“A Streetcar Named Desire” made the phrase “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” infamous. While it is hard not to wince when the naive yet tragic Blanche DuBois utters it, I think that part of our discomfort comes from knowing that we all do rely sometimes on the goodwill of those we don’t know. Having spent the whole play or movie learning of the cruel events in Blanche’s life, this truth makes us uncomfortable, whether we find Blanche a likeable character or not.
Yet there it is. Reach out beyond your normal existence and you expose yourself to the danger that those unknown to you are devoid of compassion, at least for your particular welfare. It makes a person want to stay home and deal with no one but close friends and relatives. At least, one is inclined to stick with citizens of their own “village”, those who share customs, race, religion and nationality. When possible, one even seeks out those with common age and gender too. It’s safer that way, or so we think.
Enter the internet. Those of us who have years of clear memory before it existed still marvel at the way it can and does put perfect strangers in touch with each other. Yes, we’ve added safety rails all over the place. We rank and review each other and turn to moderators and block the obnoxious. But how does it go when we find we need some strangers in our life?
If you write books, you want a few people you’ve never met to read your novels before you take them to the next step. Friends and family have certain understandable shortcomings for this task, as I wrote about on my other blog. It turns out that the internet is full of unknown curious people, some of whom will actually volunteer to read your book. Should you let them?
If it seems like an easy yes, consider how much of ones heart goes into creating a novel. It is personal. Feedback delivered too harshly can stop any endeavor. Consider that you are depending on people, waiting on them before you continue with a task that means the world to you. They may lie to you, stringing you along with promises of feedback coming before they disappear, leaving you to wonder why they bothered with such a charade. Consider that they are strangers, and you are taking a risk with them.
My most recent novel is now in the hands of thirteen people, eight of whom I’ve never met. I’ve just heard from an older tax accountant in England who admires Margaret Thatcher, and from two young Hindu women engineers who share a passion for enlarging women’s rights in India. The British gentleman and I have played online word games for years and though we disagree about politics he has enjoyed my other books and agreed to beta read this one. My connection with the young women from India stems from one of them winning a copy of my first novel. So they aren’t total strangers, but we’ve never looked each other in the eye either, and I’ve just asked a lot of them.
Their feedback? Helpful. Very helpful, actually. These folks spent a lot of time, caught a lot of minor mistakes, and bothered to describe their best ideas for improving my story, and they did it all very kindly. The only rewards I have to give will be a thank you at the end of the book, and a t-shirt.(I do like to give away t-shirts.) I hope that I get to meet each of them someday,and they will be strangers no longer.
It’s an odd world. We can all choose to stay inside our own cozy homes, hoping never to get caught in a storm. It is true that storms can be dangerous. Or we can go outside every so often anyway, and feel the rain. It may be the best way to find a beta reader for one’s book. It’s the only way to turn strangers into friends.