Saturday, April 17, 2010

Purple Prose: A Prickly Point to Ponder

When you leave this world for greener pastures, what is it that you want people to remember about your writing? Your dramatic dialogue? Your stunning settings? Your captivating characters? How about possessing the title “the greatest bad writer who ever lived”? Uh, what? This is what author Nick Page, in his book In Search of the World’s Worst Writers, writes about Amanda McKittrick Ros. Ouch.

Ros, an Irish author who lived from 1860-1939, predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. I’m not sure that’s what she had in mind. Her work took center stage at gatherings of the Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), where members attempted to be the one to read for the longest time while keeping a straight face. It is rumored that her fans included the likes of Mark Twain and Aldous Huxley. However, Twain was quoted as calling her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, “one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.” Maybe her notoriety stems more from a macabre fascination rather than from admiration. The kind of pull that draws you to gawk at a bad wreck. The primary objection to her work seems to be its deep “purple” hue. Yep, the infamous “purple prose”.

What exactly is purple prose? It is writing that is too flowery, too melodramatic, too descriptive, too cliché. It is over-the-top narrative or excessive alliteration that draws attention to itself rather than drawing the reader into the story. Purple prose breaks the flow of the writing and irritates the reader. Basically, it is writing that causes people to sigh and roll their eyes. Yikes.

During the Roman Empire and beyond, purple signified royalty. People unable to afford the cloth, yet still anxious to climb the social ladder of the day, would sew purple patches onto their clothing. Seen as gaudy and ostentatious, calling something “purple” came to signify anything inappropriate and in poor taste.

Some genres struggle more with purple prose than other. Often purple prose can be found in romance novels. Trying to find new and creative ways to describe the physical characteristics of an individual can lead a writer to develop some eye-rolling-inducing statements. Ros, for example, called eyes “globes of glare”, legs “bony supports”, and sweat “globules of liquid lava”. Yuck.

Writers run the risk of resorting to purple prose when trying to manipulate readers rather than connecting on a heart level with them. Our goal as writers should be to touch the hearts of our readers through vivid and dynamic writing, not manuever them in to feeling some emotion through a gaudy imitation.

You could argue that Ros made a success of her writing career. Her out-of-print books sell for $300-$800 on the used-book market, a biography released in 1954, portions of her works were published as an anthology in 1988, and she was the honored at an Irish literary festival in 2006. Hmmm.

Maybe if the writing thing isn’t working for you, you can aspire to a new height—unseating the Princess of Purple Prose. Anyone want to give it a whirl?

Nikki Studebaker Barcus


  1. Nikki! You are such a gifted writer and I loved this post! How honored I am to know you. :-) Write on, dear friend! Write on!

  2. Ouch, what a destiny! Interesting to know where the phrase came from. Maybe down the road we will be called "gaunt" for being too trim? I just finished rereading Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and thinking how his writing would never get published today. But then, if he were writing today, he'd write in conformity with today's standards. Yeah, he'd still be brilliant!

  3. Ooh, baby! "Globules of liquid lava" sounds more like my chili than a personal problem. I never heard of Mrs. Ros but now am kind of curious to read some of her stuff!