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!