The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Purple and the Plain

by Andrew Tibbetts

Writers work hard to communicate. I’ve spent weeks on a penultimate draft toying with a few word alternatives, picking the one with the best set of (barely there) connotations. I have spent laborious hours putting a comma in a sentence and pulling it out again (it sounds more sexual than it is,) weighing the minute differences in flow and atmosphere. You need a fine grained mind and patience- a mind fine-grained enough to note the dizzying repercussions to the reader when you introduce the main character’s home as “a big, red house,” “a gigantic, brick-red building” or “a scarlet mansion”- and patience enough to keep searching until you get to “sore-looking homestead” three days later. The goal of all of it is to pack the most meaning into the fewest words. That’s the mark of literature. Ordinary chit-chat rambles, full of filler words, awkward constructions, pointless repetition and babble. Try to read a verbatim transcript of something if you don’t believe me. Literature is language both boiled down to its essence and spilling over with extra riches.

Some writers do more of the boiling down- they maximize meaning by minimizing word count. Pulp writers with literary punch like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy pop words into you like slugs from a .44. A couple’ll do it. Back of the head. No fuss, no bother. A literary hero like Hemingway did battle with the flowery overstuffed sentences of Victorian prose, using the tactics of newspaper journalism, to pare down to the bone. Style shapers like Shrunk and White advocated efficient clean prose. Editors like Gordon Lish took a giant blue pencil to early drafts of Raymond Carver stories crossing out everything but the most evocative minimum.

Other writers take more of the generous enrichment approach- using rarer words, and shaping phrases on the basis of the musicality of the language and not just on the basis of obvious logic. Literary giants like Marcel Proust and James Joyce can take a page to describe a nibble, aiming to say everything that can be said on the subject, attuned to all the connotations and the most fleeting of sensory and cognitive phenomena. A sentence in John Hawke can pile up imagery like a car crash deliberately overwhelming the reader to create an experience beyond the transition of information. This second kind of meaning making is less rarely praised, but recently I stumbled across a great article by Paul West, provocatively titled, In Defence of Purple Prose.

As a reader I like to vacillate between the two. I can admire a book with scalpel sharp prose and also a book with sentences that meander enthusiastically through roiling sensation and philosophy. If I have too much of one I tend to reach for the other. Beside my bed is a stack of books waiting to be read that is like a pas de deux of the purple and the plain: John ("For me, everything depends on language.") Hawkes’ “The Blood Oranges”, George (“You know you have a beautiful sentence, cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”) Simenon’s “Maigret in New York”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand”, William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Dashiell Hammet, Rilke…

As I writer I vacillate as well. Sometimes in the same story. Take out one-third of the words for the second draft- chop, chop, chop. And then give in to the temptation to let a single sentence run like a tracking shot through an entire neighbourhood.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a happy medium. The central section of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” is the closest I’ve found. It is a novel ‘in verse’. It seems at once brutally economical and generously lyrical. And in its prose I found the model I strive for in my writing. Yet, whenever I try to copy it, I fail miserably. But I tell you: such pleasure!


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

What a great post: full of purple and plain. Once in a written critique, someone said she couldn't relate to one of my stories because she wasn't big on purple prose.The nerve! I feel better about it now.

Thu Mar 27, 01:50:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Denis Taillefer said...

What an interesting post, Andrew. This is something I ponder on, too.

Like all of us, I'm sure, when I started writing, what was immediately encouraged was to keep the prose spare and tight and get to the point with no useless words. It’s a great lesson, but after a while I found this rule very limiting. Yes, some writers can pull that off quite nicely, for example, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, is dark and moody and is a very engaging story. But what a boring experience reading would be if all novels adhered to this ‘no-nonsense’ type of prose.

It seems to me that using such an invisible style of prose can easily render a story a little too thin, and mundane, and just plain old, flat storytelling. I’ve come to appreciate stories with loose prose as a means of adding authorial passages with a little philosophy perhaps, or a way of showing how imperfect and excitable and textured characters really are, like in real life, and not just pawns that move from scene to scene. Colourful prose can be used as a reflection of a character’s essence, no? But of course, how much colour is too much? And knowledge of when showing is more appropriate than telling still has to apply. Maybe this is why so many writers are hung up on spare prose. Perhaps finding the right balance of showing vs. telling becomes too difficult to gauge, otherwise?

Thu Mar 27, 10:23:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Interesting comments, Denis. Finding the balance is difficult, no? I just finished The Road and loved that McCarthy's accessible, unadorned style. Deceivingly simple and oh so powerful. When you don't use a lot of words, the ones you choose are critical. I haven't yet read anything else of McCarthy's but the style he chose for The Road was perfect for a devastated world in which so much was stripped away that it was hard to even remember the past.

Fri Mar 28, 12:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Thanks td n dt! Interesting comments. McCarthy's fairly 'purple' in earlier novels. He's a good example of a writer who finds a style to suit the work in question. I admire this. I find Annie Proulx to be like that as well. Very much like a theatre director and her design team.

Fri Mar 28, 09:09:00 am GMT-4  

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