Purple Haze

…or more precisely, why I don’t think all romance is properly categorized as containing purple prose–and why I don’t think that would be bad even if it were true.

What precisely is purple prose? According to A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman (8th Edition), a “purple patch” is

Now and then authors in a strongly emotional passage will give free play to most of the stylistic tricks in their bag. They will write prose intensely colorful and more than usually rhythmic. When there is an unusual piling up of these devices in such a way as to suggest standing out a self-conscious literary effort, the section is spoken of as a purple patch … Although sometimes used in a nonevaluative, descriptive sense, the term is more often employed derogatorily. (421)

I eliminated a few sentences explaining the reference to Horace, but this is a workable definition. Purple prose is excessively descriptive for its context and that, therefore, draws attention to itself.

Genre romance regularly stands accused of trafficking in purple prose. The Missouri Review ran a column in 2013 comparing Nora Robert’s descriptions of sex (“absurd”) to Nabokov’s in Lolita (“poetic”). Such accusations are so common that AAR use to run a purple prose parody contest. And certainly love scenes lend themselves to description. The Literary Review awards an annual bad sex in fiction award–one that invariably goes to a literary novel.

My first reaction is that we need to draw a line between writing that’s merely bad and writing that’s effective but intensely descriptive. The Nora Roberts passages the Missouri Review quotes aren’t aesthetically pleasing to me but nor do I find them representative of the best writing in romance today. One way to approach this question would be to line up selections from Susanna Kearsley, Cecilia Grant, Joanna Bourne, etc. that demonstrate the literary merit of romance.

Today at least, I’m going to approach the question another way. The charge of purple prose hinges on the idea that scenes in genre romance are too “intensely colorful” or “rhythmic” in a way that is excessive for the context. But genre romance normalizes or even demands heightened emotion and the colorful description that communicates it.

I’ve written before about the descent of genre romance from the sentimental novel–another genre that has faced criticism for its emotional or stylistic excesses. In an essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, James Baldwin famously insists, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

But within the sentimental worldview, the response to this critique would be, “Dishonest emotion is anathema to sentiment. That feeling is a way of knowing as important as thinking. That emotion is at the core of our humanity and a way of making connections across otherwise uncrossable boundaries.”

I’m not saying this answer is right. I’ve spent more than my share of nights awake pondering Baldwin’s critique and wondering whether it applies to my novels. However, we should see the term “purple prose” not as the final pronouncement on the subject but as a skirmish in a conflict between two competing narrative structures–because the sentimental isn’t primarily an aesthetic system but a structural one.

The sentimental novel and genre romance are marked not by aesthetic excess but by their belief that human connection across status divides is possible and that, having been made, reconciliation and redemption are possible. Sex isn’t the point in romance; it’s a metaphor.

And seen in this light, the “excesses” in romance aren’t excesses at all. Instead, purple patches in romance are a marvelous confluence of form and content.

I’m not saying there isn’t bad prose in romance. There is. And we should point it out. I’m not saying that romance’s vision of redeemed humanity isn’t sometimes (in Baldwin’s formation) prescriptive, normalizing, and colonizing.

But you can go ahead and use some extra adverbs in that love scene. You’ve earned them.

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2 thoughts on “Purple Haze

  1. What you say here is interesting and relevant. I’ve read plenty of excessive prose in litfit (I’m looking at you, Anne Michaels) … spare, like in bodies, isn’t always best. D H Lawrence, whatever his problems and neuroses, was often accused of heightened language, excessive flights of prose. But I think that his problem, as romance’s is sometimes, is an attempt to express, in language, emotional and physical experiences that are beyond it. In the same way that spiritual texts also struggle with expressing the inexpressible. Language “breaks down” for all human endeavour … and it also does a mighty fine job of encapsulating them. As romance does for, as you so beautifully put it, “human connection across status divides is possible and that, having been made, reconciliation and redemption are possible.” And how often has sexual heightening metaphors been used to express many an intense experience … check out Bernini’s St. Teresa …

    • Yes! And so in some ways, I *like* “purple prose” when it fits with the goal of the text: to express transcendence (or something). I do think that “false” transcendence (or sentiment or whatever) is a problem and also that the redemptive goals of genre romance (and sentimental fiction) aren’t “neutral”–and these goals can be problematic, but I guess what I’m saying is that purple prose has been levied as an aesthetic critique, when it should be understood as a structural goal.

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