My book Better Than Before was reviewed this weekend in the New York Times, in a piece by Hanna Rosin. To the left is 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. 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.