On women “mother-naked before long mirrors”: Dorothy Parker’s list of literary cliches to avoid

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Recently I bought a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Books, 1973) and am now reveling in her genius and wit. For those unfamiliar with Parker (1893-1967), she was a writer and columnist whose book reviews frequently appeared in The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1957-1962). In the few reviews I’ve written, I often feel compelled to be generous (but not misleading) and hope someday to have the space and audience to engage in Parker-level snark. Someday.

Although the major literary figures of the period strut through her reviews, it was not uncommon for the book to appear almost as a relevant afterthought to some rant on the state of literature. One example of this comes from a February 1959 review of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (and if you’re wondering: she liked both). In it she announces the three literary cliches writers ought to avoid. It’s worth quoting in full:

I should like to issue a short, stiff statement, to be notarized if considered necessary, that I am through and done with novels containing scenes in which young ladies stand mother-naked before long mirrors, and evaluate, always favorably, their unveiled surfaces. Further, I will have no more of books in which various characters tell their dreams; tell, with prodigious extension of memory and ruthless courtesy to details, dreams which, unlike yours and mine, have to do with the plot of the piece. And finally and forever, I am come to the parting of the ways from works where Nature lore invades the telling of the tale. When the author gives me scene of wild young passion, then I can no longer slog through the immediate follow-up of a tender description of the bending of wheat in the breeze, nor yet of a report on the intricate delicacies of fern fronds, nor again of the fact that the wild jonquils are thicker than ever this year. Yes, and I will have no more of accounts of the behavior of the undersides of leaves at the approach of a shower. I realize that all this will cut down my reading drastically, nevertheless — There!

I laughed when I came across this because not only do I see these often, but they’re something I — gasp — occasionally engage in. In particular, I’ll freely admit I’m guilty of placing women in front of mirrors and droning on and on about smooth skin and lovely curves and precious navals.* But then again, unlike others, I don’t pretend I’m either elegant or profound.

What I find most distressing about “mirror scenes” is the accompanying pontification on the female form in all of its trials and triumphs. This is when you can tell the writer’s a man. Oh, she’s beautiful (check!) and she’s self-conscious and fragile because of a scar on her thigh (check!) but she’s also a tough, type-A personality because of the way she describes how she got those sweet muscles (check!).** This female psychologizing is an easy “out” instead of placing one’s character into situations where these qualities are revealed through actions. It’s uncreative, and by aspiring for sentimentality it reduces a character to bullet points.

So stop it.

*For the record: I did it last week. The character was a middle-aged, female hedgehog unhappy with her marriage. Is that at least a little better?
**Could you ever imagine a scene like this involving a man? “Studying myself in my full-body mirror, my attention went straight to my smooth, toned legs. I never forget leg day. Because that’s the kind of person I am, reader.”
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Other Charity Challenges That Didn’t Catch On

Ice bucket

This is an ice bucket.

By now, I’m sure your Facebook feed has been overrun with videos of friends and people-you forgot-were-friends participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. According to their own estimates, as of September 11, 2014, the ALS Association’s raised over $112 million dollars, which is more than four times their annual budget. That’s pretty awesome and it’s going to do a lot of good.

Much like a straight-to-DVD film with a title practically indistinguishable from a summer blockbuster, though, (I’m looking at you Transmorphers), the ALSA’s success has not escaped imitation. It’s unlikely you’ll see President Bush or Lady Gaga participating in any of the following, but they’re worth suggesting. Here are the other charity challenges that didn’t quite catch on.

Special thanks to those who looked this over and to Amanda G. who comforted me when both McSweeney’s and College Humor rejected this article.

The Sierra Club “Save Our Pollinators” challenge. Nominees have to poke a hive and donate $5 for every bee sting. Donate double if you wimp out and use an EpiPen.

The Red Cross “Give Until You Drop” Challenge. Nominees have to donate 5 pints of blood and see how many steps they can take before toppling over.

The Oregon History Society’s “Oregon Trail” challenge. One third of nominees have to die from dysentery. No one is allowed to live past age 45.

The Planned Parenthood “Safe Sex” challenge. Please, no videos.

The Wal-Mart Local Giving “Big Family” challenge. Nominees have to report all suspicious union activity to their supervisor. Also, you have to wear a silly vest. All employees are nominated.

The Green Peace “Save the Whales” challenge. Nominees have to secretly board a Japanese whaling vessel and destroy it from the inside. Nominees are discouraged from violating international law.

The American Disability Association’s “Crawl a Mile in Their Shoes” challenge. Nominees have to crawl one mile and nobody is allowed to be offended because it’s for a good cause so there.

The Goodwill “$20 in Your Pocket” challenge. Middle-class twenty-somethings have to put that $20 in the donation jar … and then leave. No, that jacket doesn’t look good on you. Don’t sing. Just walk away, man.

The Federal Government’s “Civic Engagement” challenge. Nominees have to show up on Election Day to vote. Please! The United States is globally ranked 59th in voter turnout! We shouldn’t have to challenge you to do this!

The Humility Foundation’s “Impossible” challenge. Nominees have to donate an appropriate amount of money to a charity of their choice and not brag about it on social media. They also have to share their accomplishing this challenge without violating its central precept. Your move.

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What Did I Get Out of It? – Joshua P. Preston

Joshua Preston:

Four years ago I was invited to attend the National Rural Youth Assembly in Santa Fe, NM. There I joined 50 other young activists to discuss rural issues and policy, but being nineteen, I spent most the time quiet, nervous. Looking back, though, it was an experience that later framed my work in the DFL Party and elsewhere. In this brief article, I discuss how so.

Following the election, I spent the next two years attending as many DFL meetings as I could, spending all of my money on gas. Quickly, I developed the reputation of being “That Guy from Morris,” and, at the 2012 State Convention, was elected to serve on the DFL State Executive Committee. As both the only rural youth and its youngest member overall, I served one two-year term doing what I could to make the party more welcoming to young people.

While serving, I also immersed myself in the state’s rural political and literary history. Everyone wants to see their home, their experiences, represented in the culture, so I read everything I could. I read about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party. Through Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly, Paul Gruchow, and others, I saw through their eyes the prairies I walked, the same roads I drove, the people I knew. Together these gave me a broad sense of what rural organizing could amount to and formed the basis of my own rural identity. The development of this identity is the difference between being from just another small town and a hometown. Without it, there is no sense of place. …

Originally posted on National Rural Youth Assembly:


What Did I Get Out of It?

When I attended the National Rural Youth Assembly, I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota Morris. Being nineteen, I had no experience in politics and no grasp of public policy. So, traveling to Santa Fe, I worried whether I’d have anything to contribute – and, as I discovered, I didn’t. Nervously, shuffling from one workshop to another, I filled my notebook with everything I heard. Two days later, when I was on the plane back to Minnesota, I wondered what the experience meant. What did I get out of it? At the time, I wasn’t sure, but in one’s formative years, mere exposure is its own takeaway.

Looking back four years later, I take it for granted that I have an immense pride being from southwestern Minnesota. Far from being an epithet, I embrace the label “rural,” and am proud knowing…

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Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2014 issue

Recently, I subscribed to Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly print literary journal out of Ann Arbor, MI. Before subscribing, I’d stumble occasionally over their work and and was always impressed by what I saw. In a region of the country that many dismiss as “flyover territory,” MG is evidence that even if there are planes in the sky, there are feet on the ground and stories in our heads. This is where the next generation of Midwestern writers are publishing.

Summer 2014

I was excited then when, last month, the Summer 2014 issue arrived in the mail. Of the 37 stories and poems, several stood out that I recommend. These are worth the price of admission alone, and I suggest you check them out.

My hands-down favorite was “Last Request,” by Ashley Swanson. The story’s about two sisters, Grace and Eve, sorting out the property of their recently-deceased father. Their mother died in childbirth (with Eve), which forced Grace to take on the role of caretaker. When she wasn’t caring for her sister, she was caring for her father. With Grace’s life on hold, Eve — now a twenty-something — went to New York City, and even for her own sacrifices, it’s not Grace who’s “Daddy’s Little Angel.” These feelings of rejection culminate in the story’s climax when, opening a box of their mother’s items for the first time — they find a letter.

Swanson’s prose is phenomenal, the characters believable, and I was moved by Grace’s anger, disdain, disgust. Any story that can evoke such feelings is the sign of an author who’s on to something. Check it out.  

Other stories worth reading:

  • “A Day of New Things,” by Jessie Ann Foley: A teenage girl has to move on with her life following the arrest of her father for police corruption. As a minor celebrity in the city, all eyes are on her while hers are on the boy who broke her heart. Overall, an excellent example of telling a story in the Age of Twitter.
  • “Radar Gun,” by Chuck Rybak: A college student named J.J. returns to the County Fair he hasn’t visited for years. Playing a game that tracks the speed of a baseball pitch, he discovers that he’s not moving. He and the carny investigate whether the radar gun is broken, but through flashbacks we find it’s not — and why.
  • “Title Fight,” by Samuel Sayler: An aging professional wrestler is scheduled to lose his title against a young-up-and-comer “who sells more T-shirts than me.” This is the end of him — he’s being written off — and as he struggles with this, he muses on how the sport’s changed since his early days. (I have a soft spot for professional wrestling).
  • “Watch Out for Lions,” by Rebecca McKanna: A seventh grade girl gets her first period and is mocked by a former boyfriend. She proceeds to beat the shit out of the boy. It’s better than the summary I’m providing here.

You can buy the Summer 2014 issue here.

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How not to report the news: Food stamp fraud edition

After my father died, growing up, my family depended on entitlement programs like WIC, free school lunch, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hardly the mystical “Welfare Queens” conservatives imagine, we were just a low-income, single-parent household. You know, like a lot of families who rely upon these programs. By not worrying about where my next meal would come from, programs like SNAP allowed us to live our lives with dignity, and without them, my childhood would’ve been lesser because of it. End of story.

So, every time I hear conservatives compare food stamps to feeding wild animals, I find it personally insulting. Besides being literally dehumanizing — Which Animal Would Jesus Compare Poor People To (WAWJCPPT)? — it’s stupid. The only time that label will ever apply to me is when you say it to my face.

My face moments later.

My face moments later.

I say this because SNAP is back in the news again, and I’m appalled (though not surprised) by how it’s being framed. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on SNAP titled, “Enhanced Detection Tools and Reporting Could Improve Efforts to Combat Recipient Fraud” (8/21/14). In it, the GAO reports that since the Great Recession, state agencies responsible for detecting fraud have seen zero to modest growth in their budgets. When enrollments increase from 31.8 million in 2008 to 47 million in 2014 with no money to track fraud, the problem is obvious. Of course, every program is going to have some percentage that abuses it, but that’s not the problem here — that’s the assumption. The real issue is that states have shirked their responsibility to verify the information they’re given from households. It’s an administrative problem.

Yet, here’s how several online news outlets reported on it. These sites got it right:

Now here’s another framing — see if you can spot the difference:

Never mind what the report actually says. Food stamp fraud is rampant. This isn’t journalism, it’s leading with what your audience wants to hear:

Americans receiving food stamps were caught selling and bartering their benefits online for art, housing and cash, according to a new federal report that investigates fraud in the nation’s largest nutrition support program (Fox News).

If you go through and read them, the framing is obvious: those Welfare Queens are at it again. Instead of using their benefits to feed their family, they’re using it to buy drugs, alcohol, and art – typical! Dag nabit!

But far from being “rampant,” here’s what the GAO report actually said, if anyone bothered to actually read it:

[Food and Nutrition Services] estimated an improper payment or error rate of the program at 3.4 percent, which represented an estimated $2.6 billion in wrongful payments, in fiscal year 2013. The percentage represents benefits distributed in error due to administrative as well as recipient errors, not all of which can be attributed to fraud. However, due to the large dollar amount involved in improper payments, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has placed SNAP on its list of high-error programs. Furthermore, after studying the cause of these errors, USDA officials stated that over 90 percent were due to verification errors. These types of errors occur when an agency fails to or is unable to verify recipient information … even though verifying information exists in third-party databases … (p.5; emphasis mine).

3.4 percent? That hardly sounds rampant. Now, in fairness, though, the above text applies only to fraudTrafficking is something else entirely, and on this subject the report offers only three heavily-qualified sentences.

GAO’s analysis found potential trafficking in 73 percent of households reviewed by focusing on SNAP households requesting cards in at least four monthly benefit periods. Benefits are allotted monthly, and a recipient selling their benefits and then requesting a new card would generally have one opportunity per month to do so. As a result, additional card requests in the same benefit period may not indicate increased risk of trafficking (p.0; emphasis mine).

It’s hard to draw any conclusions from this because it’s guaranteed that some percentage of these are false flags — cards get lost, stolen, thrown away, etc. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, though, because these agencies don’t have the funds to investigate. Everything else is just a side note. Here’s the report’s conclusion:

Although investigations can ultimately deter fraud and save agency resources, states we reviewed have faced the challenge of limited staff to manage a growing program and raised questions about whether federal incentive structures could be designed to better support their work.

That’s hardly the denunciation of the SNAP program conservatives wish it was.


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The Time’s Don’t Change: “The 98 Per Cent Have Some Rights Entitled to Respect.”


From The National Leader, January 1919.

It’s time for some Minnesota trivia: Who said this?

We have had to oppose the swaggering insolence and the millions of the war profiteers and the low moral endeavor politicians made by the froth of the war.

… We needed success to call a halt to the wild orgie of Wall street legislation which the politicians thought they were safe in putting across. We needed success to convince the 2 per cent who owns 70 per cent of the nation’s wealth that the 98 per cent have some rights entitled to respect.

War Profiteering? Corruption from Wall Street? The “98 Per Cent”?

Is this some tract from the Occupy Movement?


From The National Leader, March 1923.

No, it’s from the December 1922 edition of The National Leader, the official newspaper of The Nonpartisan League (NPL). This quote comes from editor A. B. Gilbert, and this isn’t the first time I’ve suggested we learn from these popular movements. That November saw one of the greatest victories in the League’s seven year history as it “replaced five United States senators, a whole flock of congressman and several governors with farmer-minded representatives.” Having suffered in the jingoistic atmosphere of the Great War, it was finally able to replicate nationally the success it had in its native North Dakota.


From The National Leader, March 1923.

Although it ran candidates endorsed by both farmers and laborers in Minnesota, 1922 was the year their work culminated in the elections of Senators Henrik Shipstead and Magnus Johnson. After receding during the prosperity of the decade, from the League emerged the Farmer-Labor Party. Although often overlooked, the role of the NPL in that movement can’t be overstated. In fact, as one contributor to The Leader wrote in “The Future of The Nonpartisan League” (July 1923):

Had there been no League, there would be no farmer-labor co-operation. The League has been a tremendous factor in bringing the farmer and the industrial worker together. Farmer-labor co-operation is growing despite the efforts of big business and the big business press to keep the two wings of the industrial army apart.

If you’re interested in reading The National Leader yourself, Google Books has several volumes available:

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Bioethical Expertise and Government

Joshua Preston:

Here’s my second article for Columbia’s “Voices in Bioethics.” In it I review a paper by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet and discuss the problems inherent at the intersection of bioethical “expertise” and government. In short, there’s no such thing as the neutral state.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

In a new paper published by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, an associate professor of political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, she asks whether government bioethics experts bolster or inhibit democratic control of policy. To answer this, she cites the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies’ (EGE) role in the European Union’s early-2000s debate on whether to fund human embryotic stem cell research. Drawing upon news articles, reports, and personal interviews, Dr. Littoz-Monnet observes that when the debate reached a stalemate, the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) sought out the EGE’s recommendations. What followed was the use of the EGE as a means for “control[ling] the policy process despite the presence of a salient and publicly debated conflict (17, italics in original).

Although the case study is itself interesting, the value of Dr. Littoz-Monnet’s paper lies…

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