Purple prose, have you heard of it? I kept reading the term on writing blogs and didnt recognize the reference. A quick Google search and now I am “in the know.”
Apparently, the expression was coined as early as the 16th century and refers to flowery, overly descriptive writing, the type of writing that throws you out of the story and draws attention to the writing itself. Overusing adverbs and adjectives will get you a purple ribbon too.
Now Im not going to shout praises for self indulgent, over the top writing, but I am a fan of the paler versions. Passages that make me pause and say, ooooh thats lovely, could be considered lavender-tinted cousins. It might be a turn of phrase so descriptive and rich in evoking a mood I stop and read it again. Or an entire paragraph worthy of being read aloud because it sounds so good.
Let me give you an example, from F . Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby,”His heart beat faster and faster as Daisys white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
“The juxtaposition of God with a romping mind pulls me out of the story, but I dont mind, because now Ive slowed down enough to enjoy the tuning fork metaphor and an unforgettable first kiss.
Thoreau is always good for a read aloud. Try this excerpt from Walden on for size.
I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants.”
Theres even a touch of alliteration in the ground glass, but again, Im not complaining because I love to speak this passage. It pleases my ear and mind to say perennial waveless serenity reigns even though my spell check function insists the word “waveless” is illegitimate.
I cant help it; beige prose doesnt do it for me. Whats the point of all those delicious words if writers arent going to use them? On occasion, I want to meander through a book and smell those flowery phrases. So now that Ive got a hankering for some flamboyant, supercilious, evocative, euphoric writing. Care to share some of your favorite purple-tinted passages?
Photograph © Chris Bence