Purple Prose & Metaphoric Misdemeanors
* as usual, these are my opinions, based on my own experience of writing and editing for the last 25 or so years. Not all writers, editors and readers will agree, and that’s fine. I offer it as valuable information I learned which made me a better writer, in hopes it will help another writer reach that goal.
Writers, beware: You must NOT fall in love with your words. You must fall in love with your craft. That’s the thesis for this entire post, but read on, if you want details.
I am forever mortified by the details that many authors place in their stories, which have no bearing on the story itself–not in the development in plot, nor the development of character. It’s just there, because the author was in love with the words and his/her ability to string them together like multi-colored popcorn on a gaudy Christmas tree.
Purple Prose, as a term used in the critique of writing was coined by Horace, the infamous Roman poet, in Ars Poetica. The translation of this into English tells us,
“Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy purple patches; as when describing a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana, or a stream meandering through fields, or the river Rhine, or a rainbow; but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?”
Pouncing on the inherent humor to be enjoyed in this subject, the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest makes a contest out of mimicry of Bulwer-Lytton’s penchant for Purple Prose. The famous opening to his novel, Paul Clifford, begins thus:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
It is referenced most often by the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” The contest invites writers to submit their own version of flowery description in the beginning of some fictional fiction work.
A couple of my favorites, incidentally:
The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the toad’s deception, screaming madly, “You lied!”
–Barbara C. Kroll, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn’t heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn’t reacting yet to let you know.
–Patricia E. Presutti, Lewiston, New York (1986 Winner)
Enough of the digression….let’s get back to the subject matter at hand (as Ellen Degeneres says, “…My point, and I do have one…”).
The proliferation of Purple Prose is nowhere more apparent than on the Internet in collections of Fan Fiction.* These copycats are often ridiculed or derided, and there is even a version of Purple Prose now referred to as “urple prose.” This intentional misspelling is a satirical double entendre, since so much of Fan Fiction is not only fraught with spelling errors, but also often sickening in its tendency toward ornate and tiresome exposition.
I am still floored by the ability of a writer to pound a perfectly good metaphor into the ground, break it off, and thus render it useless and disappointing.
An example of this sort of metaphoric misdemeanor can be found in “The Gate to Women’s country” by Sheri S. Tepper. I have had this book for years, hoping one day I’d find the mood to read it. I wanted to read it. I tried to read it. All the accolades from various reviewers encouraged me to read it. But ultimately, I could not read it. I couldn’t get past the second page. The concepts and subject matter in this book was at first titillating. Then when I attempted to read it, it just became Tit. As in another writer at the tit of Purple Prose.
Many readers, I suppose, enjoy flowery overkill, but I do not.
I believe that if you allow yourself the indulgence of an extended metaphor, you run the risk of making that metaphor somewhat of a character, and distract from the characters who should have that focus. When this is the case, writing becomes a stalker’s love of language, a sort of masturbation by the author, rather than a story about people, for people, and of people. Call me a hard-ass, but I feel a book should be about something other than the linguistic ego of its author.
Having said that, here’s an excerpt from the first and second pages of “The Gate to Women’s Country” to illustrate this affliction:
“As usually happened on occasions like this one, Stavia felt herself become an actor in an unfamiliar play, uncertain of the lines of the plot, apprehensive of the ending. If there was o be an ending at all. In the face of the surprising and unforeseen, her accustomed daily self was often thrown all at a loss and could do nothing but stand aside upon its stage, one hand slightly extended toward the winds to cue the entry of some other character–a Stavia more capable, more endowed with the extemporaneous force or grace these events required. When the appropriate character entered, her daily self was left to watch from behind the scenes, bemused by the unfamiliar intricacy of the dialogue, and settings which this other, this actor Stavia, seemed able somehow to negotiate. So, when this evening the unexpected summons arrived from Dawid, the daily Stavia had bowed her way backstage to leave the boards to this other persona, this dimly cloaked figure making its way with sure and unhesitating tread past the lighted apartments and through the fish and fruiterers markets toward Battle Gate.
Stavia the observer noted particularly the quality of the light. Dusk. Gray of cloud and shadowed freed of leaf. It was apt, this light–well done for the mood of the piece. Nostalgic. Melancholy without being utterly depressing. A few crepuscular rays broke through the western cloud cover in long, mysterious beams, as though they were searchlights from a celestial realm, seeking a lost angel, perhaps, or some escaped soul from Hades trying desperately to find the road to heaven. Or perhaps they were casting about to find a fishing boat, our there on a darkling sea, though she could not immediately think of a reason that the heavenly ones should need a fishing boat.”
I was looking for my hip boots to wade through this mountain of potpourri. I only made it that far before I tossed the book down, saying “Oh, kill me now!”
It’s as if Tepper hides behind her words, rather than stands beside them, with them. This suggests a certain fear of being honest in her craft. Perhaps it has to do with the genre, I thought, but then flowery prose usually belongs to other genres, and this was marketed as Science Fiction. Perhaps the book was mis-categorized. Nevertheless, it suffers from the purple prose often found in second rate fantasy and romance novels. If I want something that flowery, I’ll plant a garden, thank you very much.
*Basically, Fan Fiction is fiction based on previously published work, whether from television or novel, created by fans of that work.
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