What struck me, however, is a bit which deals with different ways of telling a story. Trollope has just spent a chapter laying out the possibility that young (and pretty) widow Eleanor Bold will end up marrying one of two rather self-interested suitors (both of whom had just learned that her late husband left her a lot of money.) After reveling laying out the dangers before Eleanor, Trollope then turns to the reader and says:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?
And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.
And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. "Oh, you needn't be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end." "How very ill-natured you are, Susan," says Kitty with tears in her eyes: "I don't care a bit about it now." Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.
I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
(Barchester Towers, Chapter 15, Anthony Trollope
Having moved on several chapters past this point, I have to say I think Trollope pulls off what he promises. Through some odd working of the Paradox of Suspense, despite the fact that he has now told us quite baldly that Eleanor will not marry either the oily preacher Mr. Slope or the young spendthrift Bertie Stanhope, the progress of the Eleanor plotline becomes no less riveting. Partly this is because of the nature of the conflict involved: Eleanor isn't actually attracted to either man, but people who are enlisted in the various factions of the book's main struggle work themselves up a great deal worrying that she might be. So while we may know that she won't actually marry either, the question of how the whole conflict will play out remains very much up in the air.
However, I'm inclined to take the dictum rather further than that. Perhaps I'm more than usually immune to "spoilers" (I am usually quite happy to read reviews that give the plot away and don't find my eventual enjoyment lessened, except in the case of fairly surface level "who done it" kind of stories) but I do think that most of the time the interest in a story is much more in how one gets there than where one gets. And indeed, even if I know where a story is going, I tend to still experience a strong feeling of suspense while reading it: even when I'm re-reading a book and thus know not only how it will end but how it will get there.
Nonetheless, outright telling the reader how some plot point will end up, as Trollope does here, is unusual (though don't be concerned, the eels don't get Buttercup either.) Should it be? Can most stories not withstand "spoilers"? Or would "would people still be interested in reading if they knew how this revolved?" be a good self-test for authors in determining whether they're writing something of sufficient interest?