Monday, December 7, 2009

Purple Prose Rides Again

In spite of George Orwell's best efforts, in spite of the millions of students coached to write spare, lean prose by Strunk and White, purple prose is making a comeback.

Purple prose is prose that has too much of many things - too many words, too much repetition, too many figures of speech, too many foreign or Latinate words, too many cultural references to Latin and Greek myth. Purple prose is overblown, too elaborate and ornate, and, increasingly, over used.

Purple prose appears everywhere - in fiction, in business writing, in academia, in blogs, in articles, especially on the internet.

Purple prose is hard to read and requires much effort by the reader. For years, writing instructors advised beginners to be kind to their readers, to keep them in mind while writing. Part of the process was to envision who one's audience was and write directly to and for them.

Anyone writing for magazines must please the editor who is the gatekeeper to the publication's readership. If the editor does not believe the readers will be interested in a writer's work, the piece will not be published. The same is true for book publishing; editors accept books based on what they believe will sell, what they believe readers will like and buy.

The internet has changed the dynamics of who can be and what will be published. Much has been written about citizen journalists and their lack of objectivity and in-depth discussion. Anyone can say pretty much anything, with a libel suit the only gatekeeper.

Self-publishing allows even the worst writers to see their names on a book's cover. E-zines and sites that publish mediocre work abound to capitalize on the enormous amount of money to be made online. The internet is insatiable when it comes to copy.

Purple prose is another result of the internet's huge market for material. The demand is for more and more words, regardless of style and with little seeming regard for readers.

It's all about the writers, their feelings, their "art," their self-expression. Worrying about readers is too restrictive. My writing is about me, after all, isn't it?

 In millions (billions?) of blogs, writers ramble on and wax purplish about everything from the minute details of breakfast (or far more unpleasant daily occurrences!) to the angst of what to wear or who is saying what about whom - and almost all of it in gushing style (and bad spelling and grammar - but that is another post!).

Many factors contribute to the hyperbole of the "me" writers, and the trend will probably get worse before style cycles around again to clear, concise, concrete, and correct prose.

There is a place for well-written, artistic, purposeful purple prose in this world, just as there is now, with the internet, a place for writers of all abilities to have their say. We can only hope the old adage that "cream will rise to the top" is true and that most of the horrible, sickly, self-indulgent, overblown prose will sink out of sight forever.


Hels said...

My guess is that people who sit in the middle of any continuum do not need to overstate their case via purple prose. They don't even have a case to overstate, if you know what I mean eg "How do you feel about gay marriage?" It would sound a bit peculiar saying "Well I have read every book in the entire universe on the topic, I have researched every PhD and I demand my democratic right to remain passionately neutral."

The more people move to the edge of a continuum, the more they have to resort to purple prose to make a clear stand. And it is probably more a feature of the extreme right wing eg "How do you feel about Obama?" "He is a secret Muslim sympathiser who gives American security secrets away to terrorist organisations. He has taken American liberties away forever and has ended democracy as we know it. Banks will collapse into the streets and commercial television channels will be forced to show government-produced propaganda, every waking moment of the day".

Although I agree with you about the expansion of the internet and its impact, perhaps writing was always thus. I couldn't stomach political and religious tracts _from both sides_ of the English Civil War of the 17th century because they were filled with ridiculous over-statements.

ChrisJ said...

Excellent point; I hadn't thought of it that way. I was thinking more about narcissism - but then narcissism is not in the middle of the continuum either, so the point holds.

lifeshighway said...

You prove a previous point - my hives remain intact.

ChrisJ said...


I'll send you some Calomine!

Dawn said...

I don't think it is going anywhere and maybe that is okay. Perhaps self indulgence where a person is thinking and writing is a slightly better hobby than a self indulgent hobby of watching moronic blockbuster movies or reality TV shows. Think of it as therapy for the masses, self validation for the average joe. And of course if there is money to be made, someone will make it.

ChrisJ said...

Dawn, I couldn't agree more that thinking and writing, purple or otherwise, is better than many other things. The activity as therapy and relaxation is sometimes more important than the resulting prose.