July 16, 2010

In Defense of Purple Prose

        The term “Purple Prose” apparently derives from a poem by Horace in which the Roman author refers to writing that contains excessive and irrelevant description.  Horace compares such literary passages to the practice in Rome at the time of sewing patches of expensive purple cloth onto cheaper garments in the hope of being thought richer and more elegant than you really are.  Nowadays the term “purple prose” generally disparages any rather lush, descriptive writing style, and every time I see a list of Advice for Good Writing, it always seems to include the rule that one must avoid adjectives and adverbs.  But while Horace criticizes inappropriate “purple patches,” I’d bet he never said there was anything wrong with an entire toga of pure, beautiful, luxurious purple.
        All around I see “spare” writing praised and poetic writing spurned, and students told to slash all adjectives and adverbs from their work – whether excessive and irrelevant or not.  Then I, unrepentant logophile that I am, become irate and pledge once more my undying devotion to descriptive words of all persuasions.  I love every vivid, penetrating, perfect adjective.  I love adverbs passionately.  Yes, yes, I know that an overabundance of careless adverbs can make for lousy writing, but even chocolate is nauseating in excess.  The antidote to bad writing is not to eschew adverbs and adjectives, but to learn to use them well.  In short, abstinence-only writing education is both misguided and ineffectual.  That’s why I want to share the joyous news that descriptive, poetic, exuberant writing can be excellent writing - and a lot of fun, too.
        Find a passage of lush description and/or exciting action from your favorite work.  Now try rewriting it leaving out all adjectives or adverbs.  While you’re at it, leave out all those similes and descriptive dependent clauses, too.  What’s left should still include some excellent nouns and verbs, of course, and goodness knows I love nouns and verbs every bit as much as adverbs and adjectives.  (And I even love conjunctions.)  Nevertheless, I’m guessing that your beautifully written passage isn’t quite the same any more.  And if you go further and replace those verbs that seem a bit, well, purple, and strike out any nouns that aren’t really straight to the point… By now all that remains will be the white bones of a story in the cold, dry ashes of a world.
        Purple patches – the inappropriate kind, those sewn onto cheap prose in the hope that it will seem richer and more elegant than it really is – do not come from too much love of words.  Rather they are a symptom of laziness and careless profligacy.  By contrast, a true love of language, and a true love of all the evocative power and searing precision words wield, will lead to a prose of truly imperial purple.

        [Picture: Romance, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.  Commissioned for Penelope’s Romance Reviews.]

1 comment:

Pax said...

Thanks for writing this. My favorite authors all have judicious selections of adjectives and adverbs that enable me to envision what they are describing. This is much more satisfying than seeing someone else's picture of it (except, perhaps, for N. C. Wyeth).
My quarrel is with the computer's edit function that wants to delete all creativity.