Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exaggerated descriptions

I came across an unusual description of a heroine from a fantasy novel called Silk and Steel published in 1992 (by a real publisher). Here's a small excerpt.

Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon. The scent of fresh snow. Her eyes were dark birds in fresh snow. They were the birds' shadows, they were mirrors; they were the legends on old charts. They were antique armor and the tears of dragons.

“Wubbuh?” I said after reading the entire thing. Fortunately I recovered some coherency and settled down to write about this.

There are two interesting things about that description. The first is that a few of the metaphors do work – eyes can be compared to dark birds in fresh snow, and I like the description of hair as “the cowl of… the cobra” (the alliteration is good as well).

The second thing is that occasional fragments of the stream-of-consciousness are evocative, especially “the hot, careful winds that stroke the veldt, the winds that taste of clay and seed and blood; the winds that dreamed of tawny, lean animals”. Except for the winds being described as “careful” and further anthropomorphized by their dreaming of animals, this isn’t bad. I like poetry like e. e. cummings’s, which uses elaborate figures of speech that aren’t easy to grasp at first, so this aspect of the description was somewhat similar.

There are a few well-expressed images, in other words. But they’re drowned in a great sea of prose so purple as to be ultraviolet, and with the thousand other descriptions and comparisons, they go more or less unnoticed.

And the overall effect doesn’t work either. I think the writer was trying to express how everything the heroine was – not just beautiful but so magnificent that she combines the best features of everything in the known world. But it doesn’t work. It’s too much for any reader to process, much less believe in. If you grasp at everything, you achieve nothing.

Someone compared this to the Song of Solomon, but I think that does the Song of Solomon a disservice. Although that book uses a lot of figures of speech, they have a unifying theme – they’re all objects or creatures or plants that ancient nomadic or farming people would have found beautiful or sweet.

The same can’t be said for the descriptions in Silk and Steel. There’s no common thread to them. They jump from snails to dragon tears to semaphore, spinning like a mad merry-go-round. And ultimately they just come off as self-indulgent. A stream-of-consciousness has to be just as much under the writer’s control and directed to a purpose as any other part of the story.

And a description has to leave an image of some kind in the writer’s mind (not a thousand different and self-contradictory images). It reminds me of a review I read, by James Blish writing as William Atheling, Jr. Such reviews were sometimes snarky and always informative. Here’s the quote* he commented on.

She was love. She was first love, old love, all love. She was doubt and ache and hope, fusing now into fury, because she was love.

Blish wrote that comparisons work when they’re abstract-to-concrete – for instance, “Patience on a monument, smiling at grief”. That takes something difficult to imagine in a material way, the concept of patience, and makes it into a sculpture, which is easier to grasp.

But concrete-to-abstract doesn’t work so well. Try to imagine a person as love. Now try to imagine them as doubt, ache, hope and fury as well. At best, such a description might make readers believe it is grand and important somehow, but it won’t create a memorable and clear image of a character in their minds. At worst it will make them laugh.

Which is not such a bad thing, of course, unless you’re the writer.

*Not exact, since I don’t have the publication with me, but I can more or less remember it.


laughingwolf said...

a gibbous moon has a scent???

as for your review, i mostly agree with your take, marian :)

[years ago i lived in trawna, but went west, now in halifax]

Hazardgal said...

Less is more. I like the abstract to concrete concept. Again, you are very insightful.

Angela Ackerman said...

Gah! My eyes are bleeding!

Random: I read a story the other day that used the word 'Tawny' six times in a single chapter. Just seeing that word drives me up the wall. It's one that you can use once (maybe) per book and get away with it.

I think there's a lot of darlings here that should have been killed before going to the printers...

Tara Maya said...

I think exagerated purple prose can work if it's part of the voice. I adore Lovecraft, though most people think his prose is ludicris. Maybe it was reading too many Russian fairytales as a child.

Villian: There hero has escaped! Can we catch him?

Villain's Horse: We could go to the market and buy seed, plow a field and plant the seed, tend it until harvest time, harvest the barley, grind it and brew it into beer, drink the beer until we are drunk, sleep off our drunkeness then set out and STILL catch the hero.

Ok, that's funny dialog, not really purple prose.

Marian Perera said...

Oh yes, that kind of prose works well in humor.

I once read a space opera parody called "Bat Durston, Space Marshal" which I think appeared in Asimov's. It was hilarious. It started with something like, "Bat Durston hooked a cup of dark, strong, black coffee with a long, strong, index finger..." - basically it had a terminal case of adjectivitis and everyone spoke in gasping melodrama.

The same thing could work with purple prose, in a romance/fantasy parody.

Marian Perera said...

laughingwolf - I'd love to see someone try that as a pickup line. "Your face smells like a gibbous moon."

And speaking of location, in winter I sometimes wish I could go south. Thankfully it's nearly spring.

Marian Perera said...

Marge - Thanks, glad you liked the post. :)

Marian Perera said...

Angela - Yes, I had a "The goggles do nothing!" moment too.

I once read a short story where the heroine's skin was tawny, which was OK, but I've never liked Tawny as a first name.

Marian Perera said...

I gave that excerpt to a co-worker of mine, to read and we were discussing it.

Me : Her fingers are meteors? How could they be meteors?
She : Maybe they're really big. Maybe she's really big. Is she a monster?

Anonymous said...

Well they work well for Max Paine (the video game) but I think that would be the exception to the rule.

Barbara Martin said...

I read two paragraphs, and that was enough for me.

ChristaCarol Jones said...

Wow. Well, at least my purply prose isn't THAT bad :P Thanks for sharing, M! I've missed reading your blog, finally trying to get back into the swing of blogging again.

Marian Perera said...

Barbara, you missed the best part!

After a fulsome description of everything from her eyes to her labia minora, the hero says, "You are quite beautiful."

The "quite" always cracks me up.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Christa, welcome back!

Hope your kids and submissions and writing are all going well. :)

Anonymous said...

My favorite bit was the part about her pubes being the wheat after a harvest. Oh, and her breasts being like sweet cheese or something.

Good lord.

Marian Perera said...

Someone said that having a butt like bread, breasts like cheese and nipples like mushrooms made her Pizza Woman.

colbymarshall said... don't even know what to say here.