Do we all know what that is? It’s what made Barbara Cartland famous, made romance for decades the object of scorn and derision, so that to this day, we all still have to defend not only writing it but reading it.
Purple prose is the use of words that are colorful and overly descriptive. The earliest citation of is in the 1598 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, where it was cited as a purple patch or purple passage. It is commonly understood that the phrase was taken from a reference in the Roman poet, Horace, in Ars Poetica:
“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?”
But what the heck does it all mean?
We’ve all seen it. The description of women’s breasts as “luscious melons of fruity delight.” the male penis as “His throbbing sword of marble.”
Get it now? :)
Most of us groan and roll our eyes when we see these terms used. After al, isn’t that why people made fun of Romance novels in the first place?
However, in looking through the internet to research the terminology, i came upon a 1985 article by the lofty NY Times which stated in part:
- “It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that’s rich, succulent and full of novelty.Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity. So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can’t do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks.”
(Paul West, “In Defense of Purple Prose.” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 1985)
So the NY Times itself has decreed that purple prose takes a certain amount of talent, correct? Why do people still make fun of it then?
I think that maybe it’s because so many of these familiar tropes and phrases are used over and over and over again, in the same book.
We are all guilty of using these flowery descriptions, right? On the mega successful blog, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, they have taken a step further and started the Romance Novel Workout, which is a snarky take on the familiar language and tropes that are found in many romance genre novels.
Some examples of that are:
Nipples that are pebbled
Someone says something silky or huskily
Comparison of nipples to fruit
Something is laved
You all get the point. But what I want to know is…for all the joking and winking about it, how would they write it?
I think that there is a place for the objectification of certain sex scenes. Look, there is a difference between pornography and romance novels. In romance novels, the story isn’t supposed to be geared towards the next sex scene. There is character development, emotional conflict and the sex adds towards the tension and the ultimate love between the hero and heroine. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but I don’t mind a little purple prose, if it is done without old tired clichés. I get angry when I read novels where the same phrases are used over and over again.
I think there is a place for plain speak, but not throughout a romance novel. I will admit, I like some of the purple prose, but not the over the top ones (I’ve read “He wielded his throbbing weapon of manhood” and wanted to hurl the book and my lunch!) One thing I have learned from being critiqued and critiquing is that it is very easy to fall into the trap of using the same word over and over again. use your thesaurus, read a hell of a lot, but don’t keep using one word through out your book. Then again, I don’t want to read overly melodramatic descriptions of women’s breasts. It is something to think about while we write and edit. Adjectives are our friends. We need to embrace them
So what do you all think? As writers, how do you feel about purple prose?
As a reader, what do you think when you read these descriptions of body parts and emotions-do you groan and ignore, or do you think the writer could work a little harder?
Or do you not care either way?