Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Purple Prose Problem, Perhaps?

Oops... I have once again neglected my poor blog - is there a term for that? A dead-beat blogger? A procastinogger? Okay, so in trying to coin a new term, those two might not be exactly brilliant - although when Rachel Ray can get in the dictionary for EVOO, one is led to believe that standards for this type of thing are not as high as they should or could be. And speaking of coining words, can someone coin a word for someone who is trying to hard to coin a new word or phrase - like coinnoyance?

Okay, all of this is not just me being an ass, it actually serves as an intro to my blog topic today which centers around language usage, specifically Purple Prose and trying to determine what exactly pushes someone's work into the purple zone.

What got me thinking about this were some reviews I recently read for one of the hot debut novel's of this summer, Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. I actually first heard about this week several weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal had an article discussing the original way the author went about securing an agent. Basically he broke every rule that you're supposed to follow in the whole query process, had a book that was then 195,000 words long, and got a request for a full. Ah, but before you start ripping your hair out because life is unfair - that full did lead to a rejection, but as every writer knows if you must get a rejection a personalized one with detailed editing suggestions is the best kind to get, and that is exactly what Andrew Davidson received. He did some editing and cut the book down to around 150,000 and then sent it back with yet another gimmic! He had a single paperback copy of the book printed out and sent it back to the same editor, and this time - Success! The agent fell in love with the book, publisher's fell in love with the book, gigantic checks were written, whole forests were cut down so that book stores all over the country could have glossy hardcover copies stacked by the front door. Sounds like a happily ever after, right? Well... except for one thing - the reviews.

This weekend's Wall Street Journal reviewed the book and while it wasn't scathing, it wasn't loving either. Then there was also a review in my Entertainment Weekly, where they gave it a letter grade of D. Now, this is not a book that I had at any point any intention of reading, the whole porn star who gets horribly burned with overtones of Dante's inferno story, is just not my cup of tea, but still these reviews got me thinking. And the thing that struck me was that both reviews specifically quote the same line from the novel, ''The sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner's soul seemed ceaseless'' in a less than complimentary way. EW mostly just laughs at it, but WSJ makes a more interesting observation, writing that, "No doubt Mr. Davidson thought he was being witty, but such alliterative displays call attention to the author, not the character."

As a writer all this got me thinking. When is our prose getting too show-offy for our own good? And who makes that call? Obviously, the agent and publisher of this book had no problem with this sentence, and I also found the NY Times review and it was a good review that made no mention of that sentence at all.

Clearly, it is difficult to make a judgment when you take a sentence out of context, but just this once, let's not be fair and impartial. Is it a brilliantly constructed sentence that makes clever use of alliteration or is it a hot mess that deserves every snicker it has found itself on the receiving end of?


  1. Hmmm...I'm afraid that sentence would have me rolling my eyes. (But that's me and my personal taste) :)

  2. Add me to the rolling eyes group - I'd probably spit out my coffee and cry and lament the unfair world that would allow such drivel to be printed. :)

  3. I think I too would've rolled my eyes at it...and then called up every one of my friends to read this absolutely inane sentence to them.

  4. If I were reading along and the rest of the book was brilliant, I think I'd have lived with it. But if there are other sentences in the book like that...and I'd bet money there are...I'd get disgusted fairly quickly.