The Scent in Literature Project: The Best Smelly Writing

Smells like a good book!

Smells like a good book!

perfume-1It’s no secret that for the past year and a half I’ve been writing a memoir through the lens of scent. What I smell has been my compass, my barometer, the way I gauge my reaction to the world and the tunnel I go through to access the memories I am writing about.

It has been a deep struggle to learn to write about scent in a way that doesn’t seem too direct or too all-consuming. Scent isn’t everything, but once you start paying attention to it, it may seem like it is. It is the perfect mind/body metaphor. The best writers understand this and know how, and when, to use it.

Part of the problem with scent in writing is that — like scent itself — it tends to sneak up you in a text and doesn’t always announce itself prominently. But that is exactly where its power emerges, in its ability to fall into the backdrop of a scene and leave a trail or a trace that isn’t always immediately recognized by readers. Because of scent’s sneakiness, we don’t always have the right vocabulary for speaking about it.

Olfactory scientist Avery Gilbert, who wrote one of my favorite books on olfactory science, What the Nose Knows, calls this the “Verbal Barrier” to scent.

“Clearly, there are plenty of words for smell. This means that the Verbal Barrier is not a vocabulary problem, it’s a cognitive problem.” — Avery Gilbert

I am deeply motivated to help people understand the power of scent and I want to see more writers exploring how to use it effectively. That’s why I’m announcing here a new web project of sorts, a single web page that will collect great, effective uses of scent in literature to show students of the craft the limitless possibilities of making their books smell — for better or worse.

Hey, I didn’t say this scent stuff was always pretty.

I’m calling it Scent in Literature: The Best Smelly Writing.

My list currently has just six items, not for lack of me running across any in my favorite books, but because I would like this to be a community project directed by tastes other than just my own. If you have a favorite example of great writing that uses scent as a metaphor, scene-setting device or just a way into the story, please add it in the comments section.

Before long, I expect this page to be the smelliest website on the web!

Want to read more? Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or you can read some of my writing at www.emilygrosvenor.com.

7 thoughts on “The Scent in Literature Project: The Best Smelly Writing

  1. Kendra Mingo says:

    Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. Staggering descriptions of smells and scents! As I read it I felt like I could actually smell the words and descriptions on the page. Suskind is a master of smelly prose.

    Like

    • dancingalien says:

      As a matter of fact, I do 😀 “There is little difference between the Zulu warrior who smeared his body with Lion’s fat and the modern woman who dabs hers with expensive perfume. The one was trying to acquire the courage of the king of beasts, the other is attempting to acquire the irresistible sexuality of flowers. The underlying principle is the same.”

      Liked by 1 person

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