FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line?

Over at fanficrants, a poster complained that in Smallville fics, Clark apparently frequently "smells like sunshine." (Post here.) There's much discussion of sunshine not having a smell, which I agree with, but it did get me thinking about using imagistic language in prose.

I remember in an undergrad writing class (Intermediate, I think), I used imagistic prose (described the sunset on a lake as looking like the surface had been clawed and was bleeding gold, if I recall), and someone said--with approval--that I should write poetry. This confused me, as I don't see a reason why metaphor, simile, and just general imagistic writing shouldn't be perfectly normal in prose writing. At the same time, you don't want to cross the line into purple prose. But where is the line?

What's actually wrong with someone "smelling like sunshine"? Nearly everyone on the thread seemed to think it ridiculous, and if it's showing up over and over, my inclination is to assume that it's just plain overused, though I don't read Smallville fic and don't know for sure. Clearly, the image wasn't working because people were stopping to say, "Hey, sunshine doesn't have a smell!"

Except that I know exactly what the authors mean with it. Someone brought up "earthy," which isn't bad, but it's not just the earth. It's also the way the trees smell in the sunlight, and the water, and the baking wood of the docks and porches, and just... I've been around farms on sunny days. I'm not a farmgirl myself, but the image is quite clear. I can smell the corn and the grass and the loose dust at the side of the road where the little produce stand is set up. It's so many different things; "sunshine" more or less encapsulates them and gives them a happy, healthy feel.

There's also a lovely smell to mist and even to frigid winter days, though I avoid the last when possible.

All of which is kind of beating around the bush. I suspect most people actually know what sunshine smells like, even if the images the phrase brings to mind are slightly different from mine. Why does this phrase raise hackles and start making bright readers into literalists?

Random guess--I haven't read the fics in question--but it's possible that it occurs in otherwise purple prose, and the entire thing is making people climb the walls. Everyone, after all, hates purple prose.

But what is it, honestly?

I mean, mileage may vary. Some people have very little tolerance, some have a greater tolerance. But I think there's a point where everyone would agree... I just don't know where it is.

Is it just overuse of grace-notes, one metaphor after another, twenty ten-dollar words in a row? Is it applying the linguistic "big guns" to things that don't really need that kind of emphasis? Is it using grotesqueries (eg, "His eyes slid down her dress")?

I tend to think it mainly happens when writers use too much of the fancy stuff on mundane matters. I mean, you can use an extremely overblown image in a good place. Maybe a sentence like "The sun rose like hellfire" would be purple in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, but there might be that hundredth where it's exactly right. For instance, if it follows an ordinary night and then the scene it goes to is Luna having a herbology lesson, it's going to be purple. But let's say it's the night before Tom takes Ginny down into the Chamber, and she's been awake all night fighting with him. The day will culminate with her near death as Tom comes out of the book. To me, that's a day when the sun might well rise like hellfire. It draws attention.

I dunno. Is it a question of people thinking that high-falutin' stuff like metaphor and simile is too darned good to be hanging out in a piece of fanfic? That it should be saved only for lit'ry sorts of things?

Shrug.

How do people recognize purple prose?
Tags: writing rants
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