In Defense Of Purple Prose
Fifty two years ago today in Britain, on November 2, 1960, a significant jury ruling was made in defense of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover as a book whose literary merit amounted to a “public good” and did not “deprave or corrupt persons likely to read it.” The trial, known as R v Penguin Books Ltd, and its finding for the defense, is said to be viewed by some people as the beginning of a more tolerant and open-minded British society.
For us readers of erotic romance and indeed consumers of content in general, the trial’s ruling is a noteworthy milestone in the ongoing battle between people who believe in free expression and those who feel that some material out there ought to be censored. But there is another point that surfaced in the trial which also caught my attention. A witness for the defense, sociologist Richard Hoggart, was called upon to discuss the literary value of the book and specifically to testify as to the purpose of the “four letter words.” In Hoggart’s opinion, D.H. Lawrence’s use of the word “fuck” was absolutely merited. He pointed out that there really are no other words in the English language that so simply describe the act without being abstractive or euphemistic and he defended its use. So in that same vein, let’s talk about purple prose.
It used to be, particularly back in the ’80s, that romance novels were fraught with purple prose, woven into the fabric of the book the way the hero weaves his manly hands through the heroine’s golden locks. The website All About Romance Novels even used to host an annual purple prose parody contest in which readers were encouraged to write the absolute worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) example of purple prose. Terms such as “manroot” and “fiery honey pot” were liberally thrown about.
But as the genre grew and more writers jumped on board to write romances, the writing itself got better and those euphemisms disappeared. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for it. As a champion of the romance and erotic romance genre, I encourage skeptics to read some new releases and judge the writing for themselves instead of acting as if the old cliche of “bodice rippers” is an accurate description of the romances being published today. Yet, when I think about the significance of R v Penguin Books Ltd, I have to admit that a part of me wants to stand up and say, Yeah, so what if the romance genre uses words like “turgid manhood” or “weeping petals”? That’s beside the point. What should be celebrated and remembered is that, although those stories may not win a Pulitzer, thanks to cases such as R v Penguin Books Ltd and many others like it, if a writer wants to use purple prose, she can.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Remember that the best comment of the day wins a free copy of J.R. Ward’s Lover Revealed.
Have a great weekend!