The Use and Abuse of Purple

Work (I almost called it “the day job;” I follow too many writers on Twitter) has been kicking my ass, and I’ve been kicking it back. So you’re getting my half-baked thoughts on the colour purple, something I’ve been meditating on for a while, because who knows when I’ll have time to work them out more carefully.

I’ve got an internet acquaintance–let’s call her X, because my point isn’t to pick on her–with whom I share a lot of academic interests and reading tastes, but who is not a romance reader. She’s open-minded though, and with encouragement brow-beating from Jessica of Read React Review and me, she tried a romance. She chose Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, which led AAR’s most recent Top 100 Romances poll and is often cited by readers as a “conversion” book for non-romance readers.

X did not care for it, citing the “absurdly over-blown prose, two-dimensional characters . . . and basically silly plot.” She kindly added that someone “versed in the conventions of the genre” might see other qualities in it, maybe because she knew I’d see her review. Hey, I can take it. I liked Lord of Scoundrels, but I didn’t think it was the BEST ROMANCE EVAR. And one of the things I like about this virtual friendship is that it provokes me to think about why I love reading romance.

One of the key things for my enjoyment of romance is the understanding I’ve developed for the role of “purple” in romance writing. X didn’t quite use the term “purple prose,” but she came close. (In her defense, she’s also commented on books whose “purpleness” she enjoyed.) Literary fiction today, I think, still tends to the minimalist, and sometimes loses something as a result, as this very purple 1985 essay “In Defense of Purple Prose” by Paul West suggests (thanks to Jessica for the link). Romance readers are sensitive about purple prose, because our genre is often attacked as a leading perpetrator of it, usually thanks to the sex scenes. We’re also perfectly capable of recognizing and making fun of it. I think purple, in the sense of “over the top,” extends beyond the prose, and I think there are good and bad uses of it.

Purple prose is usually defined as too something (too flowery, too descriptive, too melodramatic). But where’s the line between enough and too much? It varies from reader to reader, and from era to era. My students have difficulty with the long descriptive passages in 19th century fiction (or even in Anne of Green Gables). We read excerpts from contemporary reviews, which often praise the very thing they dislike, and we talk about the author’s choice of imagery and how it might contribute to the book’s themes. School has often taught them to view figurative language as mere ornament (“use three metaphors or similes in your homework”) rather than as meaningful. I want them to see that a good writer isn’t choosing metaphors at random.

For me, bad purple prose is usually ill-considered figurative language, such as this infamous sentence fragment from Stephanie Laurens’ Brazen Bride: “Into the weeping furnace of her sheath.” Holy mixed metaphor! I’m not the first to point out that if there’s weeping down there, you should see a doctor, not have sex. And wouldn’t the sheath melt in the furnace? Then there’s what he’s “driving” in there: ouch! that’s going to burn. This language is not just “flowery,” it’s illogical. I laughed out loud when I listened to the book on audio (Simon Prebble delivers such ridiculous lines with relish).

But over-the-top language can work for me in sex scenes, too. Sometimes I find it “absurd” and moving at the same time. Good sex (and bad) creates strong feelings, and over-blown language can help convey them. For me, Lord of Scoundrels walks both sides of that line. I like Dain’s crazy desperation, his shaking hands, but find lines like “the lightning blast of rapture  . . . the sweet rain of release” too much (there are “feminine tears of desire” too; better get that checked out, Jess).

My family isn’t always good at talking about emotions. We’re not incapable (I’m the child of people whose mid-life career changes made them an Episcopal priest and a therapist, after all), but we’re uncomfortable. And since I’ve struggled a lot with depression, I often associate “strong emotion” with negative emotion, something to be avoided. Reading romance has made me a bit more comfortable with expressing feelings. Sometimes I like to say purple things to my husband. He laughs uncomfortably (his family’s British; they prefer insulting humour to talk of feelings). The thing is, these expressions of devotion may sound fake and over-the-top to us, but they’re also true.

There’s a truth to the sometimes improbable, over-drawn characters and situations of romance, too. The Prologue of Lord of Scoundrels could be read as melodramatic and unrealistic: Dain’s father thinks his mother is evil for liking sex, and sees his son as “the Devil’s spawn;” Dain comes to see himself as an unlovable monster. It is melodramatic. But it is also akin to the almost mythic depictions of childhood trauma we find in the Brothers Grimm or Dickens. The over-drawn can capture a truth about feelings and experiences that plainer prose (which I generally prefer) and plot-lines may not.

I think of romance fiction as being in some ways like poetry: both rely on heightened language which can seem artificial or excessive; both are constrained by formal considerations but endlessly various within those constraints. I enjoy a kind of language in romance fiction which I often dislike in literary fiction. I’m seeking different pleasures from my different kinds of reading, and valuing different things. I don’t think that means I’m holding romance to a “lower” standard. Rather, I’ve reconsidered what’s high and low. You can view the popularity of genre fiction as a sign that it’s reaching the lowest common denominator, or as a sign that it’s meeting a widely-felt human need. Finding language to express my passion, however much it might make me giggle, is a good thing for me.

P.S. I almost gave up on X and romance, but I asked her what movies with romantic story lines she liked. She said Moonstruck (which, hello, is pretty purple!), so I suggested Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You, another comedy with strong dialogue featuring an older woman/younger man pairing. She liked it better than Chase’s book. Score!



This entry was posted in genre musings. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Use and Abuse of Purple

  1. Sarah Frantz says:

    I was going to suggest Crusie’s Bet Me. Fabulous book. 🙂 And for non-purple prose, m/m romance has some amazingly spare writing. I see it as reflective of the fact that both characters are men, and the writing reflects their struggle to access and verbalize (or at least demonstrate) their emotions. A.M. Riley, I think, is best at the utterly spare language, between the lines of which you have to read for the emotional connection (she also does BDSM very very well). K.A. Mitchell is similar, as is James Buchanan. I can give you more specific recommendations if you’d like. 🙂

  2. I rec Kinsale and LaVyrle Spencer as conversion books. Lord of Scoundrels is a fun book, but I think you need your phasers set to “genre” to enjoy it. It’s not a serious book. Read it as farce, or beware the myriad logical holes.

    Funny that Anyone But You hit the mark. I enjoyed that one the same way I did Lord of Scoundrels. It wasn’t the best written book ever, but it was too fun not to enjoy it. The dog alone!

  3. Danielle says:

    “Purple prose is usually defined as too something (too flowery, too descriptive, too melodramatic). But where’s the line between enough and too much? It varies from reader to reader, and from era to era.”

    I find this to be so true. Which is why I personally find it helpful and interesting to read poetry and prose from many different periods (and places). It fine-tunes one’s receptiveness, making it possible to appreciate more than one type of expressive (and non-expressive) writing. But preconceptions seem always to be lurking around the corner. I read a book earlier this week that had won literary prizes in its country of origin (France), and which several literary reviewers in the USA praised for its beauty of language. I enjoyed the book, but could not help but think how much of the prose, if found within the covers of a romance novel, could easily have been held up to ridicule by satirists. The language of emotion seems to make a lot of people very uncomfortable in this day and age, yet if it comes within the covers of pre-approved literary fiction, readers seem to feel licensed to relax and be moved and thrilled. It always surprises me how many readers don’t dare trust or try to test their own taste levels. But then I was fortunate enough to have language teachers who loved the written word and loved their jobs throughout my later school years!

    This is my first time commenting, by the way, although I have been a subscriber for a while 🙂

  4. Oh, what Ridley said! LOS is steeped in genre convention and language, though a fabulous book for the already-converted. I agree too re Kinsale being a good intro to the genre – and would also suggest Judith Ivory. I know some find her very guilty of the overly purple prose but I think she just carries it off dashingly and the scenes she constructs are so rich and complex and meaty.

    I do firmly believe though that some people cannot be converted to romance. They just have no interest in a love story (and since I know there are certain stories that will never hold my interest, I think that has to be – reluctantly – accepted).

  5. Kinbote: “You appreciate particularly the purple passages?” Shade: “Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane.”

    – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, Line 172

  6. VacuousMinx says:

    This reminds me of the Hemingway-Faulkner exchange of insults (don’t know the chronological order):

    Faulkner: “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

    Hemingway: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

    I think genuinely spare writing is rare in any genre. There’s a difference between straightforward prose that gets out of the way and truly spare prose. Read James Salter, for example, and you can immediately realize the difference.

    People criticize Cormac McCarthy for dense, “overwritten” prose. But while I see their point, I can get lost in his books, so much so that when I look up from reading I have to remind myself where I am. For some people, dense prose writers in romance are like that. For me, not so much. Usually I see the scaffolding and it keeps me from losing myself in the text (there are exceptions, of

    It’s difficult to recommend a conversion genre book (romance, mystery, SFF, whatever) if you don’t know the reader’s stylistic preferences, because the combination of off-putting style and genre conventions can be very difficult to overcome. That might have been what happened with Lord of Scoundrels. Anything for Love is much more accessible, if I’m remembering it correctly.

    Thanks for the post! Much food for thought, as is clear by this overly long comment.

  7. lizmc2 says:

    Thanks, everybody, for all these great comments, quotations, and book suggestions. I don’t really think there’s such a thing as one “conversion” book; you have to think of the reader’s tastes. In this case, I think Crusie worked (somewhat) better because it relies very much on the conventions of romantic comedy, and X could therefore bring a different set of expectations to it than she normally does to fiction. Also, Fred the dog is so great. I must thank X for being such a great sport about serving as the springboard for my thoughts.

  8. Terrific post. I agree that LOS isn’t the best for converting readers and that Kinsale and Ivory are better choices. I’d also add the Gaffney books with the more beta heroes –I’m thinking of Wild at Heart and To Love and to Cherish specifically.

  9. Janet W says:

    Janet W — as much as I’d like to suggest the perfect conversion book, I can’t think of one “perfect” one. I didn’t enjoy Bet Me nearly as much as I liked Welcome to Temptation — possibly that one. Or maybe a Georgette Heyer? Wild at Heart is quite delightful. How about Sunlight and Shadow … very different, not too purpley.

  10. Belatedly, great post!

  11. Pingback: Genre Trouble! Monday Links Post | Read React Review

  12. Liz says:

    Susan Elizabeth Phillips has plot holes you can drive a truck through, plus a penchant for having her heroes or heroines assault their partner (Molly? *headdesk*) but I think the tone, pacing, characters, quality, humor/zaniness ect. is the closest thing to Crusie that is not Crusie. Maybe Aint She Sweet?

  13. etv13 says:

    Okay, not a person who needs to be converted, but — Kinsale? Really? I think Kinsale is way more purple/melodramatic than Chase or Heyer or Crusie, all of whom are much more comic writers than Kinsale. Lord of Scoundrels is not my favorite Chase, but I agree with the commenter above who characterized it as farce — or at least, I think it has strong elements of 1930’s screwball comedy in it — as does The Last Hellion, which I prefer, and a lot of Crusie. (But then, I am one of those readers who tends to skim over sex scenes, so I missed the tears of feminine whatever.) There are some serious emotional undercurrents in Chase (the “I’m your father, if you have a problem, you bring it to me and I bear it for you” scene in Not Quite a Lady makes me cry every time) but overall the tone is comic, not melodramatic. There are some funny moments in Kinsale, and certainly in Ivory, but the overall tone is much more melodramatic than anything in Chase (other than maybe Captives of the Night).

Comments are closed.