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Purple Prose

I wrote a message to my fellow members of the Washington Romance Writers. I began it with what I thought was an entertaining nod to outrageous alliteration; I said:


“Pause in the penning of your purple prose, please!”

In retrospect, this is simply too cute for words… on the other hand, the members of WRW have been through the wringer of late, and as the new director of communications, I’m pursuing a “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” idiocy policy in addressing them – hoping that an infusion of energy and silliness will help to remind them that writing romances ought to be blissful and fun.

One of the members quite kindly commented on the use of the phrase “purple prose.” She said that “purple prose” was a derogatory term used to put down the romance genre – or any writing that has to do with emotion.

“It is a glib comment from critics and booksellers who refuse to read our books, and every joke that is made at our expense. It keeps readers from trying our genre because they are afraid someone will mock them. It stops writers from thinking their work is important because it is “only” romance.”

Shazaam – here we are, at the “fool” part of “fools rush in.” I had no idea I was using such a freighted term – and as you can imagine, I am deeply grateful for the graceful education.

I was thinking about the term – purple prose. How old is it? Is it a modern phrase? How long has it been dismissive and derogatory? So I went for a stroll through the Oxford English Dictionary.

Before there was the internet, there was the OED – a place where you can get lost for HOURS, peering myopically through a cat’s eye magnifier. (My copy of the OED has nine pages per page. When I first got it, I could just barely read the bigger passages unaided; now that I’m a tribal elder, that magnifying glass is essential!)

Here’s what I found:

The OED does not know the phrase “purple prose.” However, it does know “purple patch, passage, piece” – all of which mean a brilliant or ornate passage in a literary composition.

Huh. That’s a far cry from the derogatory usage of today. Entertainingly, the first use they found for “purple patch” in this meaning was in 1598, from no less august an authority than QUEEN FREAKING ELIZABETH. Is that not fabulous?

The last example noted was from 1977, and in the intervening 400 years, people had gotten a lot less flattering about a purple patch of writing.

I also discovered that “purple” was a stand-in term for the pustule (or bubo) of the bubonic plague. Nice!

And that a “purple airway” is a route reserved for an aircraft on which royalty is flying. For some reason, this makes me chuckle in delight.

And “purple death” is a cheap Italian red wine.

Seriously: Who knew reading four pages of a dictionary under the heading of “PURPLE” would be so damned entertaining?!

On my way to looking up “prose” (since “purple” was a dead end in the prose category), I came across “PROPINE,” which is a word that means drinking money (or did in 1638). God, the OED is a glorious work.

Once I came acropper in the OED, I threw my search into the greater webs of the internet. Wikipedia says purple prose is “prose text so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

None of the sources I clicked on pointed out that this was a derogatory term used to describe romances, but isn’t that the brutal effectiveness of bigotry? The insidious hidden meaning is the shorthand that goes farther than the actual definition, carrying prejudice and hateful thoughts where you can’t quite see them.

I won’t be using “purple prose” so blithely in the future… but I came across a great quote that made me cheer out loud – for my genre, and for myself as a writer who big-big digs the extravagant, ornate, and flowery:

"It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity. So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can't do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks." (Paul West, "In Defense of Purple Prose." The New York Times, Dec. 15, 1985)

NICE ONE, Paul West!!



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