The writer’s brain has two parts — the Imaginer and the Editor. Similar to these are two different parts of the reading brain: the Listener and the Critic.
Both writing and reading are complex activities. There’s more to writing than following rules and more to reading than seeing words on a page or screen.
It may be that the only thing a piece of fiction needs to do in order to be a success is engage the Listener in the reader’s brain. Like a kid by the campfire, all it wants is a good story. Once the Listener is engaged, details that bother the Critic — lapses in grammar, spelling mistakes, or typos — don’t matter. Not even plodding prose, cardboard characters, or warmed-over plots. As long as the Listener part of the reading brain wants to know what happens next and how the story ends, the reader will keep on reading.
This may explain some of those five star rave reviews for what discerning, critical readers believe to be mediocre books.
Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members must perforce read in Critic mode. People who aren’t writers and are simply looking for entertainment, amusement, or diversion read in Listener mode.
This is why many (maybe most) writers are unable to read purely for fun. Poor things, they’re stuck in Critic mode. Typos, errors, and lazy writing habits irritate them and break the reading experience. Even when reading a stellar piece of work, they end up comparing what they’re reading to their own writing, rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the story.
This may also be why many readers don’t write reviews. If you’ve sailed through a book in Listener mode, it’s hard to marshal your thoughts about it to the point of expressing them in prose.
Most beta readers are also writers, and feel obligated to read critically. Perhaps another category (“alpha readers”) is needed — folks who read purely for entertainment but are willing to comment on their experience of a specific book.
Anything an alpha reader notes as problematic would need the writer’s urgent attention. Niggly details noted by the beta readers can be dealt with later. There’s no point in polishing your prose if no one cares where your story is going or what happens at the end.
Maybe all this applies mainly to genre fiction — stories with inciting incidents, arcs and climaxes, and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Literary fiction, with its emphasis on artful prose, symbolism, and underlying themes, is a different matter. Even so, literary writers may want to consider recruiting one or two alpha readers from among their acquaintances.
So, fellow writers, do any of you seek out alpha readers? Are you able to read uncritically, purely for enjoyment?