In which I ramble about art & criticism

I feel like it should be kind of taboo for a writer to talk about the beta reading experience, except in very general ways. I mean, beta readers are giving up their free time — which I am certainly stingy with myself — to offer free criticism on a manuscript. And it’s absolutely vital, especially for people serious about achieving excellence. Given how reticent almost everyone is about giving critical feedback, I wouldn’t want to do anything that jeopardizes engagement.

All that to say, I apologize if this is a little vague.

But beta feedback is really difficult to sort through. In the first place, everyone’s experience of the text is valid. And I don’t mean that in a New Age-y, touchy-feely way. With books, even more than with movies or even comics (although those too), the experience is necessarily personal. So much of what is passively presented on film must be “unpacked” by the reader. Yet, there are only so many things an author can say about the setting, for example, before the description starts to get tedious. Good writers must be both parsimonious and artful, which is what Hemingway was getting at when he said you didn’t need to tell people about the boat or the fisherman or the water. Just tell them about the glint of dew on the fishing line, and they would bring all the rest with them for “free.”A book is not a passive medium, like a TV. It has to be read, to be stretched upon the canvas of the mind, and the narrative is built out of that based on the reader’s own experiences and expectations. It’s akin to a reader staging their own play with their own sets and cast. It’s its own creative act, and so it is necessarily valid. (Or at least it is not INvalid.)

But then, if each reader’s experience is valid, it means no one reader’s experience is canon, and so writers must become critical readers of their own critical feedback. Just as each beta reader unpacks the text in their head, so each writer must do the same with criticism. They have to infer and construct the reader’s critical milieu in their heads based on cues and experience.

For example, I am usually able to tell who didn’t engage with the story. I can’t describe this feeling in a few sentences, but it’s usually quite clear. There is a kind of detached language coupled with an odd preoccupation with minute detail. This person did not unpack the narrative in their mind; they studied it at arm’s length.

I usually discount such feedback. As much as I appreciate the time and effort — truly, per my comments above — it’s just not very useful to me. Not every reader is going to be a reader of mine, and I am not trying to make a book everyone will enjoy, not least because no such thing is possible. I’m trying to write a book that “readers of mine” would enjoy, where that class is both fluid and fuzzy at the edges.

Now, I said “usually” because it does happen that people who would otherwise be “readers of mine,” based on earlier experience, don’t engage with the story, which is what happened with the first draft of Episode Three, which is why I took the time to completely re-write it.

And then there’s the fact that if you ask people for criticism, they’re going to find things to criticize. It’s a lesson I learned in my corporate career working with lawyers and auditors, whose job it is to pick at things. A healthy business can become sickly merely by hiring a lawyer. (I once asked a VP at Ernst & Young if, in 35 years, he had ever produced a clean audit — that is, NOT found any issue — and he just smiled and said “Well, that’s not what you do, is it?”)

That being said, as a writer you have asked for feedback, so it makes no sense to simply turn around and ignore it once it comes. It’s just that deciding what to do with it isn’t always easy.

Neil Gaiman once said that when people tell you something doesn’t work, they are usually right, but when they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong. I think that’s true, but only in the aggregate. “Doesn’t work” is defined in the plural. Multiple people need suggest a problem for it not to be idiosyncratic.

Thus, regardless of what appears in my inbox — and for those who’ve never solicited beta readers, responses range from “I really liked this story and I feel bad because I don’t know what else to say” to “Here is an itemized list of everything wrong with the book compete with page numbers for reference and suggestions for how to fix it!” — beta feedback is not any of that. It is NOT what beta readers have typed. It is, like the experience of a novel in the reader’s mind, a virtual entity constructed in my head from my readings of the complete volume of feedback, and it may include all or none of what any individual reported.

This is, like anything else, something one can either be good or bad at, and I suspect those who are better at it, naturally, are the ones producing better books. And so, as arrogant as it may sound, I must conclude that grows from the talent of the author, not the quality of the feedback.

That is, critics don’t make artists better. Better artists grow out of criticism.