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.