We Puzzle Through Purple Prose So You Don’t Have To

April 21st, 2005 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

We are having one of our very rare WTF moments: we’re scrunched over our keyboard, brows drawn together, scrolling up and down the page as we try to make sense of what we’re reading. It’s been fifteen minutes and the score is (approximately) Text 4, Booksquare 0. This is worse than watching Ted Lilly pitch yesterday (Lilly being, of course, one of the hot young things on our fantasy team).

Truly, we don’t know where to begin, meaning we’ll just leap and hope something makes sense at the end of the post. Our confusion started here:

How did they do it? By ruthlessly cutting words and even cutting letters, too, which is why you will often see “cigaret” nowadays instead of “cigarette,” for example. No matter how weird the former might look, the latter has two extra letters.

Is this true? We have never seen the word “cigaret”, except in unfortunate cases of the spelling impaired trying to fake their way through a shopping list. The point that Rebecca Brandewyne is trying to make as she cruises toward her main topic is that brevity borne of necessity (necessity being the limited space in newspapers) has made its way to the world of novels.

As Big Books have recently been declared au courant (darn it, we thought we’d given up French), we were surprised to discover that the writing style typified by our long-forgotten friend The Inverted Pyramid has crept into the fabulous world of fiction. So much happens when we aren’t paying attention.

So when did all these rules that were originally designed to save on paper costs for newspaper publishers and maximize profits start to creep over from news reporting into the completely unrelated field of fiction?

Brandewyne is making a case for purple prose. We think. The headline says she is, but things get muddled. It could be us. She looks at the genesis of purple prose and sees it was once a good thing. Times change, and purple prose is now shorthand for writing that contains delightful strings of words like “quivering orbs of pleasure” — which we think are breasts, though we cannot guarantee anything.

What Brandewyne is advocating (we think) is more lush description in novels. The current trend toward spare, Hemingway-esque works does not suit her taste. Okay, we can accept that. However, good description is not the same thing as overwriting. Good description involves choosing words that evoke the right images or feelings. Purple prose, all those manroots and tumbling locks of flaxen stuff, is not good description. It comes from a time when romance authors would turn backflips to avoid the word “penis”. Sure, it’s a funny-looking word and there’s something about the way it flows off the mental tongue that makes one wish for other terms, but things went too far, way back when. And the romance genre suffered for what some call purple prose, others call overwriting. We merely found it puzzling at a time in our life when clarity was desperately needed.

Description is good. We keep meaning to practice it in our own work (of course, we keep meaning to diet, so our intentions cannot be trusted). Overwriting leads to confusing sentences and unintentionally funny construction. Be lush if you write lush. Be spare if you write spare. Heck, be purple if it’s the only crayon in your box. Everyone starts somewhere. Just remember that description is a tool. It needs to be sharp and focused. It needs purpose.

Imagine, if you cut all that useless, non-specific, purple description, you’ll have enough letters left over to write the word “cigarette” with the extra “t” and “e”. And that’s just the beginning.

File Under: Tools and Craft

5 responses so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Apr 21, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Ted Lilly was certainly lit up if not lighted up like a non-filtered cigaret.

  • Candy // Apr 21, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    I don’t buy that lush description is out of vogue because those greedy newspaper publishers forced journalists to keep a sharp eye on their word count. I elaborated on what I think are other reasons in the comments on Romancing the Blog. But besides all that, big books with many, many pages and words are still being published–and selling like hotcakes. Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart was pretty big (over 400 pages, I believe, in teeny print), the latest installment of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is clocking in at 928 pages (or so I’ve heard) and the Harry Potter books are pretty damn thick, too.

    Personally, I am dancing with glee that purple prose is mostly gone from the romance landscape. It’s hard to argue that one should take the genre seriously when descriptions like “her violet eyes darkened instantly with passion as his rough, blunt-tipped fingers pressed against her dewy gates of heavenly bliss” run rampant.

  • Booksquare // Apr 21, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    But Candy, that rough, blunt-tipped finger thing was almost exactly what happened to Ted Lil…oh wait, I probably shouldn’t get personal. It was ugly, especially since the husband’s pitcher started for the Yankees.

    It’s not the books or limits on number of pages. It’s, in my never humble opinion, the fact that writers of a certain era really did bad things to the English language. While certain publishers advocate sticking to a specific word count, that’s no excuse either. I think writing in romance novels has grown progressively cleaner and more intelligent over the past ten years. Sure, it’s not perfect, but I’m particularly fussy on this matter. I did read your comments — actually, there were a lot of great things being said. When it became apparent that I’d exceeded comment length, I moved my thoughts over here.

  • Tod Goldberg // Apr 22, 2005 at 1:25 am

    If it makes you feel any better…I had Lilly starting, too. I got a thing for ex-Oakland A’s. As for Brandewyne…well…I do like her author photo.

  • KathyF // Apr 22, 2005 at 11:33 am

    I think she’s trying to alter the connotation of “purple prose” be claiming Melville and Mitchell wrote it. They didn’t. The purple prose I know and abhor involves clichés, like those quivering orbs you mentioned. The first author who wrote it was pretty clever, though, and could very well have been the Melville of her time.

    But it’s a giant leap to defend purple prose by way of ranting about the trend toward shorter books. The alternative to shorter books isn’t necessary purple-ish books. I hope.

    And no, I haven’t seen “cigarette” spelled “cigaret” either, but I have seen it spelled “fag.”