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Dear Story Nurse,
My cousin went through an unusual change during college. Rather than becoming a liberal, fire-breathing, intersectional feminist, she turned to evangelical Christianity and takes heteronormative roles very seriously. It saddens me as a feminist and a bisexual woman that she believes what she does. But she seems very happy in her marriage and life, so I’m not going to say anything.
She’s offered to beta-read my novel. I’m happy that she wants to, free feedback is valuable, but my novel centers around a lesbian. I’m worried that at best, she’ll tell me to tone down the gay stuff (don’t worry, there’s no way in hell am I going to do that) and at worst, she’ll reject me and I’ll be blamed for the ensuing family drama. I don’t see this ending well and I don’t know what to do.
Worried Author (she/her)
Dear Worried Author,
It sounds to me like there are a couple of options here that could save you both a lot of stress:
- Turn her down. “Thanks for your offer, but I’m all set for beta readers.” If she pushes you, repeat yourself: “I really appreciate that, but I’m all set.”
- Tell her that your book is about a lesbian and that you’re not open to any feedback regarding the book’s queer content. Then ask whether she still wants to beta read it, reassuring her that it’s fine to say no.
Free beta reading doesn’t mean beta reading without boundaries. You get to decide who sees your book in this draft stage, when you and the story are both very vulnerable. If this cousin isn’t someone whose opinion you want or need right now, then it’s perfectly fine to decline her offer and put your time and energy into finding other beta readers who are a better fit.
Similarly, she should have the opportunity to repeat or retract the offer once you give her more information. Any beta reader should know what type of book they’re signing up to read, just as a reader picking up your book in a bookstore or online will read the blurb and look at the cover art and check the reviews to see whether it’s something they’re likely to be into. (Presumably you’d also warn your cousin if the book was in a genre she doesn’t usually like, contained explicit violence or sex, or had content she was likely to find upsetting for whatever reason.) If you don’t want to turn down your cousin’s offer, describe the book to her so she has the opportunity to give, or withhold, informed consent. Maybe she’ll surprise you and say she’s totally fine with reading a book with a lesbian protagonist. Maybe she’ll be relieved to have the chance to back out. Either way, it’s a better approach than emailing her your manuscript cold and then hiding from your email and all family reunions for the next hundred years.
If you feel awkward saying “My heroine is a lesbian, is that cool with you?”, that’s a good reason to go back to option one and turn down her offer, since her learning that the heroine is a lesbian by reading the manuscript will undoubtedly be even more awkward. You know she’s not a fan of queer people, and she knows you know. She would be quite right to be upset with you for not giving her advance notice of queer content in your book. She doesn’t get to judge you for what you choose to write, but providing her with relevant information is about navigating the beta reading relationship, not about whether there’s anything wrong with writing a queer protagonist.
It’s not clear to me whether your cousin knows you’re bisexual, but I’m guessing not, since you mention being concerned that she will reject not just your book but you. If that’s the case, telling your cousin that your book has a lesbian protagonist may feel tantamount to coming out to her—or she may assume you’re coming out to her even if you’re very clear that you’re talking about a fictional character. If that sounds like the road to mutual misery and possible schisms, turning her down is your best choice. She may be sad or confused, but better a small sadness than a lot of drama. Coming out to her should be a thing you choose to do in your own way and your own time, and ideally without ambiguity or confusion about what you’re trying to tell her.
If you do send the manuscript to her and she writes back with anti-queer comments, you can always reject her critique. You don’t need to tell her anything other than “Thanks, I’ll think about what you said” (a handy phrase borrowed from the mighty Captain Awkward) and then think about it just enough to consign it to the circular file. Or you can get into a fight with her over it, if that’s what feels morally necessary to you, but remember that that’s one option among many.
The best beta reader for your book is one who’s primed to love it, and who can work with you to make it the best possible book on its own terms. If you think your cousin can be that reader, make sure by giving her more info up front. If you don’t think she can, or if you want to minimize your risk, turn her down and move on. What’s important is that you do the best thing for yourself and your work.
Good luck! I hope you come out of this one way or another with a few good beta readers and lots of critique that’s useful and supportive and gets you raring to revise.