Modernist literature discovered the power of the verb, and how rooting a narrative in carefully highlighted actions could create a “transparent” relationship to language – i.e., the reader ideally ceases to be aware of “text” and becomes wholly absorbed in narrative. We often forget that this is, historically, quite anomalous. Up until the end of the Victorian era, the reader’s awareness that there was a “text” – a creature unto itself with its own characteristics and desires - was an essential part of the storytelling process. As the reader of any Victorian novel knows, the author was expected to indulge in all kinds of discursions, ruminations, asides, and seeming non sequiturs, often piling up haystacks of adjectives, similes, and elaborate images in the process.
At the root of this modern animosity of M.F.A. students to “purple” prose, is, I think, an unacknowledged discomfort with raw, unmitigated emotion, with losing one’s moorings in impressions and subjectivity. There is also a certain politically-correct aversion to anything that seems coercive or intimidating.
For such writers, the cause could also be more personal – perhaps at a delicate, formative stage of their literary careers they were raked over the coals in a writing workshop for a heartfelt attempt at lyricism that fell flat with its audience. If the experience is humiliating enough, it could send the sensitive young writer into the safe haven of Raymond Carver-land forever, with all its requisite cynicism towards others who surrender to the seductions of the Muse.
A fantastic example of the virtues of Purple can be found in this famous excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.
I’ve you’ve been to the University of Iowa, this paragraph is a nightmare. Passive voice, in the very first sentence! And repeated in the second! And then we have “to see things eaten” followed by “to see things blackened and changed.” Well…which is it? But then it gets worse. A “great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world?” Pythons aren’t venomous. And holding a python is nothing like conducting an orchestra. “To bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history?” Oh please, this man has no restraint at all!
Anyone trying to write like this in a college workshop would be mocked and derided. In a graduate class, it would be worse – the pity for the author and his unquestioned incompetence would leave the room suffocating in silent torment. What can you even say about such dreck? I mean, we’re all adults here, aren’t we?
And yet…I think the paragraph is beautiful, absolutely perfect in every way. With its repetitions, its broad, destructive brush-strokes, its collisions of discordant images, its unmitigated sadism, it captures the terrifying giddiness of state violence under a fascist regime. Hemingway never did that, nor did Carver. Sure, they could put you “in the moment” and take you from one instant to the next with visceral realism. But Bradbury is attempting something else – he is describing a timeless event, something that is happening everywhere, at all times. He is invoking the mythic. This is not a time for tidy, polite rules about passive voice and killing your darlings.