Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spritz Kill: Overthinking Perfume

What is intelligent perfume writing? I've been thinking about this a little lately, after reading several bloggers argue the difference between smart talk about fragrance (meaning, I take it, good) and the rest (meaning, maybe, not good?). That conversation has been going on for well over a year now, and its chief communicators, it seems to go without saying, consider themselves part of the smart camp.

It started, as far as I can tell, this dialogue, when a few prominent fragrance bloggers (or bloggers who wished to be prominent in an ever-expanding conversation about perfume) started actively bemoaning that proliferation of voices. Said bloggers didn't really call it a proliferation. They called it a cacophony, suggesting that what was truly worth hearing couldn't be heard through the din. So many people writing about perfume, they said, when really, only certain people should be...allowed?

Not much has changed. The bloggers complaining now seem to be complaining for the same reasons, only now the conversation is about intelligence. How can we identify the intelligent writers and, I guess, give them their due: their rightful prominence? That seems to be the pressing issue. And the complaints still seem as boring to me now as they did back when I first started hearing them.

How do you mark intelligence when it comes to perfume writing? Is it a certain level of proficiency in detailing the chemical components of fragrances, those secret realities behind the velvet curtain of the fragrance industry? Does it have to do with how many perfumers you're able to secure interviews with on your blog? These forms of name dropping and fact checking have become, for some bloggers, the standard litmus for supremacy, yet for me intelligence in writing is a quirky, mercurial thing, more often about the confidence of a voice than the insecure overemphasis of statistical ephemera.

I'm gradually realizing that the only kind of intelligence that matters to me, and maybe to many other readers, has to do with style, with a distinct perspective, and that comes out in the writing no matter what you know or don't know. It's an ability to put your feelings and thoughts, however banal they might be in someone else's mouth, into sentences which are distinctly your own, which curiously results in reflecting the reader's own unique sense of things, the way a good movie seems to have been made especially for each person watching it, affirming personal experience rather than negating it. A good writer, a smart one, catalyzes something for a reader I think. Too often, the so called intelligentsia of fragrance blogging reads like an instruction manual reminding you of your ignorance about the machinery of perfume. I guess I don't want to think of perfume as a machine.

The problem I have with what seems to pass for intelligence in this argument about intelligent writing is that it's often the kind of intelligence that alienates a reader, creating a sense of exclusion and superiority. "I know something you don't; I have access to people and things you should wish you did; I see perfume, I see everything, more clearly, because I see it properly." If you're yawning, we might be on the same page.

When it comes to perfume, I always think back to my grandmothers, I guess because they were my formative introduction to fragrance. I never discussed perfume with them. I sneaked into their vanities and smelled what they owned, sharing illicitly in that "privacy". I thought my grandmothers were very smart, and the more I've learned about perfume, and learned how commercial many of their fragrance choices were, the more I appreciate them. They had personal style, and their perfumes seemed to embody that. They made these perfumes their own, so much so that I was surprised to learn they could be bought and were bought by thousands of other women. My grandmothers weren't impressed by poseurs. In fact they had remarkable bullshit detectors, and recognized pretension when they came across it or it was inflicted on them. They chose perfume not because it was explained properly to them but because they were able to see themselves clearly in it, I think.

They enjoyed a good read, and I think I inherited that from them. And I love most of the blogs I've visited. I can feel in their writing, in their voices, that same sense of awe and wonder, that same geeky love and adoration for the inexplicable nature of perfumery that I remember from my childhood.  I relate to it. So the question of intelligence seems as beside the point as privileging pomposity over simplicity.  I don't know.  Who cares?

I think about this lately because the fragrance industry has lost a lot of that original joy and wonder for me, so what's at stake in this idea of intelligence seems very minor. In the last several years, the industry has so overblown its concept of self and simultaneously so watered down the real experience of fantasy in the products it releases, that I realize now more than ever I need those personal voices, that sense of idiosyncratic style you find in a humble blogger, more than ever. And often I find myself wishing that the self importance contaminating the blogosphere would give it a rest, or crash into the arrogance of the perfume industry on some highway untraveled by less intelligent people.  The problem for me lately has been trying to figure out personally what to write about. I've taken a break from blogging because I don't feel I have much to say. I realize now that I do have a lot to say, but saying less has restored something  that had gone missing in perfume, some of that mystery I loved and want back.

Related anecdote: We were filming a movie recently, and for one scene I'd brought a lot of my perfume to the set, filling a large cabinet with it. In the scene, two women sit on the floor before the cabinet. Light from an outdoor swimming pool bounces around them on the walls as they go through the contents of the cabinets, sharing their favorites, trying to put them into words. Filming that scene made me happy. Few of the people on set really understood what it meant to me, the kind of mystery we were exploring. Mostly the crew was men. One of the actresses hadn't seen the cabinet until right before we filmed the scene, and when we walked into the room she was busy talking, until we got to the stash of perfume. Her jaw dropped and she went silent. "I can't talk to you right now," she said, stupefied.

That seemed very smart to me and I look for those moments online in other people's voices.


Unknown said...

Definitely keep writing. I like your voice. Long live the idiosyncratic.

Perfume Australia said...

Well, you are right that writing about the perfumes is not easy but you have done it very nicely in an impressive way. Keep writing.

Susan said...

I was wondering earlier this week when we'd see a post from you again...!

I find myself on a trigger-switch lately with perfume snobs and their doings - going to perfume events in Paris and London, hobnobbing with perfumers, sharing exclusive pictures and interviews... So many of the old guard of the perfume blog have made this into a zero-sum celebrity game, and at the same time, all the passion has gone out from their reviews... Lately, I feel like even some of the newer voices are getting caught up in this game. These developments are among the reasons I feel so strongly drawn to artisanal and independent perfumery lately. I'm trying to recommit to wearing the things I love and not getting completely caught up in the incredible slipstream of releases.

Can't wait to see the movie... and get my Kickstarter goodies!

Michael said...

An example of intelligent writing, if one should even mention it, is shown right here, in your blog, and this post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great post. This is the wonderful thing about blogging...if a person doesn't like what they read, they don't have to continue reading that blog. Like television, turn the channel. The blogging universe is just that; a universe where people can write about anything from perfumes, to pin cushions and everything in between. I am constantly amazed by the wonderful content that is out there and the diversity of the people writing. There's room for EVERYONE! And I for one look forward to more of your posts :)

Old Money Savoir Faire said...

The internet is demonstrating that upscale brand-name publishing houses are not, and have not, for some time been using enough real writers like the people who blog here. Good writing may be a born talent in some crucial way. What to write about? Anything, Brian! We waited for you. We looked in often while you woz thinkin' 'bout it.

Ines said...

I was wondering where did you go. :)
Now I read your post, I believe the same thing has happened to me - I have a difficulty putting my thoughts on perfumes out there.
I think I fell into a trap of overthinking it with everyone out there seeming to be able to smell all the notes in a perfume and I usually go with my feelings.
So, thank you for this - it helps! :)

queen_cupcake said...

Oh how I've missed reading you, Brian. Welcome back!

The nuts & bolts of perfumery and insider info on "the industry"--I don't care much about those things.

The writing and the "geeky love and adoration for the inexplicable nature of perfumery, as you put it, are what keep me coming back to your blog and a very few others.

Maybe it is my age, but I cannot bear to think of perfume as a tool--for seduction, for instance. Perfume is art. And so is writing. Stay with us...

Brian said...

Hey Susan. I was wondering when I'd hear from me again too. I've been pretty exhausted lately, and any time I go to post I think, do I really have something to say, because if not this is going to wear me out.

It's funny, I was passing time recently on a trip to Portland (when I wasn't in the Perfume House, which was MOST of the time) by trying to mentally list my top ten favorites. They're all older things. Not super old, but nothing from say the last two or three years.

I go back to my top tens obsessively and I think that's part of the challenge for me blogging. How many times can I keep writing about Opium, Poison, Onda, Rien, or Lonestar Memories? And I feel a pressure, maybe because the focus of so much blogging is the "new" to write about what's coming out.

I think the most exciting part of blogging for me is when you're discovering things, just breaking in, where Abigail and I were maybe five years ago, when we started. It gets harder the more you've smelled and seen and heard to hold onto that excitement moving forward.

But thinking about my top ten (and being at the Perfume House, where so many treasures are sitting around)brought a lot of that original excitement back to me, and I realized all I need to write on the blog is stuff I already have and feel and know.

There are a few blogs I just can't go to anymore. I feel like I'm reading Perez Hilton or Us Weekly.

Brian said...

Thanks everybody. One thing I always forget, when I'm not posting, is how great it feels to hear from other people out there. The connection is a huge part of doing it for me. Thanks for commenting.

Gwenyth said...

Ooooooh, I have been checking this site very regularly, hoping for an update!
I visit here because what you and Abigail write resonates with me. I seem to share preferences and style choices with each of you, and honestly that merely increases my enjoyment.

Additionally, I could simply copy/paste what queen_cupcake wrote verbatim...

Welcome back! I have been patiently watching and waiting.

Olfacta said...

I was trying to explain the perfume blogosphere to a friend the other day, how it's changed. I found myself saying that, four years or so ago, when I started, it was more like journalism and now so many of the blogs feel like they're written by a bunch of beauty editors, and I can't help but wonder who is funding these "events."

There. I said it. Duck and cover.

So glad to have you back Brian!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. To be honest, I find that many (most?) perfume blogs feature writing that is lazy, trite and uninspired. Some of the most popular perfume bloggers are as guilty of this as anyone. I'd like to hear from some fresh voices with a fresh point of view. I really enjoy this blog, and is one of the few I've bookmarked. Mary Stephens Mitchell.

Doc Elly said...

As an indie perfumer who has one toe in the "industry" and both feet firmly planted in the real world, I really appreciate your intelligent and articulate comments.

When it comes to any creative endeavor, be it films, perfumes, or blogs, all we can hope for is that they will resonate with some people, even if it's only a few. Adding layers of pretentiousness, celebrity name-dropping, and BS isn't going to make the product any better, and that's what it's all about, at least for those like you, who are honest.

Who's to say what will stir emotions in the viewer of a film, the wearer of a perfume, or the reader of a blog? It's different for everyone. I think the only thing that can be said is that true appreciation comes from within and not from advertising, name-dropping, or shaming for tastes different than one's own.

RM said...

Hey Brian! Very excited to see a new post from you, like everyone else I've missed your musings! I think what I appreciate most about your posts, whether people agree with your point of view or not, is that you're honest and you write from the heart and I find that incredibly refreshing as a reader.
I agree with you in that I love to read those personal, emotional experiences bloggers have with perfumes. But on the other hand, I really enjoy the perfumer interviews and technical stuff (even though I understand very little!) I find it all equally fascinating. So, I guess my question is, why is it not ok to have both?
Or have I completely missed the point of the whole thing?! Lol.

Brian said...

Hey RM. Good to see you again. I don't think there was a point, but yeah I think you're missing something.

It wasn't a purist statement decreeing that only blogs which don't have interviews with perfumers and aromachemical breakdowns are worth reading. I can tell you that if a book of interviews with perfumers came out tomorrow I'd probably buy it, and I wouldn't dream of telling you what's worth reading - and what isn't.

If I have anything close to a point - don't hold your breath - it's that I get increasingly weary of the vibe out there in the perfume blogosphere that there is a hierarchy of information online, that some of what you can or will read is important and some is not and that someone knows the dividing line.

That seems like a pretty bogus business to me. The internet is full of crap and gold in equal measure, thankfully, and I'm afraid it will take someone truly brilliant - ie someone with a lot of perspective looking backwards, not forward - to parse it. So, really, just interview your favorite perfumer, or talk about what you wore this morning and what your dog and your mother thought about it, and who knows who will enjoy it but probably someone somewhere will, and let's all get over the idea that any of us can discern what's worthy and less worthy online.

I'm not sure the internet has a canon just yet. If it does, I can think of a few people to put in it, and I can only hope it has some throw. I'd want to aim it quite a ways away.

RM said...

See, I should really refrain from commenting on your blog posts due to the fact that I'm a complete dumbass!
How is it, that I read the whole thing, re-read it, read it again, and then come to the completely wrong conclusion?! Lol
I do wholeheartedly agree with you that the whole 'too many voices' and this 'hierarchy of information' stuff is absolute crap. It's so bloody pretentious!

Brian said...

Oh lord. You're not a dumbass. But I do always know when I hear from you that I haven't made myself clear!! I think oh boy, now RM's confused again. I must be rambling.

DWR said...

Nice writing. I think you have clear perspective and voice.

Brian said...

Thanks, Diana. Nice blog, btw. More reading material for me.

dissed said...

If you care about scent, it all counts. Glad to see you back again. Hope you stick around. It's all good.

Persolaise said...

I was brought here via a link from Perfume Posse, and I'm glad I was.

If there's any place that has room for a million voices, surely it's the Internet. I'm glad that there are still plenty of people out there who write about perfume because they love the stuff, and because they want to share their enthusiasm with others.

As for 'intelligence', 'qualifications', 'expertise' etc etc, yes, those may be relevant issues to raise in the right context, but at the end of the day, we should just read the blogs we enjoy and wear the perfumes we love.

Joan said...

Hi Brian. I saw your post on Perfume Posse, and I'm glad I read it. It resonates with me because I want to be heard, but was afraid that I didn't have the connections to do so.

While I love writing about perfume and food, and consider my opinion to be valid as a consumer, I'm also put off by the arrogance in the blogosphere. It was discouraging for a while, but I'm trying to get back to blogging, covering more things than perfume this time so I can be consistent.

I haven't read your blog much, but if your other posts are this thoughtful I hope you continue to write them for a long time to come.