Honestly, I call bullshit.
First of all, there are stories like the one mentioned in a recent episode of I Should Be Writing: crit groups turned mutual appreciation societies. I've heard of this happening again and again, both online and in real life. It seems to me that there is a powerful tendency in writer's groups to develop toxic social norms. Real criticism is unsafe and frowned upon; only bland positive feedback is permitted.
Secondly, there's my personal experience. My alpha reader is the Abigail, a former English major and avid consumer of short and long science fiction and fantasy (well, mostly fantasy). My alpha and a half reader (in that he lives across the Internet and usually doesn't get to my work until after the Abigail has had a crack at it) is Nathaniel Lee, of Mirrorshards. My beta readers are the aspiring writers of the Escape Artists' writer's forum (it's hidden on their regular forum - you need to message a moderator to join). Of the three, only the folks at EA even resemble an anonymous and disinterested group. Most importantly, I have had no difficulty getting cutting negative feedback from the Abigail and Nathan when it's appropriate.
I know that single exceptions don't actually disprove established rules, so I'm going to provide the mechanism by which my system works:
- Because most people are basically nice, only someone who really cares about you will tell you when you suck. Getting someone to tell you when you suck is even harder when they know that you are going to get a turn telling them that they suck. This is how mutual appreciation societies form - everyone is afraid to be the one to give negative feedback because they don't want to be the first to receive negative feedback. Norms form (as they will) until negativity is outlawed.
- Not all feedback is created equal. With all due respect to my beta readers, I usually get the best and most useful feedback from Nathan and the Abigail. They are both intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful (well, the Abigail anyway) (Nathan - imagine me sticking my tongue out at you). I know them, I trust them, and they tend to have more useful and specific things to say.
- I've found it especially true that people who get me get my work and people who don't, don't. When the point of a story is obscure or poorly communicated, people who understand me are more likely to understand what I'm going for and help me draw it out. People who don't understand me are more likely to completely miss the point and give me feedback that sends me in the wrong direction. I'll concede that an audience who can miss the point this way is important, because I need to know if my point is that hard to get... but when it comes to getting me back on track, it's the people who know me who can lead the way.
- Finally, and relatedly, relationship is key. Readers who know me and know what I find interesting can make much more cutting and perceptive comments. The Abigail knows when I'm shying away from a decision I'm excited about but afraid my audience won't get. Nathan isn't afraid to point out when I'm being too nice to my characters. In my experience, this insight is priceless.
Now is the time on the Burning Zeppelin Experience when I undermine my own point with concessions to the very thing I'm railing against.
Firstly, I do believe that there is a time and a place for an anonymous crit group. It is incredibly useful to have a group of people, hooked in to some kind of feedback mechanism, who can let you know what an audience is going to make of your work. After all, not everyone is going to be as intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful as the Abigail (and Nathan). Not everyone is going to know me as well, either.
Secondly, I also know that I have lucked the heck out. I'm married to a former English major, with whom I share a love of fantastic fiction and roleplaying games (in fact, I'd better wrap this post up so I can finish planning our next Exalted session...). I have a college buddy who is a talented writer, but in such a way that he is my complementary inverse (rather than being so different we have nothing to say to each other or so similar we share all the same foibles). Not everyone is going to be so fortunate.
I can't help but set myself up against the common wisdom. I think that alpha and beta readers who understand you, care about you, and relate to your work are absolutely indispensable, much more so than an anonymous or distant crit group.
Until next time, remember, that Zeppelin stands alone.