Why I Don’t Read Reviews of My Books or Profiles of Myself.

Yay! Better Than Before was reviewed this weekend in the New York Times, in a  piece by Hanna Rosin. You can read it here. Here’s the illustration that accompanied it — flossing seems to be one of the paradigmatic habits-that-everyone-wants.

I was thrilled to included — these days, very few of the books that are published get a review there. But I don’t know what the review says.

Years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, a novelist friend’s book was reviewed in the Times.

I wrote him an email to say, “Great review, congratulations!” He wrote me back, “I don’t read reviews of my work, so I don’t know what it said, but I’m happy to hear that it was a good review.”

I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t understand this at all. How could he not read a review of his own book?

But now I understand, completely.

And these days I don’t read reviews of my books, or profiles of myself.

For a long time, I forced myself to read reviews and profiles, even though I hated doing it. It always upset me (weirdly, even a terrific review upset me) and certain phrases continued to ring through my head as I was writing, for years. Then one day I thought, “Wait, I don’t have to do this.”

Believe me, I’m delighted to get any spotlight on my work. I deeply appreciate the fact that someone has thought that it was worth a hard look. I’m very happy when my books get reviewed.

But I’ve found that I’m happier, and a better writer, when I don’t read these pieces.

For the kind of writing I do, I need to be honest and open-hearted. I have a very thin skin, and if I read something negative — even slightly negative — I feel attacked and defensive and self-conscious. That’s not good for my writing (or for my spirit).

True, I might get helpful criticism about my future writing from a review — but maybe not.

I have many, many smart people around me who give me plenty of constructive criticism about my writing. Plenty. Even though it’s sometimes difficult to handle that criticism, I do it. Each time I have trouble facing a round of edits, I shake myself and remember, “This person is helping me.”

But because of the negativity bias, negative comments are far more memorable than positive comments, and I worry that my writing will become distorted by my reaction.

This happened to me with audio-books. I recorded The Happiness Project myself, and although I try not to read reviews, somehow I glimpsed a comment where a reader said that my reading was “flat.”

So when it came time to record my next book, Happier at Home, I thought, “I’d better let a real actor do the reading. It’s fun for me to record my books, but a proper actor will give readers a better experience.”

But no! So many people wrote to tell me that they wished that I’d read Happier at Home myself, and many wrote explicitly to ask me if I’d recorded Better Than Before. (I did. Read about it here.) One person’s comment had influenced me far too much.

Again, I realize that this is a wonderful problem to have. I’ve written seven books, and I sure know what it’s like not to get any attention for a book, at all.

And I’m not sure that I’ll be able to resist taking a look at this review. It is the New York Times, after all! But so far, I haven’t.

Spoiler alert — in an upcoming episode of our podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Elizabeth talks about a related problem, when she accidentally asked for criticism when she should’ve asked for praise.

P.S. I do read every comment that’s made to this blog, so obviously, please don’t say anything in a comment that means that I’ll inadvertently imbibe the review.

  • mom2luke

    Oh you have to hear at least this, Gretchen! The reviewer: “To get another important question out of the way: Why do we need another book about habits when Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” has been on the best-­seller list for over three years? I’m not sure, but at least the books are very different.”

    It’s kudos to you Gretchen that you were not afraid to take on Habits, and put your own analysis to work on the WHY some of us fail while others succeed (rebel, upholder, obliger, questioner tendencies) … I’ve enjoyed BOTH books… Thanks to both you and Charles Duhigg for new insights.

  • Ha. I just finished writing a review of your book on my blog, and I was going to apologize at the end of the post for referring to you as “Gretchen” throughout the review, instead of “Rubin,” or something else more professional but I guess since you are not going to read my post, it doesn’t matter! 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the review! I so appreciate it! (even if I can’t read it)

  • The NYT review was awesome – you can read it. Of course, you can read it with your hands covering your eyes and peeking out in between your fingers. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      OK – knowing that is very nice!

  • s_ifat

    I read all that you write, I love your writing, but even I don’t agree with everything you say. I think it’s natural. the point isn’t if people like your work, the point is that it’s out there. even when I don’t agree with what you write, you make me think. sometimes a lot! I love this famous quote byTheodore Roosevelt: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Amen

  • Great post. It’s fabulous to see that someone who’s successful freely admit that they have a thin skin. As someone who’d like to put their work out into the public arena I’ve always held myself back because of my self-diagnosed thin skin. So now you’ve just destroyed that excuse for me. Thanks 😉 🙂 Congratulations on the books and the success and thank you for sharing your perspective. <3

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! And good luck with your work!

  • Mimi Gregor

    I have a friend who writes, and I really wish that she would follow your lead and not read reviews of her work. Most of the reviews she gets are positive and put her over the moon. However, just a wee bit of criticism, and she is in the depths of despair and whining to all her friends. Not a pretty picture, and a bit tiresome as she focuses all her energy on that one slightly negative comment and ignores all the hyperbolic flattery that she has been given. I think the thing is to get beyond all people’s opinions — positive or negative (and that’s all they are — opinions). I know… tall order. One can always see what needs to be done; actually carrying it out is another matter entirely.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I will refrain from commenting on the review except to say that it is definitely something to be pleased about, and focus on the great graphic you chose for this post. It’s true! I really did floss, floss, floss and get ‘good job’! from the dental hygienist. So there. The small stuff — and it IS all small stuff — turns out to be big stuff in the end. Thanks for all you do.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank you!

  • Dazzle’s Daughter

    I’ve been listening to Before and After ad nauseum, while working on house projects and as I drive around by myself in my car. I feel as though you’re a friend to me. And even though I’m a rebel (what?!), according to your quiz that I took twice, I am assimilating many habit-like behaviors that make me feel more in command of my life. Lately, I had been experiencing my life as a series of petty annoyances getting in the way of my freedom, so this feels like a huge improvement. Thanks for being that angel on my shoulder, Gretchen. Your reading is not “flat” in the slightest. You are 3D in my book!

    • Dazzle’s Daughter

      Oh, and most importantly, you are very wise to not look at reviews, either good or bad, my friend! They are two sides of the same coin. Follow YOUR instincts as much as you can. You have head and heart. Thanks again.

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s great to hear that my work strikes a chord with you —

  • Katy TerBerg

    I wrote a screenplay a few years ago and sent it to an expert. He tore it apart, calling it one of the worst he’s ever read. Rather than pursue it, I abandoned the project. It does get very discouraging to pour your heart and soul into something only to get panned for it, so any coping mechanism is great. This clearly works well for you, and we all have to find what allows us to stay proactive.

    • gretchenrubin

      If I remember correctly, I think it was James Atlas who wrote his first novel, and got such a discouraging review that he stopped writing fiction altogether. It can be very disruptive.

  • Blair424

    I read the review, and it seems to be more about the reviewer and her own relationship to habits than about your book. In fact, I don’t think it really gives readers enough information to know whether or not they should buy “Better Than Before”. So I guess I’m giving the review a bad review. By the way, I lost my thin-skinned-ness several years ago when I was a graduate teaching assistant and read my student evaluations at the end of each semester. It was hard to believe they were all writing about the same person! Some said I was great, some said I was average, and some said I was awful (and some were pretty nasty about it). First of all, I learned to accept that I really have no control over what other people think of me. Second, I learned that people can be two-faced–some of the worst evaluations were from students I thought liked me. And third, I learned to triage criticism into (1) valid criticism I can do something about, (2) valid criticism I can’t do anything about, and (3) invalid criticism I can ignore.

    • gretchenrubin

      A review of the review! Excellent.

      • Blair424

        Did you know Hanna Rosin when you did your Happiness Project blog for Slate?

        • gretchenrubin

          No, our paths never crossed.

  • Karen R.

    I would argue that you are “appropriately thin-skinned” – you have learned to handle constructive criticism by people you respect, and who want you to succeed, but have learned to ignore criticism (and possibly kudos) by people who don’t have any interest in your success, and who don’t know what you are all about or what you have gone through to write your piece. If you were so thick-skinned that you would be unaffected by all the reviews and profile pieces, you might lose your empathy and sensitivity. Those qualities come through in your writing, which I have found to be compelling and very helpful.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! That’s very nice to hear.

  • Phoenix

    I would love to hear more about how you write a blog and books while being thinned-skinned. Writing to me is a joy–my day job is writing legal stuff and in my free time, I enjoy reading and writing fiction. But I never share my fiction because it is more of a personal joy and I’m afraid with my thin-skin, sharing my hobby would make me no longer enjoy it. Are there ways to share this hobby without risking losing its joy?

    • gretchenrubin

      Well, putting anything out there opens you up to some degree of negative response, that’s true. For me, I enjoy sharing it more than I dread the possibility of negative response – though as you see, I minimize that to the extent that I can!

  • AimeeJ

    Having not been acquainted with your previous work at all Grechen, I read the New York Times review, via a link on the Financial Times email last week and thought “this is the book for me”. Amazon next day delivery, thank you, and immediately love the way you write and how much sense you make. Having carried it around for a week I am only half way through, but you’ve already convinced me to schedule more, to get more done “If it’s on the calendar, it will get done” etc!
    So, I make an appointment to go and try the new Apple Watch at the Regent Street store on Saturday 11th, to help me make a decision whether to buy it (Questioner and an accumulator, who likes to track things) and whose event poster do I see in the door way?? YOURS! It was fate I tell you. See you at 6pm!
    So even though you, wisely, don’t read your reviews, I for one am very glad it was written.

    • gretchenrubin

      Fate! Love it! See you in an hour.

      This is why reviews are good —

    • Shari

      Aimee, I was just thinking about this book earlier today. I’m going to pull it out and read that section again. Thanks.

  • Jeanne

    I find that when I fear the opinions of others too much, it’s time to re-read “The Four Agreements.” One of the agreements is “Don’t take ANYTHING personally.” The opinions of others are ALWAYS about them, not you. Others can only define you or your work if you let them. Tomorrow I’m going to hang a one-woman show at a local cultural center. All the months leading up to it (I’m showing 35 pieces!) has been pure fun. Suddenly last night, I was gripped with fear and self-doubt. “They’re all awful, I don’t want anyone to see them!” Madness! These moments happen, and we just need to ignore them and press ahead. If the public likes my art or not, it’s been a blast making it, and success has already been achieved. I will remember that anything anyone says about my work is true, and its opposite is also true (too much red, not enough red). Life is in the eye of the beholder. And ultimately, it’s only me who gets to decide how much red is in my work.

  • Alison Pike

    Reviews can be VERY misleading! I am a professor, and now that module evaluations are on-line rather than paper & pencil, not many students complete them. I started trying to speed up because of one or two students saying that I lecture too slowly — wrong. They were in a firm minority.

    I am one of the many who was disappointed that you did not narrate Happier at Home, and I’m so glad you did narrate your latest book. If you’re ever out of things to do(!), please consider narrating the Happier at Home book too. It would make me so happy!

    I am indulging in a week-long blog series of gems from Better than Before that have already had an impact. I promise I am nice:

    http://thescientificparent.com/2015/04/13/better-than-before-1/

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words!

  • Have you heard what a kid once supposedly said, that once someone tells you not to put a marble up your nose it’s difficult to think of anything else? It’s been fun, watching people kind of talk about the review — but not really.

    I admire you for not reading, Gretchen. The way I’ve chosen to thicken my skin is by reading — and transcending. Sometimes it even works!

  • Melanie

    I’ve worked in professional theatre since I was in high school. When I was still young (early 20s?) someone I admired told me that she never read reviews. When I asked her why, she said, “Because if you believe the good ones, then you also have to believe the bad ones.”

  • Shari

    Thanks for sharing this. I have begun writing my own blog and found myself seeking validation from reader’s comments. I then found myself questioning whether what I was posting was something others would find worthy of reading? I’ve had to remind myself that I am writing as a way of expressing myself. If others find value or inspiration in it than that is the icing on the cake. Once again I gain insight from your writings.

  • You helped me immensely, in The Happiness Project (which I’m “re-reading” right now by listening to it instead) to accept criticism. You said that a Washington Post book review made you feel depressed, defensive and angry. You wrote a note to the author “to show myself that I was confident enough to take criticism graciously, and able to respond without attack or self justification.” I was so impressed by your example, and have utilized your words in this regard for myself many times since then. So it’s interesting, although not surprising, that you now do not read reviews. No need to subject yourself to criticism for what works for YOU. And countless others LOVE what you are doing for us. Bravo and carry on!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I worked very hard to handle this – then I realized that I could just skip reading the reviews, and then I wouldn’t have to work at all to handle it! I didn’t feel that they were making my writing better, so easier not to read them

  • Lisa Ham

    Gretchen, I think you are both wise and brave to skip all the reviews based on how it affects you to read them. You’re also applying what you tell us we must do: know ourselves, and know what works for us. Congratulations on being reviewed in the New York Times!

  • meggie

    Thanks for this message Gretchen it was just what I needed to hear.

  • Alex Johannsen

    Here’s the thing I finally realized about reviews. The goal of a review is not to inform potential reader of a book on whether a book is worth purchasing. The goal of a review is to entertain the reader of the review. Once I understood this, I realized that a review is much less about the author than it is about the reviewer. Hanna Rosin is snarky, so of course her review is snarky. She fancies herself clever, so of course her review fancies itself clever. I’m not recommending you read it, as I didn’t find it very enlightening. I’m just saying that a bad review is much less about you than it is about the reviewer enjoying the feeling of tearing apart someone else’s work. Not always, of course. But more often than we’d like to think (at least imo).

    • Abby

      Alex, your review of Hanna Rosin’s review is so good, I read it and was happy that Gretchen hadn’t, even though some commenters here thought it was great, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I disliked about it–and snarky is a good word for it, my feeling was that it was smug.

  • Chelly Megale

    I always believe is this quote “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.
    I think your work is stunning and I love your books. I haven’t bought Better Than Before as of yet – but I will soon. I really want to read it.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much!

  • Jennifer Hollis

    I am amazed by this post, especially that you never liked reading reviews and then realized – you don’t have to! I love your radical insight that not reading reviews is what you need to be an “honest and open-hearted” writer.” One quick question – does being an Abstainer help you not to read reviews? Your post here reminds me of your discussion of Abstainers, and your sister saying “Now I am free from French Fries.” Now YOU are free from book reviews!

  • Ellen

    Meh, the review is fine, but on your behalf I would quibble with some of the word choices in it. Wasted effort.

    One of my favorite things about your books is that they cause me to peel away the layers of self-deception I use to avoid seeing or doing things that are unpleasant, even when I know they are good things. Self knowledge is perhaps our greatest asset in becoming who we were born to be.

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  • Sam Jost

    I usually read the reviews of my books, especially the bad ones (the good ones are usually boring). I love it when they hit my weak spots and I usually snort at people who are just throw their bad day at me.
    Sometimes I even have very civilized diskussions about the bad review, kind of “sorry you did not like my book, gimme your address and I send you a refund/some other book which you might enjoy more” – so far no one took this offer, probably because they’d no more be anonymous then 😀

  • Jamie

    Speaking of reviews in general: I remember when reviewers had plenty to say about Dirty Dancing. And then the world went and saw the movie and felt their heart leap when Johnny said “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and went back and back over and over to see it. And every woman wanted to dance with Patrick Swayzee in a cabin nightclub… So ya know… reviews.

  • Msconduct

    Very interesting post. The key point I took from it was not to do something just because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do, but instead think about whether it will help or hinder *you* to do so. A great illustration of your point that the differences between us are small but important!

  • Megan

    Do you think your being an abstainer has influenced you to avoid/abstain from reading reviews? If you tried to read just one, that could lead to another, and sooner or later you’d find that one bad chip in the bag. Better to just avoid the chips altogether. Sorry, that probably made no sense 🙂

  • Jill Fletcher

    Your book, Better than Before, received a high compliment at the Mark Twain House’s annual writers conference last night. Among 6 best books -don’t miss them- recommended by the Books On the Nightstand podcasting team.

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, thanks for letting me know! That’s great to hear!

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s terrific! thanks for letting me know.

  • Eleanor

    Hi, mom! This is Eleanor. Love you! (The blog is so professional!)

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah! A post from my younger daughter Eleanor. She has figured out how to post a comment!
      Hi Eleanor!

  • Gail

    Gretchen, I love your honesty and it is what has always shone forth for me in all of your books…it is a rare person who can know herself so well and at the same time be able to expose her vulnerabilities to others…it’s what make you so strong and for me such an inspiration!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks, that’s so nice to hear!