How to Write About Something You Don’t Like: Part One

It once bothered me that so many fellow bloggers didn’t post negative reviews, particularly in the fragrance world. If we all love everything, aren’t we just creating free marketing and advertising for the fragrance companies? How are we credible if we write glowingly about every sample (or indeed, every full-size bottle) we are sent?

I’m reminded of something the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote about five years ago. What he says about his goals in art criticism could just as well be a guide for a critic of any medium:

My only position is to let the reader in on my feelings; try to write in straightforward, jargon-free language; not oversimplify or dumb down my responses; aim to have an idea, a judgment or a description in every sentence; not take too much for granted; explain how artists might be original or derivative and how they use techniques and materials; observe whether they’re developing or standing still; provide context; and make judgments that hopefully amount to something more than just my opinion. To do this requires more than a position or a theory. It requires something else. This something else is what art, and criticism, are all about.

Saltz went on to describe an unpleasant interaction he had with the owner of an art gallery who got after him for negative reviews.

“You mean all reviews should be positive?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied unreservedly. “If you don’t like the work, don’t write about it.” I know there’s a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist — a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a “goalie,” someone who in essence says, “It’s going to have to be pretty good to get by me.” Finally, I blurted, “Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel.” At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.

So shouldn’t we call out bad art? Shouldn’t we criticize marketing that’s off base or dubious? Shout down derivative products that claim to be original?

Any form of criticism is both parasitic and subjective. And when enthusiasts, and not impartial professionals are involved, it gets even stickier. I know, and I’ll readily admit that I am not an expert on fragrance, spirits, or cocktails. I love them all and I know more about each than the average person. I have a larger home bar and more colognes on my dresser than most of my friends. I’ve made or sampled more cocktails than your typical casual drinker. But I’m still, basically, a dilettante. So what qualifies me to hold forth on any of these topics?

To me, writing about fragrances and spirits is part of my education. It’s an outlet for me that connects me to more spirits and fragrances, their makers, and to fellow enthusiasts.

We amateur critics should follow some basic rules. Never make a personal attack on someone’s abilities or experience. If we must write something bad, we should be constructive and find the good as well. If we merely dislike something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure as a product or as a piece of art. We need to ask ourselves why we’re writing, and to whom we’re writing for: are they fellow enthusiasts or the general public? Are we making so-called buying guides, or are we writing critical reviews? And do we have the depth of experience and knowledge to make the judgments we’re publishing?

If we’re completely up front about our motives and our background, we’re on much safer ground as critics.

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15 Responses to How to Write About Something You Don’t Like: Part One

  1. I must admit I have a problem writing negative reviews exactly because I am doing this as an amateur: out of love and without special training. This doesn’t mean of course that I feel comfortable not writing negative reviews. I just need to strike the right balance and your post is a very inspiring towards this direction.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christos, I think we’re writing for basically the same reasons.

      I recently got a fragrance sample I really disliked. I wrung my hands for weeks trying to figure out how to deal with it, going back and forth with the guy who made it. It was tough, because I liked the guy and his story so much — I just hated the fragrance. I opted not to write about it, mostly because I didn’t want to screw the guy. He wasn’t a perfumer; he had a company create the scent for him. The problem lied there: he asked for something that would be a crowd pleaser, and he got it. The result was that it smelled just like everything else on the market. So I guess I could have written my thoughts on that, but where would it have gotten either of us? If he ever sent a sample to Luca Turin, it would be ignored. Maybe it’s smarter that I do the same. After all, fragrance nerds like us aren’t his audience anyway. But it’s hard to know when to write and when not to.

  2. barneyabishop says:

    This is an interesting and timely post. Social media allows everyone to be a critic and it’s a gift and a curse. I’m very up front in saying I’m an enthusiast and only write about things I like. I don’t like every fragrance I come across. The gift the consumer has is Google. Anything they don’t find on my blog, they can find elsewhere. There’s room for us all and as this post points out, if you’re going to critique, don’t make it personal and be constructive. Excellent points.

    • Thanks, Barney! I completely agree about this all being a blessing and a curse. There’s so much information out there now, particularly about fragrances. When in the last 100 years have so many people known the names of so many perfumers? The flip side of that is that there’s a lot of bad information out there too.

      You’re right, there is room for all of us, but I think there’s an awful lot of empty space where there should be some original reporting, if not pure criticism, in fragrance writing. There’s plenty of great reportorial writing on the internet about cocktails and spirits, but not enough about fragrances. I would challenge all of us to do some extra legwork, to break new stories, instead of merely talking — as I tend to so far — about what things smell like.

      What I’ve always liked about your blog, Fragrant Moments (http://fragrantmoments.net/), is the interviews. More of us should be doing more of that!

      • barneyabishop says:

        Thanks. I’m planning to ramp that back up. As for the original reporting, I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Being an amateur I have to have an angle on a perfume to be able to write a good post. This is a blessing and a curse but I am very happy with it. I do not believe that a blogger has to constantly write just to keep afloat of the see of blogs. So I write when I have the write angle, my angle and usually it is one with e pretty view. I have written a short post on Chanel No19 Poudré saying basically “Why?” not because the perfume was bad but because I thought it was unnecessary. If at some point I feel passionately negative about a perfume I will write about it.

    • I’ve been meaning to write about a couple of fragrances that I really don’t like that nearly everyone else loves. That seemed like a good and fair angle to me: what is it about these fragrances that so many people love that I just can’t stand? It seemed more fair to look critically at something that no one disliked. Chanel is certainly easy to write bad things about: the company is huge, faceless, and it does so many things so damn well. When they stumble, we’re all surprised.

  4. I think it is important to write about things you dislike or feel neutral about. it gives the reader context into your views and thus allows them to better compare those views with their own personal tastes.

    • Hi Chris,
      For the most part, I agree: a mixture of the positive and negative gives a better sense of a critic’s personality — not to mention a little credibility for the positive reviews. It lets readers know where you’re coming from. But a lot of us get nervous about the supply of samples getting cut off. And about — I hate to say it — simply offending people who were kind enough to give us free shit. That’s why I think it’s more important now than ever to at least mention when a publicist sends you a free full-sized bottle of scotch (as in my last post). That at least puts these relationships out in the open.

      • that is something I had not thought of and does put an interesting wrinkle on the situation.

        I imagine though as long as you are fair (and your example of the fragrance you didn’t care for partially due to its lack of originality seems primed for this. actually might even be a great jumping off point for a trends discussion. or marketplace vs. ‘Art’) then one would hope though that members of the PR community would not hold the occasional less than stellar post against you but allow it to bolster your independent credibility.

  5. Dear Harry,

    THANK YOU! I really enjoyed reading your post. I am a contemporary art dealer (Saltz comes to the gallery all the time), I was trained in art criticism and now I am attempting to write about perfume. These are very similar things. Granted, you can say that an artist’s work is derivative in the same way that you can say Perfume X is really just a copycat of Perfume Y. But the tools available to art and perfume critics are different. Firstly, there is a history of art that spans centuries. The really good critics, like Saltz, spend their time looking and learning almost every single day. Nothing gets past them, whether it’s ancient Cypriot vases or Damien Hirst. It’s that precise knowledge of art from the ancients until now that give critics the weapons they need to either praise or denigrate. In order to become a good critic of perfume, you have to spend a lot of time smelling. In art, you have to spend a lot of time looking. Your eyes become trained just as your nose can.

    The real problem comes in describing. In art, you might have a bronze sculpture, an oil painting, a work of video art. We can refer to the characteristics of the object because it exists in three dimensions, and many people can share in the same experience in seeing it if it’s in a museum or gallery. Perfumery, however, is so immaterial, abstract, and highly personal. I can learn what civet smells like or learn the different between a desert rose and a Japanese rose. But whether or not I will like it is not based on any objective criteria that can be observed or tested. The perfume you love will smell terrible on me because of our skin chemistry. It’s all so subjective.

    I have often admired people who could write beautifully about abstract painting, which is probably the closest thing to the experience of a perfume. When I look at a Rothko painting, I see floating colors on a canvas; someone else might see fields of poppies or a calm ocean landscape. People like abstract painting because it doesn’t represent anything we know; this is why I love perfume. Masterful creations can bring together scents I can recognize, like rose or vanilla or incense, but it’s the unexpected that I am looking for, a transcendent experience.

    • Thank you for the long and insightful comment! I’m really happy that this post is actually generating some discussion. You’re right, the history and scholarship of art is much deeper than that of fragrance — of course it is. But the known history of perfume does go back a couple hundred years, and it is something we can outline and study. We shouldn’t discount that.

      But it’s a lot harder to educate yourself in the history of perfumery than it is to do the same in art. For one, you can’t just go to a museum and a library and look and read. Unfortunately, as Luca Turin points out in what is probably the best general audience book on perfume out there (Perfumes: The A to Z Guide), real study of fragrance is new. There’s been way too much secrecy and way too much reformulation. It’s as if we never knew more than half the names of the painters of famous works, and instead knew them by the museums and collectors that owned them. And it’s as if those museums and collectors hired anonymous artists to embellish and touch up those masterpieces (and non-masterpieces) over the years to appeal to modern tastes. What a mess. (And actually, that happens in liquor, too. Galliano, the liqueur, recently went back to its old formula after it had been “modernized” for a while.)

      Sight and sound are much more immediate than smell, though no less visceral. We’ve cultivated a culture of indulgence in smells and tastes, but we’ve yet to master the language. I think this is precisely because we’re too busy indulging most of the time to slow down and think critically about what it is we’re smelling and tasting.

      Taking classes in wine tasting goes a long way toward helping develop that vocabulary and the presence of mind needed to describe smells. Wine classes are much more common and accessible than classes in perfumery. I’ve not taken any aromatherapy classes, but perhaps that may help too.

      I totally agree with you about perfume and abstract art. With some fragrances, it’s a wonder what we’re actually smelling. A good cocktail works the same way: you put the right things together and it makes something totally new and more than the sum of its parts. It reminds me of how the perfumer Roja Dove used a rose note as one of the components to build the scent of a single malt scotch. It’s amazing what can be in there.

      I’m still dazzled by the perfumers and experts I’ve met who can pick out individual notes in complex fragrances. And then tell you about all the other fragrances that have used similar combinations, and how they’ve all influenced each other.

      Thank you again for the comment!
      Harry

      • I think I would like to become a perfume connoisseur. There are people I know who only collect 19th century black and white postcards of ladies bathing, and they can tell you every single factoid about the genre, like who took the photographs, when they would have been made, which city, what kind of camera, etc. There are perfume people like that, people who have made it their job to know every bit of information, factual or olfactory, that there is to know. What I need to do, Harry, is quit my job, move to Paris, and spend my days sniffing, reading, and talking about nothing but fragrances. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  6. Victoria says:

    I think by posting neutral or negative reviews (without being personal or crude), it shows our readers another aspect of our fragrance personality. People often ask me what fragrances I like and which 5 I’d never wear. It gives them more insight of where I’m coming from.

    It’s funny because I often feel “too mean” on some of my posts. And I’ve had people tell me I was too nice (because I am nice)! I’ve actually received emails saying I should be meaner! I think sometimes people view it as me being wussy and not wanting to step on people’s toes. Maybe that’s it, but I think it’s because I know an artist is behind it and/or somebody that truly cares about perfume. I also know that what I dislike is somebody’s favorite. I don’t feel the need to be snarky (but it does happen sometimes).

    I understand why a blogger would only post positive reviews. We don’t get paid for this. We do this on our own time. It’s often easier to write about things we love, our favorites. We almost feel this evangelical need to share “the best” with readers.

    Great post.

    • Thanks, Victoria! That’s true. As a fellow blogger found out when she criticized Lubin’s marketing of Black Jade, our humble opinions can get noticed, if not by the artists behind the works, then by the people who run the companies. I once wrote a nasty review of a men’s runway show during fashion week and it got noticed by the president of the brand. He demanded that my editor remove my piece from the website, but she defended me and it stayed up. I was naive. I didn’t realize at the time how seldom people in the fashion business publicly criticized runway shows, even if they all muttered to each other how boring they were.

      But I guess it’s seldom that I smell a fragrance that I think is truly bad. Sure, there are plenty that I don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t well-crafted. That’s the line we as amateur critics must watch carefully: the difference between our own taste and what’s really, truly bad–or excellent.

      And we’ve all got a lot more smelling to do. To bring in cocktails for a moment, I remember trying a cocktail at a bar here in Brooklyn that combined tequila and amaretto. Wow, I thought, how novel. I was certain at the time that this was new. Of course it wasn’t. You’ve got to know your history.

      I guess I’m saying that if we’re going to be meaner, we better be smarter, too. But for the most part, I’m out to do as you said, and evangelize about what I think is wonderful.

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