It was a dark and stormy night when I wearily sat down in front of the electric glow of the LCD monitor that sat on top of my Danish, expensive, mid-century modern desk. Rather than pluck out my pithy article on the keys of my post-WWII typewriter I’d inherited from my grandfather, I’d pragmatically opted for the more bourgeois choice of a Toshiba laptop. I was literally dying to breathe my ideas to life on the page, or screen as it were.
Okay. Obviously that was my attempt to write a Bulwer-Lytton opening paragraph to this post, fittingly, about purple prose. I apologize for any cringing I might have caused.
I’m reading a book by a local author. The book is a highly anticipated YA debut. I like it, for the record. Out of curiosity I went to Goodreads to see what other people thought of the book—or rather, one specific aspect of the book: its prose.
Most loved it. I’ve seen the prose called lush, rich, evocative, etc. The prose relies pretty heavily on simile and metaphor to make each scene a visceral experience for the reader. Further, I think the figurative language helps the reader understand the supernatural aspects of the story. On one hand, I appreciate it. But there are a few too many metaphors per paragraph that I keep getting pulled out of the story—not necessarily because I’m not enjoying it, but because I can’t help but dissect language as I read. It takes a lot for me to be so engrossed by a book that half of my cognitive function isn’t dedicated to analyzing prose as I go. As I suspected, I didn’t have to look far to find a reviewer who had a major problem with the prose. His review calling the book’s writing “purple prose” is what prompted this post.
Purple prose has several definitions. Most think that purple prose means writing that’s “flowery.” My preferred definition is prose that calls attention to itself in such a way that it pulls you out of the story.
Not surprisingly, for me that means that purple prose isn’t an objective standard at all, but a subjective one.
The Goodreads reviewer had every right to his opinion that the book (notice I’m deliberately keeping this vague because I don’t want my post to constitute a review of the book itself) was full of purple prose. Where I took issue was how he had no problem saying that purple prose is a hallmark of the YA genre, the kind of thing that teenage girls gobble up. He predicted the book would be successful because of the awful writing (his words, not mine). That kind of misogynistic bull crap is a post for another day.
This is my opinion, but I’ll state it strongly. Purple prose is in the eye of the beholder. For some, it means excessive use of adverbs and adjectives—and yet, for me, adverbs can sometimes be done well. JK Rowling, for example, uses adverbs more than is prescribed by modern writing advice. I have no problem with it, as it never pulls me out of the story, but adds a certain flavor to it. For others, cliché writing is purple prose—and yet, I often find that a well-placed cliché functions as vernacular. Because clichés litter our vernacular in real life, reading a cliché seems natural, and therefore doesn’t pull me out of the story. I’m reading another author whose writing could by no stretch of the imagination be called purple. She describes in simple prose what is happening and what the characters say—and yet, the writing seems flat and bland and lacking in personality.
Though I shy away from prescriptive writing advice, I do feel comfortable saying that the key here is moderation. Find the sweet spot where your preferred writing “vice,” be it metaphors, clichés, or adjectives, adds color to your writing but doesn’t overwhelm the story. As a reader, I’m not interested in either extreme.