Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Would Jane Austen Do: Smellovision Edition

what would jane austen do?

One of the cheesiest things I encounter in romance novels are descriptions of how the characters smell. It always throws me straight out of the story.

The problem with scent descriptions is that they're usually utterly meaningless and add nothing to the book. They're like unnecessary clothing descriptions, but with a 100% higher chance of grossing me out. Sure, scent is part of REAL LIFE. But this isn't real life, this is a book. A book where I cannot smell any of the shit you're cooking. So unless that smell you smell is adding something the story, let's file it under Do Not Need to Know.

Examples of scent descriptions with comments par moi:

  • "He smelled of paper and printer ink." Aha! This guy clearly works in an office. What a clever way to convey that information.
  • "He smelled of gingerbread cookies with a hint of lemon." First of all, YUM. Second of all, is he some sort of baker? Can I snack on him? I want to know more!
  • "He leaned forward, and she caught a whiff of manly essence." Ooookay WHAT. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? Because when I think of manly essence I think about how guys are stinky and sweaty and gross and I do NOT want that in a romance novel, TYVM. And furthermore, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Seriously, do you even know what you're saying right there, or is just the lazy person's way of trying to convince me this guy's attractive without coming up with anything that's even remotely attractive about him other than his MANLY yet STRANGELY NONSPECIFIC animal MUSK.

If scent descriptions were mostly of the first two examples' variety, I wouldn't have a major problem with them. Unfortunately, they're usually of the last variety, and quite honestly it's getting to ridiculous levels at this point.

Question: what did Mr. Darcy smell like? Did Lizzie, at any point in P&P, mention Darcy's manly essence? Or what about Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre? The answer is, no. You don't know what either of these iconic romantic heroes smelled like because the authors didn't mention it, and THANK GOD FOR THAT.

Here's my basic argument: scents may be a part of memory and sexual attraction, but they're not romantic. Ergo, if scent is in my romance novel, it should be there to convey specific information, and not be couched in ridiculous sex-scene-style metaphors of the manly essences and fragrant gardens, you feel me? Would you say a guy smelled like manly essence to your girlfriends? No, they would laugh in your face. So don't type it into your novel. And when in doubt, ask yourself: would Jane Austen do this? If the answer is no, take a good long look in the mirror and then DON'T DO IT. Please.

Further Reading:

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