So, as I mentioned in my last post, there are words which, for whatever reason, we consider passé in literary fiction. To be clear I’m not referring to cliché usage, (“Her eyes swam over the page and fear flooded her heart. Tears poured moistly down her face for all the dead metaphors”) but to words themselves which, while their usage may be considered cliché in certain circumstances, are considered—no matter the context—unfit for literary prose. For the most part, these seem to be adjectives of color. And this pains me, because despite what I tell my students, I love a good color adjective. Or even an ordinary one, it seems, as long as it’s referring to some shade of blue. Anyway, here’s a partially annotated list:
Cerulean: This is a beautiful word and it’s criminal that I can’t use it without turning off at least two thirds of my readers. (These readers, of course, are largely imagined. Even still, they are numerous, discerning, and critical of unearned lyricism.) At least I’m not alone in this. Rae Bryant gets it about right in this interview with PANK. (Though the phrase ‘fine wine’ hits my ear kind of like a sledgehammer. Any time I hear it I can’t help but imagine a person drinking Manischewitz out of a tea-cup.) Seriously, why can I write cobalt but not cerulean? Oh, right. I can’t write cobalt…
Cobalt: …unless I’m referring to the Chevy (never), or a form of accidental inhalation poisoning common to potters (every other page, probably).
Vermillion: Unless referring to flies.
Sapphire: I tried to sneak sapphire into Horse Latitudes, but it didn’t make past the first edit. It’s too bad, because this, like ruby (see below), is a pretty distinct color, and if the writer’s job is to, you know, render something distinctly it would be nice if he could use the most accurate adjective. I think the problem here probably comes from too much inappropriate usage. I mean, unless we’re writing about cats, we should never describe eyes as either sapphire or emerald. And then, more importantly: why would we be writing about cats?*
Azure: Another good one ruined by lazy descriptions of the sky. I snuck it in to Horse Latitudes:
The sun rose quickly—it crested the far gray horizon and then it
was overhead—with the sea opening in layers of aqueous shades to
its light: aqua to periwinkle to azure, all lined, intermittently, with the
purple shadow of risen reefs where the sea caught and foamed.
I think I pulled it off. How? The reader, still reeling from aqueous, aqua, and periwinkle, can’t even process azure’s impossible appearance upon the page. (Personally, I would have spent the next week trying to remember if Periwinkle was a color or a character out of Dickens.)
Anyway, that’s probably a long enough list for now—though I can think of plenty more. I guess my general question is—what is it about these words that makes them feel so oversaturated, so self-consciously faux-literary? They’re not archaic (I long for to touch her), emptily metaphorical, or uncommon. In fact, uncommon words, though self-conscious, are not beacons of bad prose. Nacreous? Tellurian? Phatic? You can use all those word with aplomb. Or Nabokov could. As I suggested above, the issue must have to do with a history of inaccurate usage. If you read enough descriptions of sapphire eyes in bad novels (and only in bad novels) you come to associate sapphire with bad prose. This is probably why, while sapphire and emerald are out, you can still use ruby. For instance, check out this stunning passage from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer:
Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees
and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep
bright ocean full of light and life. A mare’s tale of cirrus cloud stands
in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises
points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the
tilting salient of sunlight…In the last sector of apple green a
Lockheed Connie lowers from Mobile, her running lights blinking
in the dusk. Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble
toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous tail lights glowing like rubies
in the darkening east.
Let’s face it: it’s the colors that make Percy’s passage pop. The specificity of “green apple” really brings the weird tropic dusk to life. More importantly, though, his use of “rubies” is wonderfully specific and—with its proximity to ‘fabulous’ and ‘east’—renders the everyday image of highway traffic somehow exotic—like jewels of Araby spangling out of a Sultan’s tent. In doing this, Percy also shows us just how far removed Binx remains from the world, how other contemporary life seems to him—while at the same time, and without a shred of exposition, re-expressing Binx’s notion that the search for the numinous should occur in one’s usual environs. That’s a lot of work for one simple image to be doing and it couldn’t do it without the word rubies. My point? The sanctimony of imaginary critics notwithstanding, I’m going to use cerulean in my next book.
*It occurs to me that given their irritating penchant for a sort of unexplained luminosity, elves might also, conceivably, have emerald or sapphire eyes. And why do people write books about elves? Because they want to sell those books to teenage girls. Imagine, then the huge market for fiction about elves AND cats. Consider the possibilities! Mysander cast his noble sapphire inspection on his oldest and wisest friend, Lord Fluffy Claw, who peered up at him with a knowing emerald glance…