Friday, February 13, 2015

"Purple Prose": Reject or Reclaim?

Recent online discussions of the phrase "purple prose" as applied to romance novel writing by author Emma Barry and reviewers/bloggers Elisabeth Lane and Alexis Hall at All About Romance got the attention of my inner word-nerd. I had always associated the phrase with bad writing, and in particular, with the euphemistically bad writing used to describe sex in the historical romances of the 1970s. Lane and Hall's post, as well as Barry's, though, had me wondering if my definition was correct. What is the history of this phrase?

Turning to my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (online version), I discovered a phrase with a long past, one that certainly predates the existence of genre romance. The OED defines Purple prose, which dates from 1901, as "overly ornate or fussy prose; cf PURPLE PASSAGE."

Two of the three examples cited suggest the negative connotations of the phrase:

"He sees advertisements describing new houses for sale... Glowing adjectives and purple prose embellish the descriptions." —N Straus, Two Thirds of Nation, 1952

"A good editor would have... written rude comments in the margins near the frequent passages of purple prose." —Times Literary Supplement, 10 Dec. 2004, 29/1.

Purple passage, which dates from 1822, has a similarly negative denotation: "an elaborate or excessively ornate passage in a literary composition. After the Latin purpureus pannus (see PURPLE PATCH)."


"The book is... marked by great reserve and quietness of tone... There is not a 'purple passage' in all the two volumes." —Macmillan's Magazine, Jan. 1822, 211/2.

"Mrs. Johnson says little about herself, indulges in no purple passages, and without the conscious effort of the raconteur she manages to introduce many good stories." Discovery Oct. 1937, 326/2.

Both examples are negatives; writers and speakers who avoid purple passages are to be praised, suggesting that those who indulge are to be condemned. (Roman poet Horace, the originator of the phrase purpureus pannus, also uses it to condemn inappropriate excessive of description.)

Purple patch, the oldest of this group of related English phrases, continues in a negative vein: "An elaborate or excessively ornate passage in a literary composition."


"One Part of the Work should not so far out-shine, as to Obscure and Darken the Other. The Purple Patches he claps upon his Course Style, make it seem much Courser than it is." —True Tom Double, ?1704

"His writing stumbles into purple patches... but, on the whole, a satisfying terseness and an unobtrusive local flavor inform the dialogue." — Commonweal 25 Feb. 2000, 19.

What strikes me about all the iterations of "purple" writing is the idea of excess—this type of writing is somehow too much. It goes beyond the bounds, splashing and smearing purple way outside the lines of convention. Literary convention in particular; the term only became popular in the 18th century, as Gary Martin at The Phrase Finder explains, when "literary critics valued evenness of pace and style in literary works. Unevenly written texts were singled out for censure and 'purple patch' was the ideal label for a passage that stood out as overly florid."

Today, though, the term goes far beyond mere literary convention. For when I think of purple prose in relation to romance, the passages that most often come to mind are those depicting sexual acts. Labeling such passages as "purple," then, may be a way to simultaneously contain and condemn the threat of female sexuality: hey, lady writers, you're going beyond the bounds by claiming sex, and sexual pleasure. You're wrong, you're bad, you're going beyond what we find comfortable. Rein it in, there, or we'll heap more contempt on you.

Purple: still favored by English
This excessiveness also points to what may be a forgotten class dimension to the phrase, too, one not captured by the OED definitions. Gary Martin at The Phrase Finder explains that the color purple was once reserved for emperors and imperial statesmen in Rome; adding a "purple patch" to one's prose, then, was to make a symbolic link to the elite, and to power. Purple dye was so expensive, Remy Melina at Science reminds us, that only the very wealthy could afford it. The Sumptuary Laws during Queen Elizabeth I of England's reign even went so far as to forbid anyone outside the royal family to wear the color. Only in the mid-19th century did the color become widely reproducible, and thus available to those with less gold in hand than the typical royal. To claim purple for one's own, then, especially if one is not part of the elite, is once again to go beyond the bounds, not just of taste, but of social class.

Strangely enough, the phrase purple patch has, since the 20th century, developed a second, far more positive, definition: "a notable or colourful period of time, a person's life, etc.; (now) spec. a run of good luck or success."


"They [crushes] are harmless outlets of natural instincts, harmless purple patches in rather grey lives." —Decatur (Illinois) Evening Herald 10 Mar. 1927, 13/2.

"France's Rhône Valley has been enjoying a purple patch in recent years that must irk its more stately rivals in Bordeaux and Burgundy." —Underground Wine Journal, Sept. 2011, 42/1.

A positive purple patch, then, also is excessive, unusual, beyond the norm; "a run" of good luck, not a permanent thing.

Given its rich history, do you think "purple prose," like "bitch," is a phrase worth reclaiming? Or would romance proponents better spend their time celebrating and analyzing romance authors whose prose style is more conventionally "literary"? Or is there a need to do both?

Photo credits:
Purple lorem ipsum:
Queen Elizabeth II: Daily Mail


  1. This is a great article! What you’re saying here, linking the “anti-purple” judging to something “anti-woman” also echoes something Alexis Hall said in his reply to my comment to the All About Romance discussion “my general feeling is that it’s sort of gone from referring to a particular type of excessive writing (Bulwer Lytton style) and become an inherently derogatory dismissal of a particular style of writing – specifically if its emotional or ornate (and, again, not to over-gender this but since romance writing tends to be about emotions … and the majority of romance writers are women … well … that seems pretty telling to me).”

    I hadn’t really thought about it in that context myself, but it’s, uh, certainly quite interesting.

    I do have to add that it certainly isn’t just women’s writing that is judged this way. I’ve seen this exact complaint, by women, of the writing of male authors they judge as “too purple”. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t just internalized an inherently misogynist attitude.

    The class context is another thing that hadn’t occurred to me. Well, in a sense I guess it did, because I was sort of like, how can “purple” be used as a denigrating descriptive when it also equates royalty? But maybe that’s the point. Purple claimed for use outside the class to which it “belongs” being sneered at in much the same way the “excessive” wealth of tradesmen was, but not the inherited wealth of blue bloods. Which also gives me some insight into that classist attitude as well. Somehow it’s never hit me before that one reason “nouveau riche” was so derided was that it posed a threat to aristocratic power. Hunh. I just thought of it as snobbery.

    When I react against the disdain for “purple prose” I am mostly bothered on a personal level, basically by what you said here: “What strikes me about all the iterations of "purple" writing is the idea of excess—this type of writing is somehow too much.”

    This whole idea of too-muchness really gets at me quite personally. Not necessarily in a feminist sense, though that’s certainly applicable too, but just in a human sense. This idea that we can be “too much” of who or what we are & need to reign ourselves in or just be different in order to be acceptable.

    Anyway, it’s funny you say this: “do you think "purple prose," like "bitch," is a phrase worth reclaiming?” Because I was thinking EXACTLY that, only in comparison with “queer” rather than “bitch” :)

    Pam/Peejakers (pjfaste)

    1. Thanks, Pam, for adding your thoughts. So you'd be in the "reclaim" camp when in comes to the phrase?

    2. Yes, definitely in the "reclaim" camp :)

      Pam/Peejakers (pjfaste)

  2. My opinion, on the other hand, is that "purple" is indeed a useful term to describe florid ornateness deployed without skill. Choosing fancy words without careful attention to their nuances, heaping up hyperbolic descriptions until they lose effect, and striving unsuccessfully for flashy prose effects are all real problems. However, ornateness in and of itself is not a flaw, it just goes out of fashion sometimes! Critics can unfairly judge fancy prose as purple if it merely doesn't fit literary norms that call for more plainness. And "genre" writing of all sorts, not just romance, can be judged too harshly. But romance gets the brunt of prejudiced criticism, that's for sure. And writing about sex gets scrutinized hard, and I'm sure it would be easy for a critic to attribute whatever it was that offended them about that writing to it being somehow "too much".

    As for sex scenes in the 70s, the writers had the unenviable task of having to write sex without being able to be specific at all. So, since they had to write emotion and sensation without content or context, no wonder they might go overboard with florid descriptors: those were the only tools they had. They needed to say "it was extraordinarily splendid" without specifying what "it" was, no easy task -- and distinguish this sex scene from others, calling for creativity in evoking sublimity. It might be worthwhile for some scholar to go back and look at those books and try to get a good feeling for what the stylistic norms were that the authors were working with. I think they'd find that some authors deployed the tools they had with considerable skill.

    1. I'm completely in agreement with Vasha here. There *is* a huge difference between fluid, lush writing in the hands of an expert prose stylist (like Judith Ivory) and writing that just uses a lot of flashy words. The latter often reads like an attempt to imitate the former without an understanding of what makes it work. It's a bit like watching a young teenager try to imitate a mature woman's sophistication -- she's got the lipstick and the heels and some of the body language, but she hasn't figured out yet how to use them.

      Ivory knows exactly what she's doing and is completely in command of it, and it's all so beautiful that it's a joy to read. She could write a nonsensical book with horrible plotting and moronic characters, and I would probably still read it just on the strength of her prose. I love that style. But I have absolutely no tolerance for the hyperbolic styles whatsoever.

  3. I believe the English term is derived from the Latin 'purpureus,' which appears in Horace's Ars Poetica in a critique of precisely this kind of overly flashy or ornate language. So I suspect that well-educated English speakers have been thinking about purple prose and patches in this way even further back than the OED can attest.

    In terms of reclaiming the word ... there are a lot of other terms we might choose, particularly when ornate language is skillfully deployed. I'm thinking in particular of preciosity, coming from the 17th-century Précieuses in France. That literary trend was likewise dominated by women. The Précieuses were known for excessive refinement in style, with ample hyperbole, elaborate metaphor, and loads of periphrasis, all of which should sound familiar to readers of romance (esp. from the 70s and 80s). Although they were often derided, in particular by Molière, they were also celebrated and immensely popular. All this to say, aesthetics are subject to change on a large scale across generations and centuries. To reclaim purple prose, we may need a major shift away from the literary sensibilities of the 20th c, which tended to favor a much more stripped-down style.

  4. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to comment here, but I agree with this very much. For me in my life as a scholar, I'm not in the least concern with aesthetics. So my concern isn't is purple prose good or bad or even how/when does it get applied--and when I poked around on the interwebs, there seems to be enormous instability in the usage of the term (why isn't Faulkner described as purple? his prose is often excessively descriptive in a way that calls attention to itself)--but in what it *does*. And since romance is a neo-sentimental genre, maybe purple prose serves structural, narrative, and political functions beyond it aesthetic ones.

    So reclaim, definitely.

  5. An interesting article. But I keep on using that expression -purple prose- in the same sense you use it in the first paragraph -as bad writing used in the 70s and 80s romance novels, particularly in the steamy scenes. A very cheesy way of talking about sex.
    In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, JAK considered the language of these novels as a kind of code - is essential to the novels because it is a coded language, she wrote. When I read that sentence I thought -no, purple prose is not a code, is only bad prose.
    Nevertheless, I understand it was an effort to include a celebration of female sexuality in books, something quite forgotten in the rest of the genres. So they were creating a way of describing a new kind of scenes. In that sense, it was a trial-and-error approach. How can you write about something that has not appeared before in a book? So they tried with the oldest and most basic literary device, metaphors.
    Now I read those books and they are just bad writing, full of silly metaphors, but I understand that's part of the story of this genre.

    1. I've got a quibble with the notion that female sexuality had never been celebrated in books prior to the modern romance novel and that there was thus no model available. There are heaps of examples throughout the centuries, and some of them are even pretty explicit. Look at the French erotic fabliaux, to name just one example. Or the way Guinevere talks about Lancelot in ... well, any of the romances, really, but I've got Chretien de Troyes's The Knight of the Cart in mind. In fact, I suspect that many of the early pop romances were drawing deliberately on specific metaphors developed in the Middle Ages in genres such as the courtly love lyric.