Up to a few months ago I’d never heard the term ‘Beta- reader’ and honestly I kind of hate it. I’m not kidding. I get the relationship between it and the whole computer program, game-playing culture and I’ll freely admit that it fits but ugh. It sucks. But it still fits so we’ll run with it until something a little more poetic comes by. Anyone? Please? Come up with something better. It grates on me. So fix it people! Please your weird blogger.
Anyway. For the time being we’re going to run with it.
I get the concept. You have a few select readers – or victims – peruse your erstwhile completely untested and frequently quite unfinished manuscript to work out the kinks. Sort of like sending the babe off to kindergarten – if kindergarten was Lord of the Flies. Which it sort of is isn’t it? Writers need this sort of thing. Nothing flies when it first tests its little wings. You have to give it some time, some encouragement, let the people you trust shower some advice and attention on the little feller and get some air under its wings. That’s what it’s all about. In theory at least.
Many folks seem to think that beta reading is a nice way to sharpen their critical teeth on someone else’s work. You get the input back and within the first sentence you can practically envision that reader furrowing their brow as they slip on the tweed jacket they’ve reserved JUST for this purpose. They clamp the pipe they don’t smoke between those sharpened teeth and then they bite. Hard. Right into your little bird that hasn’t done a thing to them except peep hopefully at them. They seem to think that this is their chance to show their chops (choppers) at VALID LITERARY CRITICISM. Like that’s actually a thing. Like that’s exactly what they should be doing.
Well stop it. If that’s you… close your salivating mouth. Save it for the book review published to much imagined praise in the anals of the New Yorker. (Yes… that is what I meant.) Here’s a tip: YOU ARE NOT HAROLD BLOOM. And even if you are Harold Bloom this is not the time for it. Your basic job, that you have been entrusted with, is to be helpful. No matter how godawful the thing you’re reading actually is you are NOT permitted to say things like ‘why are you wasting my time’ or ‘didactic’ or ‘good lord, you should really think of doing something else.’ You may think these things and that is perfectly fine but your job is to be helpful. You are reading for concept, flow, tension, character. You are reading for compassion. Act that way. Be critically brilliant somewhere else on your own time.
Now I’m sure we’ve all sat in some tiny room at one point or another around a table at which we are being fed piecemeal to the class and masticated by a professor whose own books didn’t sell well enough to avoid having to teach. How did that feel? Good? Nah. I’m guessing it sucked. Was it actually helpful? In my case I can say all it did was puff up my own writerly ego and made it don armor against such stuff. You know how it goes: first it’s “good lord that hurt like lemon juice on a bee sting.” Then it’s like “oh yeah? what the hell do you know you little turd. Wait till I get a chance to review YOUR stupid story…”
Do not give a writer an excuse to grow a whopping ego. It’s pretty much the worst offense any writer can ever commit. They start thinking stupid things like ‘I am the author of the universe.’ or worse ‘I made that.’ If you are Beta Reading you first goal should be – really – to help said writer to put down that ego. The ego is the biggest impediment to decent writing there ever was. Which is amazing considering the best writers ever had MASSIVE egos. Maybe that’s why. They somehow managed to put it away while writing then looked upon their own works and thought ‘dang. I’m pretty awesome.’ and then they believed it. As Ricky Roma put it in Glengarry Glen Ross: “your job is to HELP US. Not FUCK US UP.”
To do that you need to have some compassion. Realize that the person behind the excremental piece of trash that you are slogging your way through is trying to do the best they can. They are doing the best they can. AND THEY CHOSE YOU to help make it better. Why? Yes. Because they kind of think you’re at least a little bit awesome. That’s called respect. What happens when you dance around on their blessedly ugly little bird? They stop thinking you’re in any way awesome and now think you’re a total turd out to kill the things they love. And why would they think that? Because you just did. Congrats. Douche.
So have some respect. You wouldn’t go up to a friend who just had a baby and say ‘Awww… Congratulations… but seriously, don’t you think it’s not too late to abort?’ If you are I’m guessing you don’t have too many friends and have gotten used to being punched in the face. And besides, I know you think you were a virgin birth that came borne fully on a sun-beam to the tune of angels but really you came out kinda tiny and gross just like the rest of us. Harold Bloom might be a titan of literary criticism but at one point he too was a geeky little book nerd and you still aren’t him. So have a little humility and appreciate when someone wants you to read. Take it seriously. If you don’t think you can reign in that penchant for critical brutality (or worse yet, think it’s somehow necessary to ‘toughen someone up’ – sadist) then DON’T AGREE TO DO IT. It’s that simple.