Monday, January 20, 2014

Getting It Wrong - When Perfume Criticism Loses Its Way


I've been meaning to raise this subject for a while. But it was only recently that an event crystallised my thoughts and convinced me it was time to put finger to keyboard. I was at Fenwicks on Bond Street interviewing Celine Verleure, the founder of Olfactive Studio (write-up coming soon, all being well). Towards the end of our chat, she suggested that I smell the scents in her range. I nodded politely - as one does - and said something along the lines of, 'I've smelt them all before, but I'm always happy to smell things again.' Inwardly, I began to prepare myself for a potentially awkward moment. I'd had a negative experience with Chambre Noire - I'd found its use of synthetic sandalwood materials extremely unattractive - and I didn't relish the prospect of sniffing it again. When faced with such situations, I always follow the same policy: don't offer an opinion unless you're asked for one, and if you are asked for one, make it honest. I'm afraid I'm incapable of playing the sycophantic, kissy kissy, 'I think it's fabulous, dahling,' game. So yes, as Verleure reached for the bottle of CN, a voice in my head whispered, 'This could become interesting.'

And 'interesting' is exactly what it became, but not in the way I'd expected. The perfume was sprayed, the blotter was handed to me, my loins were girded... and I found myself enveloped by a rich, boozy, plummy, nocturnal, woody composition that was quite different from the one I'd originally evaluated at home, several months earlier... the same one that I'd found off-putting and more than a little crude.

I said as much to Verleure and, to her credit, she smiled and offered a few kind words about scents being 'received' differently at different times. I tried to deliver an apologetic line about possibly needing to re-visit the perfume, but I probably wasn't making much sense, because my thoughts were converging on the topic of this post.

Critics don't always get things right. We may take every measure possible to try to ensure that the views we express are fair, balanced and substantiated, but we're not infallible. Speaking personally, I take my reviews very seriously indeed, regardless of whether they're about creations from gigantic multi-nationals or minuscule niche set-ups. I almost never publish a review of a scent I haven't worn at least twice (more often than not, it's three times). On the rare occasions when a review is based on a fragrance I've experienced briefly or only on paper, I make this very clear in the text and I try to temper my assessment accordingly. I chart each scent's development (or lack of) over the course of several hours; I hardly ever wear more than one perfume each day. I apply the fragrance onto the skin of as many different people as people (usually: Madame Persolaise, her mum, my nieces and any other friends and relatives who happen to be around). And I refuse to make snap judgements.

Despite all this, every now and then, when I'm given an opportunity to re-visit something about which I haven't been complimentary, I think, 'Err... how come I didn't like this before?' There could be many causes for these changes of heart and this isn't the time to go into them: they range from the food I've eaten and the shower gel I've used to the weather and the unstoppable process of the evolution of one's personal judgements. The point is: changes of heart do occur. And I've been asking myself whether it's time to write about some of them. For instance, I sometimes find myself thinking about Tauer's Eau D'Epices and wondering whether it's time to give it another go (I suggested as much in my review of it). And every now and then, I feel a twinge of doubt about Penhaligon's Sartorial and I consider re-evaluating it. There are barely enough hours in the day to write about all the new stuff that's churned out, so I'm not sure whether it's feasible to return to previously-published reviews, but it's an appealing idea. It would feel like restoring justice, somehow.

Mark Kermode, one of the UK's most highly-respected film critics, has often told the tale of his first encounter with David Lynch's Blue Velvet. To put it simply: he hated the film and he said so in his review. But then, as time passed, he had a chance to re-assess it and he concluded not just that he'd misunderstood the film, but that it was an exceptional piece of work. He helped himself to a generous portion of humble pie and made a public u-turn. Indeed, I'm pretty sure he went as far as apologising to Lynch. So if Kermode can get it wrong, then anybody can. And if Kermode can go back and formulate a different opinion, then everyone should feel free to do the same. Criticism is not - and should not be - a precise science. And the quality of our collective views improves if we are willing to re-evaluate them.

As I write these words, I haven't yet gone back to my original sample of Chambre Noire. There's a slight chance that it may actually be defective in some way. If it is, I don't want to know until this post has been published, because the sentiments I've expressed here are valid regardless of whether the sample is in good shape. Getting it wrong is part of getting it right. We feel our way as best we can towards reasoned judgements. Sometimes we lose our sense of direction. And that's okay, as long as we're willing to acknowledge that we have blundered, that we need to do an about-turn and that we ought to allow ourselves a little bit longer to work out how to reach our destination.

Persolaise

14 comments:

  1. One of the reasons I don't like writing negative reviews. :)
    I never know when my mind might change its mind (as my taste changes, both regarding perfume and generally).
    Yes, there are some things that cause an instant negative reaction and those I've never had changed. But sometimes, things I neither liked nor understood suddenly appear wonderful (case in point Shalimar).

    I'm very glad you brought it up - we all should be willing to admit our mistakes. :)

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    1. Ines, thanks for stopping by.

      I know what you're saying about negative reviews, but I guess I still see them as valid, because they're an accurate reflection of a reaction at a particular moment in time.

      By the way, there have also been a few occasions when I've disliked something which I thought I LIKED first time around... but let's not go there... :-)

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  2. Very wise, Persolaise! Reminds me of that Alexander Pope quote about someone not being afraid to admit when they are wrong, because they become wiser than they were yesterday. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, GG. That's probably my wisdom quota for 2014 all used up!

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  3. Reminds me of Pauline Kael panning 2001. Good post.

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    1. Elisa, thank you. Kael didn't have much time for Meryl Streep either, did she? That's okay, though. We need critics who are willing to stick their neck out on the line.

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    2. As I recall she also hated the Sting (but did indicate that the rest of the audience loved it)
      At least Kael always described the fillm well enough to let the reader decide whether it would suit his (the reader's taste).
      Persolaise, you do the same.

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    3. Anon, that's very kind of you, thank you. That's certainly what I try do... although I'm sure I don't always succeed.

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  4. Persolaise,

    Notwithstanding your valid point, I find there something concerning about reviewers who never express a negative view.

    I think the test of a true reviewer is their ability to express both extremes of love and cynical derision. In this regard, I'm thankful that you are one of the few who will put their neck out and do this. The job of a critique is draw the attention of the masses to the very few releases each year requiring their attention.

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    1. Anon, I guess we all have to make our own decisions regarding negative reviews. But yes, I aim to publish and express the full range of my views.

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  5. I love this post. I think changing my mind is an important part of having a mind, as important as perhaps 'making up my mind.' Good for you for thinking through the process and writing about it. Not just in perfume reviews, but in other experiences of critical thinking. there is so much fear around the possibility of getting something wrong.

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    1. Mridula, thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I guess there is a fear around getting things wrong, not just when we're extremely negative in our assessments, but also when we're extremely positive.

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  6. Great post!
    It it not easy to handle peoples and ones own expectance of consequency

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