1. KevinRichard
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    KevinRichard Member

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    A Rant Regarding Purple Prose

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by KevinRichard, Mar 31, 2009.

    I am seeing a trend of critiques in the Short Story section throw this phrase around recently, and it has caused me to debate with myself. Now, I bring the debate here:

    Purple Prose is defined as prose which uses over-the-top (bombastic), flowery (ornate), or otherwise difficult (esoteric) vocabulary to (pretentiously) call attention to itself and consequently break the flow of the piece.

    Now there are many sides to this debate, but here are the two clearest ones as i see it:

    1) The writer of a piece tries to impress us all with his vast vocabulary when simpler words would suffice. This alienates the reader (who, on average, has a vocabulary of about 15,000 words [closer to 25,000 if a college graduate]). This is Purple Prose.

    OR

    2) Is the writer off the hook? And does the burden of blame fall back on the reader, who, in all reality, should have a higher vocabulary, but, due to laziness, lack of reading, and a distaste for expanding his/her knowledge of the English language, cannot understand words some (like myself) might deem as accessible to all.

    Are we becoming less appreciative of a rich vocabulary, relying solely on the words we already know, refusing to learn new ones, and throwing around the phrase "Purple Prose" when a writer comes along who challenges our vocabulary? In this age of condensed communication, texts, e-mails, and Twitter Tweets, are we getting dumber, using Purple Prose as a shield to hide the fact that we can't understand half of what these writers are writing?

    I mean, if the average English speaker knows between 15,000 and 20,000 words, and Shakespeare used over 30,000 words in his works, including words he made up, like castigate, suspicious, and accommodation, does that mean that Shakespeare was in fact as Purple as they come? Shakespeare was a low-brow humor kind of guy. I don't think he would appreciate us telling him that he is "trying to sound smarter than he is by using big words."

    You know what I do when I don't know what a word means? I look it up.

    Viva La Dictionary!
     
  2. crimsonrose
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    crimsonrose Senior Member

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    I think that there are a few authors who do this (using far too many ornate, as you said, words to describe something) but it's a 50/50 thing. We should have bigger vocabularies than we do. some rhings just require a better description. Would you call someone pretty when they are actually positively ethereal? No.

    The key is balance. Use words others wouldn't know. But don't do it so often than it distracts the reader from the book itself.

    IMO. teehee.
     
  3. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    i get tired and bored of reading black and white words and events. But as said, its a balance of individual taste. I never cared for the term purpleprose, just seems like a lazy way expression for those looking to get around learning something new .
     
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    ...and the sad fact of the matter seems to be that this prejudice against the polysyllabic is a rather American point of view. (just so you know, I am American)

    *the following is to be read in the voice of Simon Schama, purpliest of prosies*

    The problem here is that the whole thing is also rather relative. How many flowery words, which words are flowery, what uses are obscure is not something which can be defined with any sort of accuracy. It will always depend on the point of view of the one considering the issue. The writer will, as a matter of course, have a larger than average vocabulary. Nature of the beast, and all that. The reader only has to have about $8 American in his/her pocket to qualify as a reader, so the level of vocabulary is going to be much more variable on that side of the equation.

    What to do? Well, not much of anything if you are a writer looking to pay a mortgage off the proceeds of your latest magnum opus.

    Have a day job? Well, then, wax rhapsodic. Load the brush, so to speak, and attack the metaphorical canvas with abandon. Give the typesetters something to sweat over as they try to get two fifteen syllable words to fit on one line without (heaven forbid) hyphenating.

    Purple prosy writers get published. They do. Just ask China Mieville or M. John Harrison. But they slather their words with finesse and skill, not just as an exercise in browbeating the reader as to his/her ignorance. These authors know full well, and without any appy-poly-loggies, that their audience is a rarified one. They aim well and they hit the mark.
     
  5. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    Well spoken, Wreybies

    enjoyed the thoughts everyone put forth
     
  6. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think unusual words are fine if they are apt and give the prose a beautiful rhythm etc. The trouble is, they usually aren't and don't. People trying to defend their purple prose (and I'm speaking generally here, this isn't directed at anyone) very often misuse words or just can't see how over the top and pretentious their writing looks--it's just so much tiresome verbosity. Why bother?
     
  7. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    I suppose the bother is to learn how to increase your word power rather than stick to the safety of mundane. I always loved that word 'pretentious' seems so strange to see when dealing with an imagination.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Most "purple prose" simply goes overboard with description, with a glut of adjectives and adverbs. Also, all too often the less common words are not as well suited to the given situation than a more common word, or even worse, they are often used incorrectly.

    Purple prose tends to be enamoured of its own flowery voice, and is every bit as tedious as the narcissistic boor who never strays far from a mirror and too obviously loves himself to the exclusion of all else.

    The words exist to tell a story. If they get too deeply into beauty of expression, the story gets lost in the glitter.

    That doesn't mean that the prose has to be a murky gray, either. But make a splash of color here and there brighten the story, rather than spattering it with technicolor spew.
     
  9. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wrey took the words right off my keyboard. Using the advanced vocabulary is fine, but it has to be the right word. There are times when "Clandestine" or "surreptitious" sound great, but very often, "secretive" or "private" sound a whole lot better. And take a look at how often Shakespeare uses those words. For all his poetic phrasing, it's not totally riddled with the fancy vocabulary. It's used in just the right way at just the right time.
     
  10. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    I agree, it takes a fine art to write in purpleprose. You can drown the victim in words so bright they mute out the rest of the story but I still believe if done properly, it makes a story interesting, something unique out of the norm.

    I'm not so much as disagreeing but believing in the balance that must be used when employing such a technique.

    That said, before I start going in circles, I like to thank you all for your views. Gives me hope when I see people putting thought into their words.

    thanks for the reads
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Purple prose is by definition, excessive. There is no such thing as good purple prose, just as there is no such thing as healthy gluttony.

    You can write well with vivid imagery. When it becomes excessive and no longer well-executed, THEN it is purple prose. The term is inherently derogatory.
     
  12. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    no.

    As you said, 'by definition', and a definition is just a matter of opinion when it comes to writing.

    Then again, this is the first time I've ever heard of the term 'purpleprose'.

    I understand what it is, but what is excessive to one, may not be to another and so that cannot be used as a comparison I believe. Some people like it, some people even are published using it. If it was all wrong, that wouldn't be so.

    I think i'll use that agree to disagree motion. When adversaries have their belief stamped in their minds, its impossible to find a solution.
     
  13. lilix morgan
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    lilix morgan Contributing Member

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    Purple Prose, to be honest, is something I just learned about today. Never in my life did I hear those two words together.

    That being said, I would have to say it's both the reader and the writer's fault for this kind of mess. The reader, one who can find just about anything today and read it regardless of the vocabulary inside of it, doesn't want something overdone, flowery, or glittery. If you use a word like 'obtuse', 'vindicated', 'misappropriation', and 'symposium', in your work, most people in today's society will scratch their heads, make an assumption, and move on. There are a fair few who actually grab a dictionary and try to understand a new word. Once you've stopped writing your story and started adding in fancy words to make your piece look 'better', it loses the entire pull and lure of the tale. It just becomes a work with too much fluff.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Castles, you misunderstand. The term purple prose MEANS that it is excessive. Your opinion may vary as to what is excessively flowery prose, but the moment you label it purple prose, you are saying it is excessive. That is inherent in the definition of the term.
     
  15. Castlesofsand
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    Castlesofsand Banned

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    I understand. Just don't agree with the label or who applies it.

    Lol i better walk away from this one. I see where I started just ahead of me and hate running in circles. But at least now, I have a better understanding of what the term 'purpleprose' is. Educational today was. That's a good thing.

    thanks all
     
  16. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe if we had examples of purple prose it would be helpful. I think this is a good one. It's from a book called Rumors by Anna Godbersen. Horrible book, but gorgeous cover. :D

    There's the excessiveness Cogito's referring to.

    [​IMG]
     
  17. Acglaphotis
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    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

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    A definition is most certainly never an opinion. A definition is the polar opposite of an opinion, it's not subjective it's objective. It's set in stone. The interpretation of a definition may be different (which is why what may seem excessive to some doesn't seem excessive to others) but a definition is not an opinion.

    Back on topic, I've hardly ever read something as... that excerpt marina posted. It's completely unclear...
     
  18. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    I believe in keeping things simple. Yeah, I do like to use big words, which is why half of the time I have at least one character who uses over-the-top speech. But in terms of the narrative itself, I want it to flow quickly, to be understood by as many as possible. That's why I can't remember ever using a non-dialogue word more complex than "voluptuous."

    If I see a sentence like the following (taken from The Dreaming Void)...
    "Without conscious intervention, the ancillary thought routines operating within Aaron's macrocellular clusters animated his ocular zoom."
    ...I will quit reading on the spot. Of course, this example is more about using big words than flowery descriptions, but the same concept applies. Yes, I get it, the house is big and fancy. May we continue?
     
  19. Agreen
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    Agreen Faceless Man Contributor

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    Words have precise meanings- there are situations where a longer, more obtuse word is exactly the one needed to convey the writer's intent. However, when words are selected purely based on their level of complexity or obscurity, they stand out and take away from the piece. I believe it was Orwell, though if I'm wrong feel free to correct me who said never use a long word when a short one will do.
     
  20. Marcelo
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    Marcelo Contributing Member

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    Purple Prose is the use of long, rarely used and 'elegant' (so to speak) words? This I get, and I agree completely that it is wrong. Why? First of all, just look up the definition of the word prose. Prose is writing that resembles everyday speech. It is derived from the latin prosa, which means "straightforward". I don't think someone would use long, flowery and gliterry words to communicate with other people. But then again, no matter how small we have rendered this world, it is still full of surprises. :D
     
  21. Marcelo
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    Marcelo Contributing Member

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    However, due to English's big vocabulary there can be many similar words that, to certain point, can mean the same thing. What word to use depends on several factors, maybe on the work's mood, the setting, the feelings the writer wants to convey, all of these are very important. :p
     
  22. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Now, what comprises purple prose I think it has been hashed enough, but I will mention that one person's purple prose may be another person's cup of tea. Take Samuel R. Delany. He's a difficult read. His style of writing is convoluted and counterintuitive, and total genius once you give yourself over to it. Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand is a masterpiece and I am quite sure would be regarded by most, if not all, readers of modern science fiction as an excess of purple prose in paper form.
     
  23. JZydowicz
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    JZydowicz Member

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    I'd like to use Nathaniel Hawthorne as an example. His descriptions are always intricate, in depth, and give us an excellent idea of what he is describing. Every door handle, window, and rug might be brilliantly written about, with each detail meaning something. However, the passage can still be boring to a modern reader. Because of TV and computers, mainly, we expect things to happen faster. I think we are missing out, but I can't really focus on a lot of very descriptive writing either.
     
  24. Manutebecker
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    Manutebecker Member

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    I can definitely see where the thread creator is coming from, I myself have read books that cannot hold my attention because of their 5th grade vocabulary. However the worst thing is when I'm reading a work and just can't seem to get my head around half of the words, and that's coming from a kid who took AP English throughout high school. To keep it simple, it's just a matter of excess, a book will be rather sub par if it is too or too hard, you just gotta find the sweet spot in between.
     
  25. Manutebecker
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    Manutebecker Member

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    I apologize for the double post, I saw this after previously posting. I don't mind Hawthorne, but the reason I don't fully like him is because of the point quoted. When I read I like to paint the picture myself, Hawthorne has to paint every last detail. All he really has to say is an 'Ornate door with a brass knob', but he tends to get into the details about the door's designs and what the knob feels like on certain days (sorry for the huge exaggeration). He loses action when he goes into a mean amount of description, or maybe I'm just a guinea pig of the dot com generation :p
     

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