The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, November 17, 2008

Contemplating Canadian scents

by Tamara Lee

Recently, I started incorporating some scents into my work.

I'm trying to use scent mnemonics for some characters, based on my own scent associations. A few months ago, some writer pals and I played a game of 7-Up, where we considered the stages of our life in 7-year intervals. I decided to associate each of my 7-year eras with a specific scent. For example: "7: Living in North Vancouver, BC, high up on the side of a rainforest mountain. Best memories include towering evergreen forests and secluded creeks to play in. Best friend is Stephen C--: he shows me his if I show him mine. I discover reading, writing, languages and the lonely pleasure of solitude. The smells for the age are moss and pine."

Not that I want to get all Proustian in my writing, but I wonder if Proust and his "petites madeleines" are the reason scent is the lesser-used sense in the development of story or character. I mean, he really milked a lot out of those cookies. But he also got it right: the simple whiff of gasoline reminds me of childhood road trips; the smell of smoke in a mackinaw reminds me of my sitting with a teen-aged boy and my dog outside a Mac's.

Humans have a fraction of the olfactory capabilities of dogs. Just watch the dog dramas in the dog park, and you’ll observe dozens of stories of dominance and submission. Regular Icelandic sagas, those. But what of literature since the Viking age of Gisli the poet? Poetry, by its nature, has relied more heavily on scent, in a way that fiction does not.

And what is scent’s place in the other arts? We have visual, aural, tactile arts, but why is this one sense so ignored? In fact, smells rarely register as ‘art.’ Even the art of gourmet cooking places taste above scent.

Apparently I’m not alone in this search for scent in contemporary literature. A few years ago Vendela Vida pondered the scentless state of American literature, suggesting its use is more a European tradition. Searching her shelves she "came across long and textured descriptions of sublime fragrances and rancid stenches in Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, and George Orwell. But a casual survey of writings produced by American writers in the past decade suggested that collectively, like Gogol's Major Kovalev, we've lost our noses.”

Apart from Michael Ondaatje, I’m not able to think of many other Canadian scribes who have cooked up gloriously, scent-filled passages.

So, have Canadian writers also lost their noses?

(Photo courtesy of gambafrolla )


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I often forget to include scents in descriptive passages. Whenever I do think of it, it works out superbly. We watch so much stuff on screens that we are scent-deprived in the modern age. Putting smells into stories helps the reader get the feel of a place in their gut. I'm reading Fred Vargas right now and I was struck at how often my nose crinkled as she desribed the smells of the sheepherding mountain villiage.

Mon Nov 17, 03:15:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating, Tamara, and inspiration for me right now as I tackle my latest project.I think we ignore smells in writing because we try to eradicate as many as possible in real life. Body smells are considered too embarrassing to acknowledge. We cover them up with perfumed products. And, yes, it is difficult to describe a smell, as the article you linked to suggests, if a reader hasn't already experienced it.

Thanks for posting this!

Mon Nov 17, 04:59:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger t said...

Hey, guys, thanks for reading. I think scents are used most effectively when the descriptions are part of a layering. Relying solely on scent, I agree, Tricia, might alienate a reader who's not familiar with such a thing. But if it works in poetry (i.e., Sujata Bhatt uses it a lot in her poems about India, a place I've never been), it should work in fiction. Andrew, I'm guessing here, but I don't think you've been shepharding lately, have you?

And like wearing a scent, I think it should be subtle, subdued. At least in contemporary fiction.

Mon Nov 17, 06:43:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Larry said...


Have you read A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES by Diane Ackerman?

Larry (Tricia's friend)

Tue Nov 18, 11:02:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hi, Larry(Tricia's friend)! Thanks for the suggestion. I remember hearing about the book, and must have filed it away on my messy mental bookshelf. I'll def. look for it now.

Tue Nov 18, 02:35:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Diane Ackerman rocks! And smells good, too. I met her at Harbourfront's International Author's Festival last year. She was lovely, signed my book, had a great chat and gave me her email in case I couldn't track down a copy of her "Origami Bridges". I found a copy (and promptly lost it- along with three other books from Caversham's Bookstore- please return to me if found...). But yes, read Diane Ackerman, everybody!

Tue Nov 18, 05:56:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Forgot to mention that I LOVE that photo.

Thu Nov 20, 01:31:00 am GMT-5  

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