01 January 2009

At first sniff ...

Is it possible to review perfume as you would the arts? Novelist Hilary Mantel takes on some of the current bestsellers

Hilary Mantel
The Guardian, Thursday 1 January 2009

In any department store at this time of year there is a reliably comic sight - buyers trying to choose discounted perfumes by sniffing the necks of the spray bottles. Scent makes sense on skin, and only on skin. Why are we such fools about fragrance? Led on by lush advertising, seduced by editorial gush in magazines dependent on their advertisers, we abandon natural discrimination and distrust our own noses. Scents are not so much objects as performances, processes, but we lack a process for appraising them. Book critics can be savagely partisan, opera critics sniffy, and film critics make you choose to stay at home. Could you review a scent as you review these art forms? Yes, I would argue. One word, for example, would sum up Beckham Signature: illiterate. Mitsouko would need a volume of essays.

Where do they lurk, the perfume critics? There are scent blogs on the internet, often well-informed. But most bloggers write carelessly, and, in such a subjective matter, some precision is needed.