So I didn’t grow up reading a lot of English literature, and as such I sometimes don’t feel too qualified with talking about published works. However, there has been one obnoxious trend that keeps rearing its ugly head, and unfortunately, it always does so wherever I feel the need to get my daily dose of fanfiction reading. Yes, our subject today is purple prose.
Purple prose has been around for a while now. According to Wikipedia, the term purple prose came about in reference from a Roman poet called Horace, who died before Jesus did.
Some of you may be fortunate enough to not know what purple prose is, and maybe you just haven’t come across it before. However, chances are that if you’re an avid reader—or even a light reader—you’ve seen it. Wikipedia describes it as thus:
Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself.
With the rise of stories like Twilight, Inheritance Cycle, or even Fifty Shades of Grey, purple prose seems to be even more widespread. To me, at least. I cannot really comment on the time before Twilight, and all things considered, I highly doubt we can give Twilight or Inheritance Cycle the credit for infecting the world with purple. But if there’s one thing these books taught me, it was that no matter how flowery writing can be, it can always get much, much worse.
Essentially, what purple prose does is break an otherwise decent story apart with useless words. While it seems to have been around forever, with the rise of the internet and Microsoft Word or other writing applications, it has truly spread everywhere as well. It’s that literary monster lurking under your bed, or hiding in the bookshelves waiting for an opportune moment, or on that feminist WordPress site you might currently be reading. Hell, I’m sure we’ve done it. And even if we haven’t, Rin and I wasted no time finding shitty purple fanfiction to review and quote. It’s so everywhere that you don’t even need to go to it; we’ll bring it to you.
For example, here’s a normal sentence:
The child ran after the ball as it rolled down the hill.
And here’s it purple-ized:
The frail, but lively adolescent pursued the rounded spheroid as it spooled toward the nethermost region of the knoll.
Thinking about how common writing applications are and how many people are writing, I got to wondering why it’s not dying out. I mean, a lot of people write nowadays, so aren’t they also learning what not to do when writing? I guess like any terrible idea it will stick around for a while. But even looking at that second sentence, it’s so very easy to see why it’s wrong. There’s no focus or anything. Like, who the hell says “spheroid”? I didn’t even know that was a word until I sat down to write this. Of course, it is my goal in life to be able to use “salubrious” properly in a sentence someday too, so maybe I’m not one to talk.
But the real problem with purple prose is that authors who use it don’t limit it to just one bad line. They do it for the entire story. Let’s look back at Twilight and Inheritance Cycle. More specifically, let’s look at Stephenie Meyer and Christopher Paolini. I don’t know either of them. I’ve never met them personally. I’m sure that they’re really nice people who just wanted to share their visions with the world. But what I can say is that neither of them listens to criticism well and their writings suffer from it. Reading their work, you’re no longer reading a story, but random word choices. And the purple prose just gets worse and worse and worse.
Take a look at this over-quoted passage from Chapter 13 of Twilight:
Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn’t get used to it, though I’d been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded into the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal. (Twilight, pg. 260)
All of this is just telling us that Edward sparkles. I almost don’t even know where to begin. But this is the same kind of writing that I see happening over and over again. Another problem with purple prose is that it normally happens when someone takes out a thesaurus, and while a thesaurus is a useful writing tool, it gives synonyms, not words that mean the exact same thing. We wouldn’t have vast array of words like glistening, incandescent, scintillating, sparkled, or glittering if all their definitions were the same.
Every time I think about purple prose, I always flashback to my writing classes in grade school, where teachers just want you to learn words, so they tell you to shove as many adjectives as possible into a sentence, while neglecting to tell you when to do so. So now we have young, upcoming writers who think like, “why say eyes when you can say ocular nodes?”
Probably no greater example could I find than this passage from Inheritance:
On the other side of the opening was a dark, heavily built chamber that reminded Eragon of the caves under Tronjheim. A huge circular pattern of inlaid stone—marble and chalcedony and polished hematite—occupied the center of the floor. Around the edge of the patterned disk stood rough, fist-sized chunks of amethyst set within silver collars. Each piece of the purple rock glowed softly—the source of the light they had seen from the corridor. Across the disk, against the far wall, was a large black altar draped with a gold and crimson cloth. Pillars and candelabra flanked the altar, with a closed door on each side. (Inheritance, pg. 283)
What makes this passage even worse is that the following line is this:
All this Eragon saw as he barreled into the room, in the brief instant before he realized that his momentum was going to carry him through the ring of amethysts and onto the disk. (Inheritance, pg. 283–284)
So before we even bring up questions about how Eragon, the poor and education-lacking farm boy, even knows what chalcedony and hematite are, or why he knows what a candelabra is over a chandelier, let’s really think about what’s happening here. Before running into this room, Eragon and all his Varden buddies are fighting, and this is them trying to retreat from that fighting. Yet, in the “brief instant” that Eragon had to look at the room he just barreled into, he can tell that there’s marble, chalcedony, and polished hematite. There’s a patterned disk. An altar draped with gold and crimson cloth, surrounded by pillars and candelabra. And he can see glowing purple amethysts “set within silver collars” that he immediately recognizes as the cause of a light source he saw earlier.
And because he was just running from a battle and going as fast as he can—he has elven speed at this point—I’m left to assume that he saw all of this within seconds, if even that.
That entire paragraph about whatever Eragon saw is just a distraction from what is actually happening. The first time I read Inheritance, I had no idea what was going on here, because suddenly, Eragon was less concerned about a battle and more concerned about glowing amethysts. This is what is meant when people say purple prose is distracting. That entire passage doesn’t belong in an action sequence, but it’s still there, and despite the fact that whatever is being describe has nothing to do with anything and that we don’t see it again outside the following chapter, we still have to read about it.
It reminds of me of small children waving their arms, jumping up and down, saying “Look at me! Look at me!” when at the time, we need to be looking at something else.
One blogger online says this about the subject of purple prose and why people use it:
And thus, that is why I almost always personally refer to purple prose as “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome.
It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only person who’s ever referenced purple prose as a disease. But this is true; nowadays we’ve got a bunch of people who cannot write thinking they can, and using big words to show off vocabulary that they can’t use correctly. I can abuse the thesaurus too. That’s how I wrote the elongated sentence about a kid with his ball. I added a bunch of adjectives and looked up synonyms for all the other words and just picked out the ones that I thought sounded pretty.
It’s this odd mentality I see over and over again that people have to prove that they can write well, as though word choice alone is all that’s needed. And what’s really annoying is that a lot of people who use purple prose either don’t realize it, or they don’t listen to criticism at all. They’re probably not intentionally doing it, but it doesn’t make reading it any less aggravating.
I can only conclude that when SMeyer’s and Paolini’s novels become big deals, they thought they were the best things out there and decided to not only keep doing what they had already done, but to do more. And like so many other people, they did that by adding on words. There were whole passages in Twilight and Inheritance Cycle where I didn’t even know what was going on because of all the adjectives. I told Saika the other day that it was like a nebula of words, and all you could do was hurry up through it and hope everything still made sense outside that storm. I’m still not even sure how Galbatorix dies.
Reading purple prose is, to me, like reading poetry. But I don’t pick up a novel in order to read a poem. I’ll pick up a poem book for that. There is a time and place for everything; purple prose is no exception, and I’m sure there will always be instances in writings where it would benefit a story and not distract from it, but those moments are few and far between. There are some people out there who legitimately like purple prose, and I can’t really blame them if that’s their thing, and so long as they’re not constantly interrupting their own stories with it.
Though, for those of you like me who greatly dislike purple prose, there is one good thing I can say about it. When we’re reading whatever it is we like to read and we have to pause to look up a word, we’re educating ourselves by learning definitions.
It’s something, at least.