman writing fantasy. She had to use her initials.

  13. Kate Harding

    I agree with what Linkmeister said, it’s essentially just very bad manners.

    Yeah, that’s really my only gripe. I’m not exactly in agony over here, just annoyed. It was a dick move; that’s all.

  14. It was a dick move; that’s all.

    Kate, so basically standard behavior on their part, really. 😉

  15. I have still not forgiven Margaret Atwood, who is one of my very favorite novelists, for spoiling Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in a review (on Slate, I think?). If you’ve read the novel, you know that there is a central “mystery” about the main characters that the reader (and the characters!) figures out as the book goes on. I was infuriated to realize, as I started reading, that Atwood had spoiled the mystery without even mentioning the fact that it’s supposed to be mysterious.

    And with that, I’m going to stop reading this thread, because someone is bound to post actual HP spoilers sooner or later. 😉

  16. Wish

    I went to an art site, and in the comments section on a non-HP related piece, someone spilled the entire leaked ending. I’m not even a Potterfan, and it pissed me off.

  17. hk

    I read the scanned in pages of the last section of the book. Or the alleged pages I suppose, but the writing looked about right and the ending was about all it could have been so I think it was a true spoiler and I am happy it was put out there.

  18. Fillyjonk

    Oh, Laura beat me to it… I was totally going to bellyache about Atwood spoilering Never Let Me Go. Luckily Laura warned me not to read the review until after I read the book. Margaret Atwood, for chrissakes! I expect dick moves from Kakutani, bless her, but Atwood should know something about the delicate art of building and relieving mystery. (Rowling, incidentally, doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that I want to know the plot of book 7 in advance, of course… but since I probably won’t get to read it until at least Tuesday, I fully expect to have it “spoiled.” It won’t bother me, but I can understand the fun of feeling protective.)

  19. The old Amazon.com review of Never Let Me Go also spoiled the mystery–I remember being pretty upset about that. Still, it was a lovely book, and knowing what was really going on certainly didn’t hurt it.

  20. While someone violated an embargo, it wasn’t the New York Times or Baltimore Sun. The embargo here is specifically on retailers. A few obviously failed to uphold their part of that bargain and the publisher can take appropriate action against them for violating their contract.

    Embargo has a very specific meaning in journalism, though, and neither the Times or the Sun violated an embargo. Basically, if the publishers had allowed those papers an advance copy of the book with the agreement that the review would not be printed until the book was released commercially, then the papers would have agreed to an embargo. As it stands, they were no party to such an agreement and bound by no ethical code to refrain from printing the review.

    While I have little tolerance for the “pranksters” who will surely run around giving away the ending in inappropriate forums in the next week or so, I don’t think that’s the case here. A book review is an appropriate place to discuss the plot and neither the Times review or the Sun review gives away any of the ending. Yes, I’ve subjected myself not just to those reviews but also the spoilers that are out and about. (For whatever its worth, there are true and untrue spoilers around, so don’t assume you know the ending just because someone tells you it) Both are reserved reviews which refrain from giving away too much of what’s to come. Thats appropriate and reasonable, even if the publisher really, really would have preferred that they stick with their marketing plan. Its the kill-joys who ambush people with real spoilers that are the real villains. Well, them and Keyser Söze.

  21. BStu, those are all really good points. (In fact, I addressed some of them in the comments at Bibliophilistines, when my co-blogger took me to task.) I definitely have more of a beef with the booksellers than those who chose to publish reviews (and my real beef with the NYT is outlined in the comment I linked to). But I stand by the “bad manners” point.

    Salon has a review up today with a clear spoiler warning at the top. Maybe it’s because I have an irrational love for Salon, but that satisfied me. Whatevs. At this point, I’m much more interested in getting my damned copy of book 7 than freaking about spoilers.

  22. BStu, Kate,
    I’m not going to rehash the argument I made at BP, but cite Rick Lyman and the paper on the Times’ decision, which is a teensie bit more authoritative a defense than mine:

    “Our feeling is that once a book is offered up for sale at any public, retail outlet, and we purchase a copy legally and openly, we are free to review it,” a spokeswoman said.

    “We came across a copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ at a store in New York City and we bought it.

    “We took great care not to give away the ending, nor to give away significant details about who lives and who dies, confining our review — which, incidentally, had extremely high praise for both this final book and the entire series — to broader-brush assessments of the tone and the writing.”

    I concur; if the book is for sale, it’s open season for reviewers. If the purpose of book reviews is to inform and advise readers about major literary events, and the major literary event of the year is already underway in New York City bookstores, they’re justified in reviewing the book. It’s not a dick move– they’re just holding Harry Potter to the same standard as Carly Fiorina.

    And I’m secretly hoping mine arrives early.

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