When my first book was published, I decided not to read the reviews. Why give strangers the power to uplift or shatter my spirits? I’d take the high road, the spiritual path. Actually, I was terrified of the media interviews to come and knew they’d be hard enough to muscle through without someone’s criticisms swirling in my head.
Two friends calling to read me early reviews—one glowing, one scathing—cemented that boycott, which I held to for six months. Then one evening, I printed 300 pages of newspaper and magazine articles, Web-site columns and reviews, and TV and radio transcripts. Then I read them all in one sitting.
What took me aback wasn’t the criticism or the praise—everyone’s entitled to an opinion—but the shoddy journalism. I’d worked as a newspaper features editor, magazine editor, and television producer, but I’d never been in a position to contrast what was written and broadcast with what I knew, intimately, to be true.
The book, The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home, told the stories of married women who took time away from their domestic lives to pursue their passions. I researched famous married women in history, interviewed contemporary women who’d done the same, and wove in my own three months’ at writers’ retreats.
The number of reviewers’ statements that were dead wrong was astonishing. The one that came up most often was that “Jarvis left her children.” The most dramatic statement in this vein came from a customer reviewer on amazon.com: “If you are hell bent on getting rid of your children, at least you should have the courage to say so!”
The truth? At the time I left, my “children” were two grown men, the youngest in college 1,800 miles away.
Some lambasted the book because it didn’t include men. “As if men don’t have the same issues,” sneered a talking head on CNN’s “Take Five.” An entire chapter was devoted to men, both their own solo journeys and their feelings when their wives were the ones to leave.
When I read in one review that “Jarvis left for the three months it took to write the book,” I laughed. Some writers may be able to complete a book in three months, but I’m not one of them. Three years is closer to the truth.
Distortions even came from such journalistic powerhouses as the Washington Post. A columnist for the book page said I’d interviewed 50 people when I’d interviewed 139; that I’d asked my husband for “permission” to leave, which I never did; that in the end I “reached the conclusion” to return to him, when returning was never in question.
But even more than these fabrications, what I found appalling was how many reviewers copied from other reviewers, which meant that if the first one got the facts wrong, so did the plagiarists.
During the media whirl, a conservative radio host called to say he’d devoted an hour to my book, whose topic had outraged listeners. Granted, Focus on the Family had grown so large it had its own zip code, but here I was, a good girl from the Midwest, who lived five minutes from her parents, who’d pulled out of the workforce to be a full-time mom, and who’d stayed faithfully married to one man for 25 years—all of which was in the book—being derided as an affront to family values. When that radio host asked me to come on the show for a rebuttal, I did, and had to explain that I never said what he’d told his listeners I said. Exasperated, I uttered the line authors are never supposed to utter: “Obviously you never read the book or even the flap copy.”
“Read it?” The host responded. “I never saw it. I just read an article somewhere.”
The Web site for The Oprah Winfrey Show unintentionally provided a light moment. Two days after the program was taped, my older son called. “Mom, I’m on the show’s Web site, and I have to read you this: ‘Cheryl Jarvis left her husband and three children.’ He paused. “What I want to know is, where have you been hiding that sister of ours?”
I didn’t watch the television shows on which I appeared. Maybe I should have, because after reading all the commentary in one night, I vowed to redouble my efforts at conscientious reporting.
When my second book was published, I again decided to pass on reading the reviews, and again, excepting a few that friends read over the phone, the embargo lasted six months. But by holding off, I was immersed in a new project, and the reviews were nothing more than an evening’s entertainment.
Cheryl Jarvis lives in Cambridge, Mass. Her books have been published in 19 countries.