In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.
Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. As there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose, deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a somewhat subjective decision. According to Paul West, "It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is [widely seen as] immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity."
Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis
purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
adsuitur pannus, cum lucus et ara Dianae
et properantis aquae per amoenos ambitus agros
aut flumen Rhenum aut pluuius describitur arcus;
sed nunc non erat his locus. Et fortasse cupressum
scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat exspes
nauibus, aere dato qui pingitur?
Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana's grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
Liz Bureman explains purple prose while intentionally using purple prose in the explanation itself:
On occasion, one finds oneself immersed in the literary throes of a piece of prose where there is very little in the way of advancement of the plot or development of the characters, but the pages are still filled with words. Since the esteemed author has allowed their writing to take a turn for the dry and dull, they gallantly attempt to overcompensate for the lack of stimulation by indulging in elaborate turns of phrase.
- "A Word a Day – purple prose". Wordsmith.org. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
- West, Paul (15 December 1985). "IN DEFENSE OF PURPLE PROSE". New York Times. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
- Nixon, Cheryl (2008-12-30). Novel Definitions. Broadview Press. pp. 194–. ISBN 9781770482074. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Macrone, Michael (1994-05-18). It's Greek to Me. HarperCollins. pp. 147–. ISBN 9780062720443. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Horace (18 BC). Ars Poetica. Lines 14–21.
- HORATII FLACCI ARS POETICA - epistulae 3 - Translated by A. S. Kline, 2005
- Alternative translation: "Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy
purple patches; as when describing
a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana,
or a stream meandering through fields,
or the river Rhine, or a rainbow;
but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render
a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint
a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?"
- Bureman, Liz. “How to Know If Your Prose Is Purple.” The Write Practice, Wordpress, 20 Jan. 2014, thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.
- Coles Editorial Board, Dictionary of Literary Terms, Rama Brothers, 2001.
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