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!