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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