Let’s fan away the cloying concerns first: I value wariness of purple prose. Within the last half year I acquired and then (after consuming The Wheel of Time) read a high-fantasy novel from Grand Rapids ComicCon. I experienced much what you’d expect from a book bought on a whim at a ComicCon. Among many other issues: purple prose. Lots and lots of purple prose. These things made me sad, for I saw plenty of good ideas in the book. I just don’t think it was ready.
We’re not here for that book. We’re here to chat about the idea of purple prose itself, and that second thing in the title after. A cursory Googling defines purple prose as “prose that is too elaborate or ornate.” Oh, well, that clears up everything, doesn’t it? Not as if that’s a subjectivist sweep. I don’t doubt some people would argue “a cursory Googling” is purple prose. To this I respond that “a cursory Googling” occupies less space and sounds far fresher than “a quick search on Google.” Purple prose might read like, “A rapid dancing of my nimble writer-digits upon the keyboard to mark upon the Search Engine the phrase ‘Purple prose,'” et cetera, ad nauseum.
Is this horrid sound-homunculus of a sentence inefficient and opaque? Damn straight. But… it was sort of fun, wasn’t it? Halt! Avast! Lower your white-out and cap your red pens! I propose nothing more than a reexamination. I don’t believe we’ll benefit from releasing The Purpurescence from its shackles in the Bleak Bastion. As you can see, its over-violet influence holds strong enough without freeing it! Quickly, we must invoke the opposite extreme to counter it: Strunk and White!– Strunk and White!– Strunk and White! Now then: on one hand, I fully understand that most aspiring authors need telling not to wax lilac. On the other, any time you repeat the same advice at every stage of someone’s writing career without concern for whether it’s still necessary, things go too far. Tell a writer too many times to avoid amethyst, and it becomes pathological. They realize that purple is just the child of red and blue. Shed scarlet, annihilate aqua! Well, see, now you’re left with yellow, which as it happens looks equally bad on everyone.
My point, of course, being that in trying to avoid purple prose, too many authors play it safe and ditch color altogether. I don’t blame them; experiments with language mostly pay off on the readers’ subconscious level, but when they fail you never hear the end of it. And most writing advice ignores style like a cat begging you to open the blinds one time too many. Saqqara, no! You just chattered at birds ten minutes ago! (Yes, our cat is named after the Egyptian necropolis. Previous owner’s decision, not our doing.)
I have to admit, though, I do envy my peers a little for their easy middle style. You see, I don’t get a choice. I fear I have to make up a new phrase: experiential privilege. Let me explain: middle style is all well and good for “ordinary” folks (I still debate whether that word refers to real people, but moving on) who process our human world and human society roughly the same as the rest. More and more over the past few years, I’ve come to understand just how vast the divide between myself, a man with Autism, and the neurotypical world is. Most people come to enjoy networking.
Personally, I’d still rather scald myself.
This is not a euphemism, and if you’re off the Spectrum you’re probably thinking that’s very dramatic. This is where that terrible phrase I just invented comes in. It’s all very well for a neurotypical person to say it’s dramatic that I scald myself. More likely, you demand, “Why would you do that?!” Because social interaction is more difficult for me psychologically, but I have to do that too. That’s why. It’s not that I find scalding pleasant or I feel compelled to. It’s just that in comparison with the psychological strain of being Autistic in a neurotypical society, being scalded is pretty tolerable. Scalding isn’t easy for me (I dread the day it is), and I definitely don’t do it on the regular. I just mean that if I pull a bowl out of the microwave and it’s scalding hot, I’m apt to hold it long enough to set it down instead of dropping it back inside.
Now, imagine that ideas like this are commonplace for you. They are for me. I have dozens more, possibly hundreds, each as flamboyantly agonized as the next. If you come close enough to my headspace, you’ll start to realize that middle style doesn’t fucking cut it. “I’m uncomfortable,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m furious,” these noun-and-adjective one-twos serve as well to express what I feel as a single spitball does to slow the armored cataclysm that is an entire tank division. If you think I’m going purple when I take 3,000 words to explain one part of my psychological state, well… you’re wrong. You’re not getting it. 3,000 words aren’t remotely enough. 3,000 words merely turn that spitball into a few AT rockets. And perhaps those rockets take out a few tanks. Great. I still have a war to fight. I’ll need a lexical Grand Armory to fight it.
Retreating from this oddly confrontational bent back to the larger topic, I say again that purple prose does exist, and we should avoid it. However, I feel more strongly every day that writers are too accustomed to labeling anything in-depth as purple prose. My great concern here is that we slowly rob ourselves of the ability, or even the right, to address extreme material. Character deaths are one thing; most readers, sadly, know what it is to lose a loved one, a friend, a mentor. But as to psychotic breaks and bloodlust, survivor’s guilt and scenic ecstasy and so many other things, it’s nigh impossible to convey them without getting a little purple. Purple prose is a risk we run to grapple with intensity, and those of us with intense experiences have to chance it.
The only thing I ask is a fair shake. And, if worst comes to worst, is violet such a bad color?
One thought on “Of Purple Prose and Psychological Extremes”
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace plays with extreme description while not going purple. You do lose some insight if you fear the purple too much.
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