Preserving the secrecy of the Harry Potter plot

by Jane Henderson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

22 July 2007


ST. LOUIS - There should be a secret handshake.

Something to let other readers know whether it’s safe to discuss the finer plot points of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

cover art

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J. K. Rowling


It’s too late for publishers to try to copyright a handshake. The book went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, and the book phenomenon of a lifetime has been reported and rehashed worldwide.

But when can readers safely talk about the story itself? For true fans, the exciting buildup to “Deathly Hallows” was a mere appetizer. They have the real meal now. So how long should the public - readers, 24-hour media and critics - keep Potter secrets?

Expectations differ for public and private conversations. For friends, it’s anytime anyone asks you not to reveal the plot, etiquette consultant Maria Everding, of St. Louis, said.

“It’s so sad in today’s society that we have to ask people not to do things: not to tell the ending, not to bring their dogs along, not to put your feet on a coffee table,” Everding said.

Just let Harry Potter be, she said. “Let it come into its own.”

The manners maven considers it rude for someone else to give away “the plot before you’ve seen it. I could wring someone’s neck when they do that.”

Actually, she’s speaking metaphorically. She’d simply tell a friend, “`Let me be surprised, I can’t wait to read it.’”

She added: “Say it in kind of a cute way or funny way, if possible. You don’t want to be offensive back.”

Reading - or viewing - a mystery should be “magic the first time through,” St. Louis mystery writer Michael Kahn said.

Yet, Kahn knows the media world is lousy at keeping secrets. When Kahn was unable to watch the broadcast of “The Sopranos” finale last month, he came home at 12:30 a.m. and felt compelled to watch the version he’d recorded right away, knowing that was the only way to maintain the surprise. (He probably made the right decision; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a story about 36 hours later with viewers discussing the ending.)

As the writer of eight novels, Kahn knows that mysteries permeate culture, both high and low.

“People love mysteries, which is why a mystery is at the core of not merely thousands of run-of-the-mill novels but some of the great works of literature, such as Shakespeare’s `Hamlet,’ Dickens’ `Bleak House’ and Conrad’s `Heart of Darkness.’

“The first time you read any of those books, you don’t want anyone to spoil the plot. But with the great works, including Harry Potter, you can go back and read them a second time knowing how they come out, just as you can watch `Citizen Kane’ or `The Godfather’ a second time knowing how it ends.”

Shirley Kennett, another suspense writer, said the resolution was what “people plunk down their money to find out.”

Saturday was to be her designated reading day for “Deathly Hallows.”

Before then, she said, any media leaks just fueled her anticipation, noting that “it doesn’t spoil my own enjoyment.” Besides, Kennett, the author of six novels, said she suspected that only a tenth of the early “leaks” had a kernel of truth.

Posting Potter leaks on the Internet is human nature, Kennett says. “Everybody wants to be the first to know the secret.”

As many as 1,200 copies of “Deathly Hallows” were shipped early in the United States by an online retailer, and two newspapers published reviews of the book ahead of the release date. However, one of them, The New York Times, received dozens of complaints from readers.

Author J.K. Rowling said she was “staggered” by the embargo-busting reviews.

“I’d like to ask everyone who calls themselves a Potter fan to help preserve the secrecy of the plot for all those who are looking forward to reading the book at the same time on publication day,” she wrote on her Web site.

It’s naive to expect media to keep secrets, said Clyde Bentley, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who specializes in citizen journalism.

“Now, we’re just in the role of putting the information out and letting people decide what they are going to consume,” he said.

Bentley recalled how most Americans weren’t told by the 1940s press that President Franklin Roosevelt used a wheelchair.

“When the mass media was a small, select group, it was easy to keep secrets,” Bentley said. “Now we have a press corps of a million bloggers. The secrets get out, whether they are `Harry Potter’ or the affairs of a public officials.”

Whether this change in society is good or bad is probably moot, he said.

“A lot of people have been used to being protected. The Internet has forced the population to grow up and take responsibility for what they are going to read and learn,” Bentley said. In addition, he noted, there are no rules governing journalism, only self-imposed ethics.

Early reviews of “Deathly Hallows” in mainstream newspapers displayed traditional ethics by not giving away any major secrets. Although reviewers and publications have their own standards, it is rare that they would divulge the ending of a novel, mystery or otherwise.

Kahn said reviews of his works have never given away any important elements: “Reviewers are very good about not spoiling plots.”

John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, said the association had no ethics code. Still, he said, “Spoilers should never be in a book review, whether in Harry Potter or John Updike. There are many ways to describe how it feels to read a plot-driven novel without just describing the plot.”

But Internet sites with Potter discussion boards are unlikely to keep secrets. At shelfari.com, a new social site for book lovers, a post on Friday had already declared that the book’s ending was “wonderful.” The site was offering a chance to win a Rowling-signed copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for reviews of “Deathly Hallows” posted in the first week after release.

The Web site gave no guidelines on spoilers, just “write a great review and get your friends to vote for it.”

//Mixed media