Image: Books should have a cover like this, so the potential reader is warned, or enticed, depending on their preference.
Purple prose is a term used to describe exceedingly ornate and flowery language. It is a term most often used derisively. It is a style of writing characterised by excessive use of adjectives and awkward metaphors. It uses descriptions that seek to use language beautifully, but like a condiment, too much of a good thing risks ruining the dish.
The term ‘purple prose’ was first attributed to Horace, a Roman poet who lived 65-8 BCE. He was one of the most notable poets of his time. It is he who is attributed with the first use of the term "carpe diem". In fact, it is only half his original quote. The full quote was “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” or “seize the day, trusting as little as possible to the future”. He is famous for many other things but an homage to Horace is not the purpose of this piece.
Image: A Roman or poet wearing the robes dyed with the murex purple reserved for emperors.
Purple prose can create a wonderful sensory experience for the reader, taking them into the mind of the author, or more importantly into the scene or character the author has created. A workable definition of purple prose is difficult. It is one of those things that are best described as ‘I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it'. Now that was an application of that definition, I bet the originator didn’t predict. The phrase was attributed to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he was asked to comment on what constituted pornography. But back to the topic.
Image: A purple robed US Supreme Court Judge (any resemblance to Potter Stewart is purely coincidental).
When used in careful measure (recall the condiment metaphor) purple porose can add vivid descriptions and nuanced metaphors that evoke emotions, allowing the reader to connect with the text on a deeper level. The beauty lies in the ability of purple prose to transform words into paintings in the reader's mind.
Well-executed purple prose can elevate a piece of writing, giving it a sense of elegance, originality and sophistication. It can demonstrate the author's mastery of language and showcase their creativity. Such prose is a joy to read, enriching the reader's experience and making the text more memorable.
However, when used in excess purple prose can have the completely opposite effect. This is most often the case where authors become overly enamoured with their own literary brilliance (at least in their opinion). Purple prose occurs when the author gets lost in the prose and forgets that they are telling a story. The reader is left feeling alienated or scrambling for the dictionary to decipher what the author is on about. The message the author is trying to convey is lost rather than enhanced.
Image: Herbs and Spices to make purple prose - use it sparingly for a better dish.
I’ve looked at a few authors' works to find evidence of purple prose. I've selected writers that I admire to make my research easier. Let’s take a look through a purple prose lens at Ernest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, and Christos Tsiolkas.
Ernest Hemingway is known for his no-nonsense, minimalist writing style. His writing is often referred to as using the ‘Iceberg Theory’. He deliberately avoids ornate language and opts for simple, direct prose that leaves the reader to fill in the gaps. His avoidance of purple prose is a deliberate stylistic choice. While some readers may find his writing lacking in embellishment and emotionless it serves a specific purpose: to allow readers to engage actively with the text, filling in the deliberate voids and drawing on their own emotional responses to complete the story. There is no way Hemingway could be accused of being a purple proser.
Image: Ernest and an iceberg.
Haruki Murakami is known for his blend of surrealism and realism in his storytelling. His use of descriptive language has been described as a ‘form of dreamlike prose’. Critics of two of his most widely read books ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ suggest that he has used purple prose to good effect. An example from his 'Kafka on the Shore', 'I ... feel an omen calling out to me, like a dark, omnipresent pool of water', is a good example. His use of purple prose is used sparing that only enhances the otherworldly and introspective atmosphere of his works.
I’ve recently read 71/2 (seven and a half) by Australian author, Christos Tsiolkas, perhaps best known for ‘The Slap’ and Barracuda.’ His most lauded works use a writing style that is raw and explicit, particularly when describing intense emotions. In 71/2 Tsiolkas deliberately delves into purple prose. The opening paragraph is an example where he describes raucous cockatoos bursting into song and other sounds such as melodic honeyeaters and purring bees against a sunset sky full of slanted light. While it is clearly his choice to head this way, I think he has overdone it. The reader (or at least me in this case) feels the prose is forced, overly ornate and trying too hard to be clever. It's like using a $30,000 Versace bag to carry your lunch to work when a $30 bag from Aldi (or even a cheaper Bali knock-off) would do the same job. Don’t get me wrong there are many passages in 71/2 are a joy to read (and inspirational) and his descriptions are clearly the work of a confident craftsman, but all too often the descriptions are overdone, and the story, so clear in his other works is forced to a back seat. It is as if he has spent all his literary energy on flounces and flamboyance and forgotten why he was writing the book. Tsiolkas is brilliant – but this novel drowns in the depths of purple prose.
Image: A $35,000 Versace bag or a $30 knock off. Both will do the same job.
Writers (including aspiring ones like me) need to strive to strike a balance between the allure of purple prose and the necessity of clear, authentic storytelling. The key lies in understanding when to employ descriptive embellishments and when to let the story speak for itself. Ultimately, purple prose can be a powerful tool in the hands of the writer. May be the most skilled writers trust the reader to add their own condiments to create a bespoke and optimised experience.
Image: The Colonel as a younger man was known for his judicious use of herbs and spices, and his penchant for using purple prose to flog his deep-fried chooks.
Footnote: My comments on purple prose do not, in any way relate to Western Australia’s second (rate) football team the purple-clad Fremantle Dockers. Personally, I think they are embarrassed to wear purple. Their jumpers look blue to me.
Images generated with AI.