Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dear Writers and Editors: Some Cautions about Selecting Beta Readers

Dear Writers and Editors,

I know that one strategy that you use to check the accuracy or authenticity of a manuscript with characters who are "other" to the writer is to have someone of that "other" group read the manuscript. In the language used in the industry, this means to get a "beta reader" for the manuscript.

I've read several author notes in the last couple of years wherein the author states that they had beta reader(s) from the Native communities featured in their books.

Writers: are you creating a Native character in your story? Editors: is your author including Native content? This blog post is for you. There are several things you should know about selecting beta readers.

Research universities across the United States have guidelines specific to populations that have experienced abuse by researchers. These include children and minorities. These guidelines are also published by government agencies. Do a search and you'll find them. There are many things to consider. A key thing to consider is how the research will impact that person. May they be inadvertently hurt by participating? Are there things you'll do, that you did not realize, that could cause harm? These guidelines aren't just about medicines. They apply to educational researchers, too, who--for example--want to interview youth about their experiences.

You may not work for a university and therefore think you're exempt from those guidelines. When you're doing research within a Native community, however, there are tribal protocols that you must follow.

Native Nations across the United States also have guidelines in place to protect their members/citizens and the tribe's intellectual and cultural property (and yes, that includes traditional stories). Before you are pack your bag and head to a reservation, Native center, or museum, find the website of the specific nation you're planning to include in your story. Many have guidelines posted on their websites, or phone numbers of people you can speak to in advance of your trip.

Some universities have the protocols for nations near them at their site. Northern Arizona University, for example, has the protocols for the Hopi Nation on the university website.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Montana State University's Center for Native Health Partnerships have a publication that is an excellent overview of working with Native Nations: Walk Softly and Listen Carefully. (Note: if the link doesn't work, write to me directly and I'll send you the pdf.)

Speaking to a tour guide at a museum is not enough. They are not the person with the authority to work with you. Obviously they're interested in education but there's an important distinction in what they do, and what a tribe's research board does.

Perhaps you are a current or former teacher of Native kids, teens, or adults. Your impulse may be to ask them to be a beta reader. In that relationship, there may be a huge power dynamic that you're unaware of. If they consent but then seem to be avoiding you or putting you off, I suggest you take that as a sign that they don't want to hurt your feelings or the relationship you have.

Most writers, editors, critics, and scholars (like me) have studied literary criticism, critical theory, social justice, racism, and the like. That may not be true for your beta readers. Be especially mindful of that difference. If, however, your teen/Native beta reader is involved in Native activism, the chances that you'll get good feedback are better.

In my second paragraph above, I noted authors that have used a Native person as a beta reader. Last year I did a very detailed analysis of an ARC of Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She thanked a beta reader in the ARC. My analysis circulated widely amongst Native networks, including amongst students and staff at the school Sappenfield visited for her research. In the published copy of Sappenfield's book, the name and identity of the beta reader are gone. I don't know why, but perhaps you (writers and editors) can find out from Sappenfield or her editor.

Years ago, I pointed to tribal protocols during a discussion on child_lit (a listserv). One response was a somewhat snarky "how are they going to enforce it"? It struck me, then, as dismissive of something vitally important to respectful ways of living. We can do better than that snarky response, right?

The point is--take care in selecting beta readers for your manuscript.


David Jón Fuller said...

Hi Debbie: One question I have is on how best to identify problematic aspects of an MS or story. One thing is to get feedback on accuracy -- did I get this right, or are there differing experiences that are being excluded? -- but I wonder too about how to ask about context, whether a representation may get facts correct but is still tone-deaf, if I can say that. A further level is about the literary criticism, such as "Am I retreading a damaging trope here?" Would you recommend seeking different beta readers or editors to look at these different aspects, ie. people from the community who may have different expertise or specializations?

Debbie Reese said...

Tone deaf is a great way to think about how/where books go off the rails. It is accurate to say, for example, that someone died but if they were murdered and that murder is glossed or ignored, then we have a case of a writer being tone deaf. On the other end of that, there are writers who go overboard and thereby overwhelm the humanity of the person/people involved.

Seeking help from people with specific expertise is a good idea if that help is available, but if we're talking about tropes, that isn't something that needs to be on the page in the first place.

I'm not sure I am being helpful to you in this reply or not, but am willing to talk more about it.

David Jón Fuller said...

Yes, this is very helpful -- and I agree about tropes, those are not something I want to have in the story, or at least, not without criticizing them or exploding them. I'm trying to be more aware of the effects a story has on whomever is reading it.