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  1. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Purple Prose: The Good(?) and the Bad

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Kas, Jun 22, 2009.

    Because the (off) topic has come up in various other threads lately, I thought that perhaps it deserved a thread of its own.

    Cogito has stated that purple prose is, by definition, undesirable. I don't think that's quite accurate. Sorry, Cog! I rarely disagree with you, so I looked it up to make sure. My understanding is that it is, by definition, excessive. That need not be derogatory; there is such a thing as desirable excess. I think most people will agree that Nabokov's Lolita was profoundly excessive, but delightfully so. Others simply hate it.:p

    My consumption of good purple prose is like gorging myself on fine chocolate; it can be sickening, but oh, so good, I just can't stop! There is probably a better term for the sweet excess of Nabokov's work, but if so, I don't know it. What is the word for “sickeningly sweet in a good way”?

    From dictionary.com:
    I should say that I have found published authors who take Cogito's view of purple prose (actually, many do), but there's no absolute, authoritative definition to say that it's bad. At least, I haven't found one. The term seems to be rather obscure and subject to opinion – a recipe for debate, if ever I've seen one.

    Here's a commonly cited purple prose line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's “Paul Clifford”:

    I think most people on this forum (myself included) would recommend shortening it. This is very sound advice for beginners. It's extremely unlikely that any unknown writer would ever manage to publish a book in today's market with an opening line like that! He could have just written, “It was a dark and stormy night” and it would have worked just as well.

    However. . . I rather like the line as it is!! I actually think that shortening the line only cheats the reader of this author's vivid imagination. The ultimate point is that there's a time and a place for purple, and there is, undeniably, a certain skill in wielding such unwieldy wonders. It is also highly subjective as to whether or not it's actually good, even when skillfully executed.

    The problem with beginners who write this way is that their phrasing is almost never skillful. In fact, it's always downright dreadful. I've never seen any successful attempt, and I've read a lot of this stuff on many writing sites. With that in mind, I think it's a better game plan to start at square one; work on developing a more concise, publishable style, get your name out there, and work your way up to that purple hue you love so much.

    But, I digress (in the spirit of my thread).

    Questions:

    Do you think a beginner can actually make a name for himself by going purple? Bear in mind that most publishers won't look past the first line.

    Who publishes this stuff? Are there any good publishers that an unknown might actually have a shot with? (yes, I realise this one belongs in the publishers forum, but is it really worth making two threads? Forum mods decide.)

    What are your general views on purple prose? Is there such a thing as 'good' purple? If so, what defines it?
    I have noticed that most styles are very distinct, and it can be hard to pin down exactly what makes it good.

    And most importantly. . .

    What are your favorite purple prose (or 'delightfully excessive') books/authors?

    Feel free to comment however you like. The only question that matters is the last one, cause I'm jonesin for a fix.:D
     
  2. Sinbad
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    Sinbad Banned

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    A writer should seek to write to express himself, not to make a name for himself, but I do think that even in this A.D.D. culture, if I may use that term :p, one can still be published by writing what is considered "purple prose." An example might be Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, both of which were published only in the last century. However, writing well requires skill, and this goes for if you're a writer inspired by Victorian literature or 20th century literature.

    I think this question can be asked to about any writer. Getting published is tricky business. It took Stephen King years to get published and he certainly isn't known for elaborate writing. I think getting published just requires good writing, but if I'm wrong, shame on the publishers for succumbing to trends.

    From what I've seen, it gets a lot of flack. I grew up with the likes of Melville and Dickens and Emerson, and I didn't think there was a problem until I was introduced to the internet and this ugly, redundant, belittling term. I have a friend, who is self-published, who agrees with me on this point, of all the points we normally disagree on. :p

    I have a number of them, but I really love Walden and Civil Disobedience. I also like Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I like Moby Dick of course, and I enjoy everything by Charles Dickens.
     
  3. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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  4. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Ray Bradbury was a well known author long before he published 451. I'm not sure about the other, but I assume it's the same story. I'm sure that it's no problem for a household name to push whatever kind of ms they want. If one publisher won't take it, another will. However, I think a beginner has roughly a snowball's chance in hell.

    The best plan, as I see it, is to get your name out there, show that you actually know your stuff, and you are much more likely to be given a chance to develope a more controversial style (and get it published). Just climb the ladder, so to speak.

    And, of course, Charles Dickens could do no wrong! An excellent writer.
     
  5. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Maybe. It'd be probably be extremely hard though. Of course, a beginner could make a name for himself by going purple if the writing is atrociously bad and everyone only knows him because of the purple prose. Paolini is an example I'm thinking of here - those who hate his writing state purple prose is one of the main reasons.


    Purple Prose is, of course, a stylistic thing - which was why it was acceptable in the Victorian era, when, well, it was pretty much the norm, in my opinion. Myself, I don't explicitly hate purple prose, but when I come across a long description of anything, I usually skim through it and only go back to it if I'm confused (which I'm usually not, anyhow). Theoretically, good purple prose for me is purple prose that contains some element of - for lack of better word - unusualness. Something weird, not ordinary, special, unique, whatever - basically anything that would make me think "Wait a moment, what the heck was that I just saw?" Frankly, however, most - if not all - purple prose probably can't do that.


    I hate anything from the 1800s, only because of the excessive description and the fact that they sometimes take entire pages just to describe a few things. Personally, though, I have a great respect for Mark Twain. I just don't like reading his 1800s style stuff. Dickens I also have respect for. But I just don't like reading the Victorian style, period.


    Actually, as an additional note, I think purple prose can work in the hands of an extremely skilled writer, especially when it comes to an emotional scene. Note, however, I said an extremely skilled writer. In my opinion, if you can somehow use the overwhelming nature of the purple prose to show the intensity of the emotion, that's great. Frankly, however, most times, that is an extremely difficult feat to pull off, so it probably will happen very rarely in practice.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Kas, I hear what you are saying. However, your interpretation of the definition is in error. By labelling something purple prose, the speaker is expressing disapproval. There is no such thing as good purple prose. There is only disagreement over whether a piece of writing is or is not purple prose.

    It's like asking someone if they approve of behavior they call reprehensible. The term itself encompasses disapproval. There is no such thing as acceptable reprehensible behavior, by definition.
     
  7. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I can't say much about Paolini, as I've never read his work, and probably never will. I've heard that it's even worse that the movie, and that frightens me.

    I get what you're saying about describing strange things, though. So-called purple prose can have a great effect there. The applicability of a descriptive style really depends on the content. A good example of where it doesn't fit (imo) is in standard fantasy - something I see often on writing sites, including this one. If there's nothing special going on, I really don't want to read a nauseatingly poetic 300-word description of some grass and a rainbow.

    I can respect that. It certainly isn't to everyone's liking. I would actually say that it is somewhat of an aquired taste, though some will always hate it, and that's fine. That is also part of the reason publisher's are hesitant to accept it, I think (aside from the fact that most of it is terrible). Most big publishers seem to have little interest in niche markets.

    I agree with that completely. The problem arises when aspiring writers fail to realise just how difficult it is to pull this off.
     
  8. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I also understand what you're saying, Cogito. So please, give me a better term. Have you read Nabokov? Using one word, how would you describe it?
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    When looking up a dictionary term, there are shades of meaning that can be lost. That is why people who learn words from a thesaurus often misuse tem, even if they look the word up in the dictionary as well.

    You have to understand the connotation of a word as well as its denotation.

    Purple prose is purple prose. And part of the term's connotation is inherent disapproval.
     
  10. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Perhaps we should say that the discussion here is about why prose perceived as purple prose could still be good, could still work, even if it has the qualities of purple prose, anyhow?
     
  11. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    It all depends on the writer's skill (which is a boring answer and for that I am sorry XD).
    I think the majority of people would agree that Lolita is a masterpiece of English literature (its the best selling "classic" novel published by Penguin at least, which says something, considering their rather extensive and intimidating catalogue).
    And, I think any publisher given a copy of Lolita, even without having Nabokov's name attached, would have recognised that it was an excellent MSS (if they wouldn't have, it says more about their skill as a publisher than his as a writer). But Lolita is exceptional in every sense of the world - Nabokov takes obvious and ecstatic delight in taking the English language, warts and all, and manipulating it until it becomes a thing of immense beauty and power, and he does that not by stripping away from his language until it is essentialised (not that there is anything wrong with that approach - other writers employ it with fantastic results) but by layering meanings and sounds and patterns in a way that none but the most gifted, insightful, sensitive and intelligent writer would be able to do. For that reason, I think I, like most publishers and readers, would be highly sceptical of a similar writing style from an unknown writer - it may be a work of immense depth and colour like Nabokov's or, more likely, a shallow and superficial imitation.

    Moreover, it seems that many writers "purple" their prose by opening a thesaurus and throwing in all the big words they can, or by lengthening sentences unnecessarily to emulate the effect. With Lolita, not a single word is wasted, nor misused. Writing like that can only come from extensive reading, and not simply scanning the pages, but absorbing the language, the structures, the poetry. Perhaps coming to english as his 2nd/3rd (after russian, and probably after french, i'm not sure of the exact order he learnt his languages) gave Nabokov an insight into its character that us native speakers don't have...
     
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  12. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Agreed; I sumbit to your reasoning. However. . . that still doesn't give me a better term, Cog. I think you're hedging.:p
     
  13. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Arron, brilliant post. I agree with you 100%. Your take on Nabokov was bang on.

    That's exactly what I dislike about the purple prose I see from amateurs. It is always a shallow and superficial imitation, which only pays insult to the incredible contributions of literary masters.

    Yeah, that's the worst kind of purple. It is simply bad, and I can't help but think that only the inexperienced reader/writer would ever support such follies.

    Yes, on the surface it can seem almost ridiculously excessive, but the closer you look, the more you realise that every word was chosen with surgical care and precision for the best possible effect. They say that no writing is ever perfect, but that book may be the one exception.:)

    I say that it's excessive simply because his descriptions and wordplay weren't exactly required to deliver the story. They were, however, necessary to create the greatest possible emotional and intellectual impact, which seemed to be his primary objective.

    I generally label a submission purple (here, and elsewhere) when the extra verbosity adds nothing to the impact of the piece. In that case it's just a lot of irritating fluff.
     
  14. cybrxkhan
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    And that, in my opinion, is what separates good writing from bad writing regardless of whether it is purple prose or not, whether it is a novel or an essay or a poem, whether it is fantasy or horror or comedy. Every word should have a purpose and a reason. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that every word in a short story (though it can be applied elsewhere) should only be used if and only if it furthers the story along to it's point or whatever.

    For me, that was one reason why I liked The Catcher in the Rye - some may disagree with me with good reason, but I felt that for a book with an angsting teenager character, Salinger knew exactly which words to choose and how to use them.

    So, to bring back to the original topic, something that has the characteristics of purple prose may not necessarily be truly "purple prose".
     
  15. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Sometimes I think the line drawn between purple prose and good description is blurred. I read a good description and some people call it purple prose, but their rewrites take all the power out of the description.


    Thunder cracked outside. The wind sang a song as if for them. The snow drummed against the cabin, a slow, melodic sound, a deep sound, a distant sound.


    Personally, I like it, purple or not, I think it's good description.

    Or what about the following from Paladin of Souls? by Lois McMaster Bujold.

    A faint white blob floated in her vision. As she stared, dismayed and frowning, two more slipped out of the walls and collected with it, as if drawn to her warmth. Ancient spirits, these, formless and decayed to near oblivion. Merciful oblivion.
     
  16. marina
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    I've never read anything by Nabokov, but a couple modern books that contain what might be called "purple prose" would be The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. Interestingly, both writers are successful poets, which probably explains why they are so skillful with their rhetoric. I tried to find purple prose examples of each of their writings online, but the excerpts are too short. You can see a bit of it in chapter one of Love Walked In. If you're someone who chooses books for its evocative and lush language, you'll probably enjoy books that skillfully use purple prose.
     
  17. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    The only issue I see there is the repetition of 'the' and 'sound', but it is clearly intentional and used to good effect. There's nothing wrong with the occasional description like this, imo. If I were writing a review I would caution against over-using the technique, as the more you use it the less meaningful it becomes. Eventually it can be an irritating exercise in redundancy. Of course, you already know where I stand on this.;) But as for the quote, it's good.

    That's a wonderful description. It's really quite efficient, and it certainly delivers. I think this is a case where simplification would subtract meaning, and thus be a detriment. The issue, as I see it, isn't how many words are used, but the care with which they are selected.
     
  18. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Marina, I'll check out those authors you mentioned. Thanks for the suggestions.

    I couldn't find much in the way of quotes for Lolita either, except for the opening bit. As only a single paragraph, it doesn't, by any means, demonstrate his versatility, but it is good.

    Hopefully that will give some of you a better idea of what us Nabokov fans are raving about.
     
  19. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I like this, but I wouldn't accuse it of being anything like purple prose. In fact, for what it conveys, I think its quite succinct and effective.

    For those who haven't yet experienced Nabokov, here's a brief quote or two so you can see what we mean (and whet your appetite so you can go buy a copy yourself, which you absolutely definitely positively should):

    And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifter the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.

    Or how about:

    Apart from the psychological comfort this general arrangement should afford me by keeping Dolly's day adjacent to mine, I immediately foresaw the pleasure I would have in distinguishing from my study-bedroom, by means of powerful binoculars, the statistically inevitable percentage of nymphets among the other girl-children playing around Dolly during recess...

    (both from Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov; Penguin 1959/1995)

    Just....pure magic.....beyond compare....
     
  20. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Ah, those were just the kind of quotes I was looking for, arron. Unfortunately I don't have a copy on hand to extract them from. It's a crime, I know. I'm so ashamed.:redface:
     
  21. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Some of what he writes is a bit convoluted based on the examples given.

    and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifter the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.

    When they lifter the laprobe for me, stuck in the middle of the sentence makes it hard to follow. If he did that too often, I would quickly grow tired.

    Now if it were written in a different order, I would not even have had to think about the meaning.

    and when they lifter the laprobe for me, dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.
     
  22. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    As always, the sentence is better understood in context. It reflects the narrator's pyschological state at the time.

    Here's another sample. Humbert Humbert contemplates the perfect murder:

    And that will have to be the last of them, else I'll get in trouble with Cogito.:redface:

    If anyone else has some fun quotes (from other books) to share, please do!:D
     
  23. Agreen
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    I would be hesitant to describe this passage as 'purple.' It is very deep, very colourful and textured- but it flows much too well and frankly is too beautiful to fit what I think of as purple prose. That passage is the inspiration for one of my favourite songs- every time I read it I transpose the pronunciation and timing of the song onto the text which oddly enough makes it sound even better in my mind.

    There is a difference I think between a passage like this- one that is very heavy in its description, yet not to the detriment of the piece, and purple prose. When I think of purple prose, I think of writing composed of overburdened sentences and flashy word choices, not to express and amplify an idea, but as the idea in and of itself. It is by its nature clumsy- the fact that it is clumsy is partly what defines it as purple. The problem, as I believe architectus mentioned before, is that different readers will have their own definition of what is awkward.

    To contribute, I'm apparently the only person in the world that likes The Heart of Darkness. I've heard people describe it as purple... but I thought the descriptions were so deep I found it immersive.
     
  24. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    My thoughts exactly. It does have an almost musical quality to it, and I can't imagine a better opening for the novel. Still, Nabokov is one of those writers commonly regarded as supremely purple, though, not, it seems, within more literary circles. There is apparently much confusion as to what qualifies as purple prose, and this thread is helping to clarify things for me. This is what I've always thought, though until recently I've been standing alone. Sadly, the vast majority of people I know would take one look and drop Lolita like a ton of bricks.

    Exactly, which means there there is no absolute definition for the term. Your definition is the one I use when applying the purple label as criticism. I guess with all the criticism directed at authors like Nabokov, I became accustomed to thinking there are two kinds of purple. That may not be true, but if so, it's a very common misuse. I think It's another one of those abused terms that are probably best left out of one's vocabulary.:cool: I think I prefer to say 'pretentious', because what you described above (overburdened sentences and flashy word choices that don't benefit the piece) is the definition of pretentious writing. Unfortunately, people take more offense when you call their work pretentious.

    I haven't read that yet. Sounds like I'll probably enjoy it, since we seem to have a similar interest in books.:)
     
  25. ManhattanMss
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    I've never heard the term "Purple Prose" used in any way other than derogatory, myself--often, in fact usually, meaning writing that's offensive or even pornographic. In my recollection, it's usually tied to love or sex scenes in romance novels that either weren't terribly well written or at least weren't perceived as good writing. I've never anywhere other than here in this forum heard it used to describe long sentences as if length or challenging prose is what makes the difference between something that's well written and something that isn't. So, it's hard for me to understand the term "Purple Prose" as being a point of debate about the possible value of excess.

    In any case, "excessive" just means more than necessary, doesn’t it?--trending toward a LOT more than necessary--meaning that either prose has too many words or words that are too long or with meanings that are too intellectual--at least to that particular reader. LOLITA wouldn't have been the masterpiece I think it is in any words other than the ones Nabokov used as only he possibly could. So, I don't read Nabokov's writing as excessive at all. Many readers do think LOLITA is pornographic (I don't). Maybe it might qualify as "Purple" in the minds of some readers on that score.

    Just because a sentence is long or uses words a reader's not familiar with, does NOT mean it's either excessive or purple (in my mind). A criticism to the effect that writing is excessive just means that reader is expressing a personal preference for simplicity and/or (maybe more) transparency of meaning, or attempting to describe a piece of writing they find unnecessarily intellectual, maybe even obscenely so.

    It's true that sometimes a reader will grab for the most derisive possible way to criticize something she doesn't understand or fully appreciate, so maybe that's where the use of "Purple Prose," in this context about excess, developed. But I think that kind of hyperbole, especially if it's misunderstood, probably says at least as much about the reader as it does about the writer, in any case.
     
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