Encouraging Purple Prose in the Age of AI

Isabelle considers the benefits of embracing ‘purple prose’ in the age of AI.

In a 1969 interview in The Listener, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that his life was like “fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey.”

Fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey. In absorbing Nabokov’s response, one realizes his insatiable appetite for life and the written word. Where he could have omitted “fresh”, “country”, and “Alpine”, or even replaced it altogether with a response like  “my life is wonderful!” he, nevertheless, decides to provide an evocative metaphor which reveals his aesthetic and existential appreciations. 

Although the use of such a superfluous style coined as ‘purple prose’ is time and time again discouraged in academia and, increasingly, the literary world, and although it seems a bit defeatist, actually, to confine the worth of one’s life to a morsel of bread dressed with the byproducts of cows’ mammary glands and the regurgitation of bees, such ‘superfluous’ description can still create when tastefully done, according to British poet Paul West, a “world … intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only … suggest[ing] the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also … showing off the expansive power of the mind” and, furthermore, can construct a visual, literary “dimension” for the reader.

Trimming a sentence to its bare bones seems, personally, to unwittingly complete the very function of AI – that is, to mercilessly maintain precision.

AI, however, lacks the human touch to be able to insert authentic sentimentality. If you wanted to plug a request into any of the various available AI applications asking it to reply to the same interview question, it’s likely you would get a much more lackluster response – one defined by concision, banality, and a vague open-mindedness. Even if you were to plug in an especially detailed prompt requesting the melodramatic interpretation befitting such purple prose, AI will never be able to fully sympathise with the human experience. An AI application has never tasted “fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey”, nor will it ever (or, while such a sufficient experience really is a real treat, maybe close your eyes while biting into a stale piece of hospital-corridor-white toast smeared with lumps of salted butter and already-crystallized honey from the lowest shelf in Tesco while envisioning yourself in the Swiss countryside, all from the comfort of your dark and depressing room – hee hee!) AI, after all, only knows its shaded world of exotic, ‘0101’ tongues and strings of functions – how pitiful!


I do not spy, with my little eye, taste-receptors, or any mechanism to feel, for that matter, nestled somewhere within the soul-voident maze of circuits and microchips… Image: Unsplash

I liken the scraping away of apparent ‘excesses’ of words to that of Newspeak; where many a contemporary writer and academic plucks off, one by one, edit by edit, their words for the art of ‘concision’ in order to decapitate a flower into a sorry sight of a stem and root. Of course this flower still contains its basic essence and life-giving force, the seed, but without the bloom of its yellow, purple, blue petals, not only does the flower lose its primary aesthetic appeal, but it also wards off the bees and hummingbirds; the pollination process is, therefore, stalled, and so the flower is rendered futile in its contribution to the grander ecosystem. I find this literary ‘decapitation’ to be a kind of doublethink.

Purple prose is not, contrary to the belief of some, an unnecessarily egotistical feather-splay of one’s ability to peruse a thesaurus and fill a childhood void with validation. 

I think purple prose is more comparable to the toddler pointing out with a small and stubby finger, during an evening stroll in the park, each and every detail of, say, a sycamore tree: the gilding of its twirling leaves, the whirling, winding capillations of its tree-trunk, or the crisp, autumn aroma coursing through its twigs and branches on the whistling breeze. In other words, purple prose can be a realization of the full, sensory kaleidoscope seen in one’s everyday world. Why restrict your interpretation of an experience with one or two adjectives when you have a whole dictionary of possibilities awaiting the prismatic projections of your innately creative mind.


Which is the more impressionable description: A “sunset upon a river” or a line from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: “I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling a little like butterflies hovering a long way off”? Image: Unsplash

Real writing should be the freedom to break from grammatical constraints and treat language as an unsolvable, no-right-answer puzzle which can be spun about by the ear, regurgitated, and re-threaded. Communication, and language more generally, should not be limited to the grammatical perfection involved in memorizing declension charts, nor in robotic strings of data interpretations (we have AI applications for that, now), but more importantly, language, especially in today’s technological age, should serve to convey real, sentient messages – at times in one’s invaluably personal and artistic voice. By fully embracing, with a childlike zest, Language’s lexicological and phonosemantical possibilities, and feeling dauntless to add to this dictionary with etymological play in the imitation of writers like Shakespeare who invented words like ‘dauntless’ (to overcome with fear + without), one can etch themselves into the enduring legacy of writing and prose, whether with ink or on a keyboard, and whether shared with the world or kept as part of one’s own private expressions.

Can a ‘purple-proser’ still appreciate the simple brevity of writers like Hemingway? Of course! Although his writing is sheared down to the very skin, I, for one, although gravitating toward sickeningly psychophilosphical prose, still feel that his stories contain a wonderful sense of a great-uncle recounting travel anecdotes – of moments spent in absolutely middle-of-nowhere train stations and pubs – to his little ones while sitting on the front porch. 

Nevertheless, to draw back to the notorious purple prose, there is certainly something to be said for JRR Tolkien’s winding descriptions of misty mountains and ghostly taverns, and his family-trees of Kings and Elves more sprawling and complex than even the laugh-out-loud result of f(x) = me + any social interaction; or, of Milan Kundera’s philosophical asides and categorizations in order to, for instance, ramble on about the thrill of “registrations”, “contacts”, and the “Eternal Chase” of women in one of his short stories in Laughable Loves

In such writings, whether decadently sensory, genealogical, or philosophical, the atomic splitting of literary conservatism through, yes, purple prose, creates an unforgettable, irreplicable literary experience (and not a nuke, for clarification).

As AI continues to develop and prioritize precision, rationality, and simplicity, we should work on preserving its very antithesis and seizing it whole-heartedly – that is, the human element of writing wildly, madly, and freely, and beyond grammatical uniformity or lexicological expectation. This, to me, is that which should be currently encouraged within the literary world. 





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