Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Who Do You Work For? - Thoughts On Blogs And Perfume Criticism

In his editorial in the current issue of Sight & Sound, Nick James considers recent developments in the world of film criticism. He explains that many newspapers have closed down their arts departments. Uncertainty surrounds the perceived influence of the internet. And several stalwarts of the UK critical establishment have, for various reasons, penned their final words in the last few months, with the result that there's a great deal of new blood around. In relation to this particular point, James writes

... if critics have become less important it is partly because of the climate of fear the lack of jobs creates. [Alexander] Walker [formerly of the Evening Standard], for instance, was often outrageous and unforgettable in his views. Hardly anyone risks their reputation that way now. And at the same time the civilised, educated, deep-textured world [recently retired Observer critic Philip] French represents seems to be drifting off towards some distant horizon.

Needless to say, these observations chimed with my own feelings about the world of perfume. I have no doubt we're still years away from a time when impartial fragrance reviews are a regular feature of mainstream media; I think most of us are resigned to that sad fact. But I'm aware that many of us net-based scentusiasts had hoped the internet would be the site where honest, independent voices could flourish and gain legitimacy. I'm now beginning to wonder if these hopes were unfounded. Yes, there's still plenty of excellent fragrance writing on the blogosphere, the audience for which appears to be growing. But the "climate of fear" alluded to by James seems to have affected the output of several online writers, to the extent that quite a few are unwilling to write about a scent in negative or extreme terms... presumably because they're worried about being struck off a brand's press list and not receiving freebies any more.

Of course, no-one is obliged to follow any rules on the net: the way things stand at the moment, everyone is within their rights to publish any text they see fit, even if this means acting as an extension of a brand's or a retailer's PR machine. Near-absolute freedom has always been both the internet's primary advantage and its main drawback. But the blogging landscape does appear to be shifting, so readers would be well advised to check out the credentials of any sites which claim they're 100% independent. It's now become more important than ever to surf the blogosphere with eyes wide open.



  1. Thank you for an insightful article, dear Persolaise.
    I see that dilemma extended to fashion and other areas, not only in blogs but in magazines too. Advertisers, after all, seem to have the right to have their products featured and recommended more often than I, as a reader, would like to see.
    In our particular case as bloggers, we have decided to write only about stuff we like or inspires us, regardless of its origin (if they were sent to us by companies or purchased by ourselves) which is always mentioned. We mention the weak points, but choose not to focus on them. If we don't like a fragrance, we simply disregard it and don't write about it.
    We do not regard ourselves as critics and have made this our policy because our main aim, when we started writing, was to spread our enthusiasm in a country where niche perfumery is still largely unknown.
    I think it is impossible to be 100% objective when it comes to fragrance. Of course, one thing is to be carried by one's personal tastes and memories and a very different thing is to feel pressured by companies.
    We have rejected short trips and gifts from companies that expected glowing reviews in return for these favors because we weren't sure we would even want to write about their fragrances.


    1. Caro, thanks very much indeed for your thoughts.

      As you imply, one of the great things about what we all do is that some of us can choose to call ourselves critics and some of us can choose not to. Of course, our readers can also decide whether those who call themselves critics deserve to do so.

      By the way, I agree that 100% objectivity is impossible, but I'd go further and say it isn't even desirable. 100% objectivity doesn't exist in any other realms of criticism; it needn't exist in perfumery either.

    2. I think you are spot on when you say that negative doesn't have to be mean. The whole smarter-than-thou culture repulses me.
      I almost feel proud for having been blacklisted by some companies and PR agencies.
      What I personally find disgusting is when bloggers and brands (big or small) stoop too low (asking someone not to write negative things, like Vanessa mentions is unacceptable; so is writing favorable reviews in return for gifts or copying press releases)
      I am open to reading any type of blogs as long as there is transparence in the way the writers choose to present themselves.

    3. Hi again Caro,

      Yes, I've had a few brands asking me for 'guarantees' that I'll write either something positive or nothing at all. I've always told them that I can't agree to such terms and that if that's the sort of deal they want, they'd better not send me their products.

      I'd agree that transparency is crucial!

  2. I think bloggers are more nervous of writing negative reviews, especially when it comes to smaller, independent houses who stand to lose more, and I can understand that well enough. The downside of this, however, is that if people only write about perfumes they like, and there are 10 positive reviews and no negative ones, readers could be forgiven for thinking that all bloggers liked the scent in question, not that a further 10 adopted the stance of discretion being the better part of valour. And a recent phenomenon I have also noticed is brands - again, this applies mainly to niche ones - specifically asking bloggers NOT to write anything negative. I don't think this reluctance on bloggers' parts has anything to do with worrying about freebies being withdrawn, but everything to do with looking mean in the eyes of the brands and their peers in the blogosphere.

    1. Vanessa, thanks very much for your points. I know what you mean about the 'nervousness' you refer to.

      A question: would you accept that a 'mean' review and a 'negative' review don't have to be the same thing?

    2. Persolaise, I would, but I think things are getting to a pass where any overtly negative feedback - not hedged about with apologies about incompatible skin chemistry and the like - can be construed as mean. I once described an Amouage scent as 'Attila the Attar', adding that the experience of testing it ruined a perfectly good day out in Chester. That was probably mean - though intended as more teasing in tone - plus I figured that people who know my lily-livered taste could flip the information round and conclude that it might well be a match made in heaven for them. Inverse corroboration, if you will. But in general, I think negativity is a difficult line to tread with any degree of candour.

    3. Hi again Vanessa,

      I know what you mean, but then just about anything can be misconstrued, can't it? I've had brands contact me with emails basically saying, "Why did you slate our perfume?" when actually, the reviews in question have been just one or two notches below glowing.

      Please don't take my responses as being overly contrary. I'm enjoying the discussion :-)

  3. What a provocative article! :D Because I'm not on the press list of any company, it makes it harder for me to review fragrances, having to wait and physically visit perfume stores in order to try something out. But I really cherish not having to worry about offending any brand or company. I think it's pretty clear when I like something or when I find something drab (and I've written some harsh words before!), although I'm aware of the fact that this is one person's opinion.

    I think Vanessa makes a valid point about not wanting to look mean in the eyes of others - perhaps this means that we bloggers tone down what we say if it's negative, always being careful to qualify that 'it's not really for me'. All well and good, but the kind of perfume writing I enjoy is when the writer doesn't mince his or her words, whether it's positive or negative (think Luca Turin and his hilarious reviews)

    I'm just wondering, Persolaise, if this means you've got an exposé of some sort in the making...

    The Smelly Vagabond

    1. Vagabond, thanks for your thoughts. Don't worry: there's no expose :-)

      I get what you're saying about toning down negativity... but how can we reconcile that with not toning down positivity? Surely if you tone down the one, you should tone down the other.

  4. leathermountain17 June 2014 at 23:27

    I need negative reviews. I thank you, those who write them. I don't understand you, those who won't.

    1. Leathermountain, thanks for your comment. I certainly have no plans to stop writing negative reviews when the need arises.


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