Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Purple Prose

The other day, I was wasting time on Wikipedia when I stumbled upon an article about Amanda McKittrick Ros, who published her novel Irene Iddesleigh back in 1897 at her own expense. Clearly, vanity publishing is nothing new. Ros fancied herself a poet and filled her books with flowery, confusing descriptions, also known as "purple prose." For example, here is the opening line from her novel Delina Delaney:

"Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?"

Huh? What's she talking about? Apparently, this is all a fancy way of describing part of Ireland. Unfortunately, this kind of writing seems pretty representative of her style, and she was mocked for it back in the day. Writers such as Mark Twain, Lord Beveridge, and Aldous Huxley seemed astounded by her capacity for twisting words in an attempt to sound artistic. Although Ros was ridiculed, she had the last laugh - her book sold well and went down in history, even if it wasn't for the reasons she'd hoped for. I guess you could say she found success in self-publishing before it was cool.

As a reader, purple prose is one of my biggest pet peeves. I find it distracting, perplexing, and, most of all, pretentious. It draws attention to itself in an obnoxious way, as though the writer is saying, "Look at me! Look what I can do!" when really all I want is to be drawn into the story. Whenever I stumble across it, I want to smack the page and say, "Look, author, it's not about you!" In my opinion, the best kind of writing is invisible; that is, it leaves you so engaged in the story, you don't really notice it.

Some writers are very good at using figures of speech to bring their stories to life without taking a reader out of the story. For that, I applaud them. It takes a special kind of skill to weave poetic descriptions into prose and let it melt into the story's plot.

As opposed to this attempt by Ros to describe Delina's job as a seamstress (or something):

"She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness."

Say what? I'm still scratching my head.


  1. You just have to learn how to speak gibberish, lol.

  2. Have you read The Eye of Argon? I think the party game is to get through any whole sentence without bursting out laughing.