Conventional wisdom holds that our odor vocabulary is sparse and that it’s difficult to use words to describe smells. I dispute both notions in What the Nose Knows, in part by taking a close look at authors who have successfully incorporated smell into their works.
Some authors, of course, don’t make much use of smell. A few try and fail. One of the most spectacular flameouts is Toni Morrison, the winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of Beloved, a novel that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988.
Odor is mentioned three dozen times in this three hundred page book, mostly in isolation and most often as either sweet smells or stenches. It’s the bad smells that stand out because they are very bad indeed: the “stench of rotten roses,” “gusts of sour air,” “the smell of burning hair,” “the stench of offal.”
Malodor also dominates the book’s only extended smellscape:
It was three in the afternoon on a Friday so wet and hot Cincinnati’s stench had traveled to the country: from the canal, from hanging meat and things rotting in jars; from small animals dead in the field, town sewers and factories. The stench, the heat, the moisture—trust the devil to make his presence known.Dramatic as it is this passage just doesn’t ring true. Sewers and factories are clichéd sources of stink. But “hanging meat”? Meat hangs in a butcher shop; how long would a butcher shop with rotten meat stay in business? Perhaps Morrison means the stench of a slaughterhouse, full of blood, feces, and urine. Then why doesn’t she say so?
How about the “things rotting in jars”? What things? Who keeps jars full of rotting stuff? Besides, if the jars have lids, there’s not much to smell. The image is impenetrable and leaves the reader frustrated. And since when does the smell of a small dead animal travel all the way from the countryside to the city? That must be one helluva stinky dead gopher.
Nearly every smell observed in Beloved feels inauthentic. A character remembers “the smell of leaves simmering in the sun.” Leaves can certainly shimmer in the sun. They can bake in the sun. But simmer? When, even metaphorically, does the sun cook leaves in liquid? And what would simmering leaves smell like? Elsewhere, Morrison writes “The odor of burning leaves was brilliant.” Burning leaves can smell pungent, acrid, sharp, or dark; but brilliant?
One gets the sense that the author of Beloved is not at ease with smell and has little grasp of how it affects other people. Take for example the scene where a character is offered a steaming hot piece of fried eel. Because she is sick and injured the character finds “it was an effort to reach for, more to smell, impossible to eat.” We all know from experience that it’s an effort to eat when we’re sick. But it is ever an effort just to smell food? Does smelling require more physical effort than reaching? The only effort on display in this passage is Toni Morrison straining for effect.
In setting another scene, Morrison writes:
The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air. [ . . . ] Nothing seemed amiss—yet the smell of disapproval was sharp.Well, which is it? Is the smell of disapproval heavy or sharp? In years of consumer research I’ve heard odors described as heavy and dull, or bright and sharp. But heavy and sharp? Never.
. . . suddenly, behind the disapproving odor, way way back behind it, she smelled another thing. Dark and coming. Something she couldn’t get at because the other odor hid it.Who experiences an approaching odor as being located “behind” an odor that’s already there? No one. Morrison’s visual-spatial analogy is off kilter and reveals just how far removed she is from normal olfactory experience.
Assuming for the sake of argument that she isn’t simply a lousy writer, what is Morrison up to in Beloved? She uses the smell of burning hair and burning flesh to drive home the horrors of slavery. Her smells don’t have to be realistic: they are a brutalist tactic in her moralizing campaign, part of what critic Charles Taylor calls her “hectoring lecture on the bloodiest sin on America’s racist soul.”
Taylor also criticizes her “faux-Faulknerian interior prose.” His comment stings because Morrison’s master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Evidently their deft and innovative use of scent made little impression on her own work. It’s possible that Morrison’s simmering leaves and small dead animals are a failed homage to their achievement. But I doubt it. Morrison writes about scent so falsely and so unconvincingly that she sets the mark for bad olfactory prose.