Beta Readers on the Attack—When Critiques Get Personal: Guest Blog by Bonnie Bracken

Wallis Simpson 1936
courtesy of Wikipedia

What happens when a writing critique strays from  constructive criticism and becomes an attack on the writer and her writing? I invited historical novelist Bonnie Bracken to share her experience with her recent critique experience. If you’ve ever felt attacked by a beta reader or critique partner, you’ll want to read this.

When I decided to write a novel with Wallis Simpson as my leading lady, I knew my battle to seduce the senior female demographic would be sizeable. They grew up with Edward VIII as a handsome prince, touring the world for the sake of the monarchy’s popularity. He was the original celebrity, held up in the everyday girl’s mind to sell the fantasy: maybe someday he’ll pick me. The same thing happens today: single girls are secretly disappointed when they find out the latest heartthrob got a girlfriend and—gasp—it wasn’t them.

So when Edward picked a woman whose appearance was opposite to the angelic standard of beauty, the press didn’t have to work hard to make her unpopular. She was subjectively ugly with sharp features and dark hair, so half their work was already done. All they had to do was stoke the fire. They painted Wallis blacker than any other woman of the twentieth century. She was the original That Woman, and the nasty press about her was second only by the vicious attacks against Monica Lewinsky. (By the way Monica, my admiration for you is without limits; your recent interviews are the picture of bravery and strength. Brava.)

I knew this sentiment was out there. I knew it. But the level of vitriol and venom in these women’s reactions to my work shocked me to my core. It was as if Wallis personally banged their boyfriend and then with a toss of her hair walked out the door without so much as a good-bye. That heartless bitch.

How much leeway does an author have in assigning thoughts, feelings, or traits to her characters, especially when writing #historical #fiction? Share on X

Examples from the Critique

“You’re writing a book about Wallis Simpson? You can’t do that.”

“I still don’t understand how a man could be with someone who’s ugly and mean. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way he’d be with her.”

“Trust me, I did a report on Wallis. She was anal retentive and was extremely fearful of people thinking she was a slut.”

When I heard that last one, I immediately thought, “Are you sure you don’t mean you don’t want people to perceive you as a slut?’ In all of my research (which includes reading half a dozen biographies and all the base documents they stem from: the FBI Files, documents in the London Archives and the German Foreign Policy Documents) I’ve never once read this sentiment. Not once. In fact, Wallis was the opposite, embracing her sexuality in the 1920s at a time before we really had a definition for the new modern women. So here we hit our first nerve of the day: The reader projecting their skeletons onto a character where those skeletons don’t otherwise exist.

I’ve practiced pitching this book on anyone with ears, so I started expecting the “Wallis was a witch” reaction from the sixty-plus demographic. Inside I would brace myself and say, “We’ve got another victim of Lord Beaverbrock’s press barrage on our hands.” I have won over some of these women once they read my book. In fact, I get most of them in the end, but it’s a fight. Mostly because their preconceived notions are so embedded and sealed with confirmation bias. It’s a hard shell to crack. But it’s crackable when presented with enough hard facts.

Killing the Messenger

However, this last weekend I took a severe, critical beating at my writers group when I presented a chapter where Wallis attends her divorce hearing to separate from Ernest Simpson. The critique comments started off with the same old slop: learned bias and not the words on the page. But this time something new came up. Continue reading “Beta Readers on the Attack—When Critiques Get Personal: Guest Blog by Bonnie Bracken”