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I've been accused of purple prose for single words. People will go through my work with a fine-tooth comb and interrogate me. "Why this big word?"

It feels like, if everyone doesn't understand my work, I've failed. I'm not communicating effectively. Language is about communication. Everything else is secondary. It feels like I need to embrace a Hemingway-esque radical minimalism, otherwise I'm being "pretentious".

And yet, William Faulkner's prose is praised by the same people. I don't mean to imply that my writing rivals Faulkner's, but if we're to judge by the criteria of ornateness, then his writing is more overwrought and difficult to follow than mine.

What is Faulkner doing right that I'm doing wrong? I'd like specificity. Gesturing towards Faulkner's mastery isn't sufficient. How likely is it that Faulkner never used a word without "purpose"?

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! Questions about existing works of literature are off-topic here except in a writing-specific context (i.e. "how did this writer achieve this particular thing, and how can I do the same?"), so I think this is on-topic here. I've done a bit of copy-editing as parts of your question felt like more of a rant than an actual good-faith question; please let me know if I've misinterpreted what you want to ask.
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 9, 2021 at 7:50
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    "Purple prose" isn't just big words. How likely is it that the "big words" in your stories are simply the wrong words? I've had a look at some of his short stories - there's not much there I'd call "purple prose." I don't know what was in your stories that got people complaining.
    – JRE
    Nov 9, 2021 at 9:02
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    Purple prose.
    – JRE
    Nov 9, 2021 at 11:10
  • @F1Krazy - You're right that it was a rant, but I don't think that's mutually exclusive with it being a "good-faith question". Either way, I'm OK with the edit.
    – Dan
    Nov 9, 2021 at 17:30
  • @JRE - I don't think purple prose is just big words but I've been around writing communities long enough to know a single big word often triggers accusations of purple prose. The point is the bar for purple prose seems low, yet writers like Faulkner are excused. I'm not asking if YOU think his writing is purple. I personally like Faulkner's work. I'm asking how it's not purple by today's standards. Read Absalom, Absalom!
    – Dan
    Nov 9, 2021 at 17:33

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We don't live in a cultural vacuum

Every era has competing cultural trends that 'look ahead' to where society is going (progressive), and that 'look backward' to an earlier, nostalgic time (retrospective). These cultural dynamics are not inherently 'good' or 'bad' – or even true, rather they broadly reflect the trends and social attitudes of their day.

Reading works from previous eras blur the sources. From our perspective today anything that is old is 'in the past', but put in the context of the time it was written it's easy to see which direction a particular work leans – hurtling towards a progressive future or retreating to a nostalgic past.

We lose nuance by dividing literature (all culture) into a polarized binary, but the reason works become critically important in their own lifetime is because the work speaks to the current zeitgeist. This polarizing dynamic between idealizing the past/condemning the past (to contrast everything today) is heavy-handed throughout history and art.

It's a fundamental schism of any era: are we headed in the right direction because the past was worse, or headed in the wrong direction because the past was better?

What is Faulkner doing right...?

Faulkner was the posterchild of the Southern Renaissance, a re-assertion of (white male) Southern voices after the defeat of the Civil War and collapse of Reconstruction. Southern Renaissance idealized antebellum life, seeing the past through a lens of nostalgia. Not coincidentally, the same era saw the revival of the KKK and the terrorism of lynchings on every front page. Conditions in the South were a hard dichotomy to the international modernism of art deco/skyscraper/flapper 1920s, yet both were simultaneously true.

The sub-genre offspring of Southern Renaissance is Southern Gothic, same setting and story elements but styled negatively where the metaphors hold up better today. Both 'unpack' the problems of the South but point towards different conclusions. It could also be said that Southern Renaissance was a cultural 'response' to the Harlem Renaissance, again culture does not happen in a vacuum.

Faulkner was the right voice in the right place and time to ride the Southern Renaissance trend. His style was a strong flavor of the Old South, and his stories are subtle enough to bring up a lot of problematic issues without being preachy about their meaning. He is, very firmly, a voice representing a nostalgic past. His 'purple prose' is part of the shtick. It was what the general public expected as the 'voice of the South'.

Contrast Faulkner with Mark Twain, a Southern writer (who lived in New York) from half a century earlier with a firmly modern and progressive voice – even writing science fiction. Twain was re-popularized during the Southern Renaissance too, so there is an on-going cultural dialog between progressive voices from the past, and nostalgic voices in the current day. They use the same language to say very different things.

Popular culture is a buffet of recycled tropes disconnected from their original context. That's how we know the Southern Renaisance movement had run its course, we got Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind plundering Southern Renaissance as the backdrop for her 'strong female protagonist' romance. Mitchell cosplays and genre-bashes popular tropes and characters that don't historically fit together – Gone With the Wind is a female power fantasy romping around in a hoopskirt. She's not engaging in that social dialog of 'where have we been' and 'where are we going'. She's just having fun, and there's no clear message other than an outrageous MarySue as an anachronistic provocateur – she feels even more modern in an antebellum setting.

In hindsight, it all blurs together as 'Old South' pastiche. As writers, they are each saying very different things to very different people.

But as a culture we moved on. Mitchell got rich by jumping over a nostalgia shark on a motorcycle. Faulkner ended up in Hollywood doing re-writes on other people's scripts.

What am I doing wrong?

Publishing doesn't happen in a vacuum. Does your 'purple prose' also harken a return to earlier values? Is there some cultural reference or history that you are tapping by deliberately leveraging a particular style? Is this narrative voice a good match for your subjects and themes?

Or are you just 'too wordy'? No judgement. What you see as legitimate style, may hit readers as old fashioned. It might work for some themes and genres, but clash with others.

Faulkner wasn't just a guy with a lot of flowery words. His thick Southern identity was important in the context of the culture's re-examination of the South. His language evokes subtext and social constructions, cues which mirror his subjects and characters: slow, indirect, a veneer of propriety masking a loss in status – no different to how Raymond Chandler voiced pulp detectives in an abrupt 'street-wise' slang, and how Hemingway avoided all interior conflict and self-reflection in his stoic he-man characters. It's a narrative voice that matches the story.

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  • I fail to see the relevance of culture. It explains why Faulkner was liked in his time. It doesn't explain the double standard among twenty, thirty or forty year old writers.
    – Dan
    Nov 9, 2021 at 17:38
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    This is a fascinating answer about the cultural context of Faulkner's writing and how to match your prose to your story and context. I personally think it's great and very applicable. Explains why standards of prose change and why modern prose and expectations might differ from the older days. +1
    – Sciborg
    Nov 9, 2021 at 17:43
  • @Dan, you want we should go beat them up for you? We will do that. We got your back! Go as deep purple as you wanna go. They are hacks.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 9, 2021 at 18:27
  • @wetcircuit No, I just want to know what explains the double standard. I explained why I think your answer doesn't work.
    – Dan
    Nov 9, 2021 at 20:21
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I'm going to toss this out there for consideration: maybe you're not doing anything wrong.

Fair disclosure, I'm more attuned to scholarly writing than artistic, but even in scholarly writing one has to develop a distinctive voice. Style critiques come in handy — you learn a lot from a good critique of your work — but at the end of the day you have to weigh what you want against what others want. Your writing will suffer if you try to write solely for others' tastes.

'Purple prose' is a pejorative; it implies writing that's so overblown it takes away from the work as a whole. I'm not certain that's true of Faulkner. Granted that his work is a little rich for me (simple soul that I am), I have a hard time imagining his stories being better if they were written in Hemingway's style. That's what you have to decide when you get such critiques: would changing your prose actually improve it, or is that phrasing part of your ideal voice. Does it trip your story up, or draw out the mood of it?

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  • Yeah, these are the types of answers I get. "He's writing that way for a purpose." "His writing wouldn't be better if simplified." They're fine answers in theory but I'm not convinced they actually apply here. By that I mean it's easy to allude to them without elaboration and get away with it because he's an acclaimed author, and then to just say "purple prose" when amateurs do it. I'm 99% certain that if I were to submit Faulkner's work as an anonymous writer, I'd be laughed at. Someone tried this experiment with Nabokov. The editors basically regurgitated the "less is more" mantra.
    – Dan
    Nov 9, 2021 at 20:24
  • @Dan: Dealing with editors is a negotiation. If an editor actually laughed at your work it would probably be in trouble (i.e., they don't want it at all), but if they're bothering to offer a style critique that means they see worth in your work. They want to publish it, you want it published, and the only question is whether you're both willing to bend enough to make it happen. If you think purple prose works in your story, your job as a writer in to write/edit so that editors will publish it despite style quibbles. Don't expect people to like your work; convince them. Nov 10, 2021 at 14:50
  • @Dan: I mean, honestly, I'm just responding to your emotional tone here. You seem a little frustrated and cynical. But frustration and cynicism put more power in other's hands than they really ought to have. Editors are just people; they want to work with you, and their minds can change. Nov 10, 2021 at 15:00
  • Correct. I am emotional. I welcome and appreciate criticism. As I mentioned in another comment, it's inconsistency I dislike.
    – Dan
    Nov 10, 2021 at 15:35
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@wetcircuit's answer is absolutely fantastic and gives a great rundown of Faulkner's cultural context, but I wanted to present and respond to another angle of your question: "Why am I criticized for purple prose and complicated language when other authors are not? What's the double standard?"

The answer to that question can be complex and multifaceted, but I think it all boils down to one simple point:

Are you matching your prose style to your audience, and making it approachable for that specific audience?

Different genres of prose have different expectations for writing styles and types, and it's good writing practice to match your prose style to your audience - and to know who your target audience is in the first place. If you are writing for a more literary audience, such as older adults who read historical fiction and old-style fantasy, then more complex prose and plotting may fit your audience perfectly, and will fit in with the general trends of that genre. On the other hand, if you're writing for young adults or a less classically focused audience, you may get complaints when you use complicated and self-indulgent language. It might be more "intellectual," strictly speaking, but it's not as organized, approachable and enjoyable for that specific audience you are targeting, which is what I always feel authors in any genre should aim to do with their target audiences. Tailor your prose to the expectations of your group, and don't try to please everyone. Trying to please everybody just ends up pleasing nobody.

If you feel that your target audience will appreciate your prose and not mind your language choices, then great! You have nothing to change. But if you feel like there's a disconnect between your beta readers' experience and the intended experience of the people who will eventually read your story, and you're repeatedly getting feedback to that effect, then that's what you should focus on as the problem. You could also ask yourself: are your beta readers truly your intended target audience? If not, try to pick different beta readers.

It's important, however, to emphasize that making your writing more approachable for your specific audience doesn't have to mean "dumbing it down." There's a harmful perception when it comes to simplifying language and plots - you wonder, why should I have to make my work less complicated? Why can't they just put in more legwork to understand it? But remember again that readers just want to be able to read, understand and enjoy a book after they pick it up, without having to draw out family trees and complicated graphs and tables just to figure out your main protagonist's story arc. Not everybody wants to dedicate huge amounts of time to sift through complicated, unfriendly language, and it's wrong to expect everyone to. The lower you make the barrier to approaching and appreciating your work, the bigger and more enthusiastic your audience will be. It's why games have shifted from being coin-munching arcade nightmares to having approachable difficulty levels, a learning curve that is fun instead of punishing, and as a result have attracted a vastly increased audience as compared to the olden days of gaming - which has, by and large, been a huge boon for the medium.

There's a lesson to be learned here about the curb cut effect: making it easier for one group of people to approach your work will have ripple effects for everyone who does so. By cutting the fat off your writing and making it easier to find the meat and the spice you worked so hard on, you'll create a more enjoyable experience for everyone who picks it up to give it a shot.

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  • The beginning of this answer seems right on the mark, but the ending takes a strange turn. At the start, we read: different audiences have different expectations. But by the end of the answer, you seem to be saying: all audiences prefer "approachable" prose. This is not correct. For example, David Foster Wallace, in interviews, plainly stated that he intended Infinite Jest to be difficult. "I wanted to do something that was really hard but was also really fun and made it worthwhile to spend the effort and the attention to read the thing."
    – Juhasz
    Nov 9, 2021 at 20:06
  • @Juhasz Very fair, I was mostly trying to indicate the curb cut effect - i.e. fitting your prose to one audience and making it approachable for that audience, benefits anyone who reads it. But I can try and improve the wording if it's confusing. I have edited to try and clarify that I mean "making it approachable for your chosen audience."
    – Sciborg
    Nov 9, 2021 at 20:41

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