My previous post (“The Pendock Paradox”) drew a lot readers, including Neil Pendock himself, to whom I give a tip of the hat for passing along Turin’s acknowledgment that he doesn’t work blind.
It also drew some thoughtful comments from Rita who blogs at Left Coast Nose. Take a look now—they are definitely worth reading. My hunch is that she speaks for a lot of webby perfumistas.
Rita raises a lot of good points. In response, here’s a few of mine in no particular order.
On subjectivity in sensory evaluation: Smell is experienced personally and subjectively but it can certainly be measured objectively. For example, which sample smells stronger? Which sample smells more citrus-like? Which wine is oakier? Which has a longer finish?
The appropriate level of oakiness in a chardonnay is a matter of aesthetic principles on which there is much debate. In contrast, there is very little debate over how much oak there ought to be in a dessert wine. How much oak you like in your chardonnay, and how much the Smiths across the street like in theirs, is a matter of personal preference. De gustibus and all that. However the oakiness of a chard or the citrus in a cologne are objective and measurable perceptual features.
On what we expect of a critic: He should be able to detect and report the chief perceptual features of the wine or perfume and be conversant in the aesthetic norms of composition. He should be able to tell us that Eau de X is a typical floral aldehydic, for example, or a typical floral aldehydic with some unusual features, ones that even “break the rules” in an aesthetically satisfying way.
On how we select our favorite critics: We calibrate our perceptions and preferences to theirs. You may find that Bob X prefers chardonnays you find over-oaked so you discount his opinion accordingly. If his tastes are totally uncorrelated with yours, you ignore him. As Rita points out, many people find Robert Parker not to be a useful guide to the Burgundies.
On the rhetoric of perfume reviews: Regardless of the justness of a critic’s verdict, his review can be written well or poorly. Here, perhaps, is where Rita and I part company. I find “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste” to be the pinnacle of idiocy. Sure, the writing is frolicsome and inventive; but it’s also self-consciously twee and Just. Too. Much. As sensory description it is worse than useless—it leaves the gullible reader thinking he knows what Diorella smells like. The bait in the rhetorical trap is obvious: what sophisticates we must be that we are able to discriminate “new” and old fur coats by nose, or to arrange the universe of mint toothpaste from “very creamy” to less so. I know, I know, some people can read 1,500 such bon mots and lust for more. Me, I’d try a handful then go stick a finger down my throat.
On what perfume bloggers should aspire to: By all means go ahead and write about perfume any which way you like. Snark it up, play it straight, I’m not going to cramp your style. The proof of the pudding is in your site meter. I would submit, however, that the bitch-niche is pretty much full, as is the twee imagery + name dropping niche. What’s open? Illuminating perfumes for the non-fanatic. Show them how a particular scent wears in real life, how it measures up in olfactive performance, what interpersonal impressions it creates, and how it compares to similar smelling fragrance at different price points. Which brings us to a related point:
On the importance of comparison: The flight-of-fancy review (with or without knowing allusions to particular French perfumers and esoteric molecules) makes comparison next to impossible. Toothpaste-on-new-fur-coat is single use imagery that can’t be extended to another perfume. The very idea is ludicrous: Please rate this fragrance “1” if it smells exactly like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur, “2” if it smells somewhat like minty creamy toothpaste on new fur . . .
Shared standards of evaluation make the larger conversation possible. Otherwise it’s Internet cacaphony: toothpaste and fur coats versus “caressing and slightly venomous” white notes, ad infinitum. Do we have to go all 11-point Likert Scale formalistic about this? Not at all. At Left Coast Nose, Rita herself provides a quirky metric that orients the new reader to her conceptual range and personal style at the same time:
LeftCoastNose Rating SystemOn the Value of Blind Evaluation: It keeps you honest. It produces unexpected contrasts. It focuses your attention on the juice. It’s fun.
***** Transcendent; extraordinary; a revelation
**** Flawless at every stage; distinctive; an avatar
*** Yummy; the right scent for a certain mood
** Kinda good (or) "weird but worth it"
0 (No Stars) Handle bottle with tongs
How do you blind yourself? With post-it notes and a willing spouse, neighbor, drunken stranger, whomever. Do it at a perfume party. Like Neil Pendock says, Perfumes are for the People.
On the phenomenon of ‘Fume Porn: Nice one. I wish I had thought of that.