On Purple Prose and Descriptive Writing


by Amanda Weiss

 

I am always in awe of authors who can write evocative descriptions, and even more so when they can avoid the pitfalls of "purple prose" (writing in an overblown or gratuitous way). Here are three clips by my favorite prose writers.

 

1. Angela Carter's introduction to her short story, "The Bloody Chamber," is the literary equivalent of rich chocolate ganache. But her word choice also serves a function: it highlights the dramatic inner turmoil of the narrator, a sheltered young woman who is romanticizing a major change:

 

“I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage” (The Bloody Chamber, p.1)

 

2. Gretel Ehrlich is another writer who excels at descriptive writing. Famous for her vibrant observations of nature, here is a clip from her essay "This Autumn Morning" (and one of my favorite quotes):

 

“Wasn’t it only last week, in August, that I saw the stained glass of a monarch butterfly clasping a purple thistle flower, then rising as if a whole cathedral had taken flight?” (Best American Essays 1991, p. 51)

 

3. And perhaps the queen of descriptive prose is Marilynne Robinson, whose Housekeeping (1980) continually surprises with its mixture of astute observation and breathtaking writing. While I am not always certain that I fully understand her thoughts on philosophy and religion, her words move me to try:

 

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires." (Housekeeping, p. 152)