Scent in Romance

My husband bought me a surprise present last weekend when we were at Anthropologie, the sneaky man. That’s it above. It’s warm and woodsy with a hint of vanilla that’s perfect for me. And it got me thinking: how many times have you seen a reference to scent in a romance novel? All the time, right? I can’t remember whose series it was (Grace Burrowes maybe?) who gave each of her heroes and heroines a signature scent, sometimes in some interesting combinations: oranges, lavender, vanilla, cedar. In the series I just read by Laura Kaye (Hearts of the Anemoi, which I’ll talk about in more detail next week), the heroes are all associated with a season and both hero and heroine have a scent that matches the hero’s season. And of course, we’re all aware of “man scent”.

This is interesting to me because scent isn’t something we’re aware of a lot of the time. Scent registers when we smell something particularly good like baking cookies or particularly bad like pond water wet dog. A few months ago, my husband went back to my home town on the Central Coast of California. While there, we wanted to pick up a present for some friends of ours and we stumbled into a shop that specialized in local products: everything from soap and block-printed linens to sauces and spice blends. Our friends love tea so we were smelling all the teas when one of them socked me in the gut. The scent was Paso Robles: sage and lavender, but other things I couldn’t readily identify. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that Paso had a scent.

It’s that concept of man scent that I’d like to explore. I ran across it again recently in an earlier Victoria Dahl work, which I forgive and don’t feel weird calling out because she has gotten so so very good in the intervening years that it’s basically the only criticism I can level at her. She said something similar in her new novella, Fanning the Flames, though this one worked for me while still remaining vague on the finer points of scent: “He smelled the way a man should smell when he was in your bed and working hard for it.” [Loc 67] Nearly all romance writers use the man scent device. If it doesn’t pop up in a book, I’m surprised at this point. Why? I have some theories. Four, actually.

The first theory is that writers are lazy. Maybe they don’t know what to write as an introduction to further intimacy. Maybe they can’t distinguish what makes a man smell good. The second is that they experience some form of sensory deprivation. Maybe they don’t realize that all men smell different. The third theory is that it’s a joke that romance writers are all in on and I’m not. My final theory is that scent is a very personal thing and they don’t want to turn a reader off to a hero by giving him a smell that might be objectionable. I can’t come up with any other reasons. Am I missing something?

Because I’ve gotta be honest, I think all of those reasons are dumb. I know writers aren’t lazy. It takes a special kind of crazy to be willing to muck around in your own head as much as writers do. Writing, editing, copy-editing, etc. takes a lot of time and effort. Nor do I believe that writers are somehow unobservant. Maybe it’s a charming conceit that good writers are all incredibly observant, but it doesn’t seem so to me.  And those powers of observation must extend into realms beyond the visual. I also don’t really believe that it’s a joke, unless it’s like one of those Onion stories that people occasionally pass around not realizing that it’s satire.

The final theory is maybe a little more believable. My husband mostly smells like soap, which is fine by me and probably also universally appealing. There are certain colognes that trip my circuits. Calvin Klein’s Obsession is one that gets me, but referring to a cologne by name in a book probably wouldn’t be super helpful unless it’s scratch-and-sniff like a Macy’s catalog. That said, I once had a boyfriend who worked in a bar and smelled of cigarette smoke, Big Red gum, leather and Jack Daniels. Some people would think that smelled terrible, but I loved it. And if a writer described a hero that way, the reviewers would all go, “Ew, he smells like cigarette smoke? Disgusting. You totally lost me there. DNF.” But writers who have written red-haired heroes or villainous heroes or short heroes or heroes with a little bit of a belly might get the same reaction.

So I understand why writers would stick with safe things like pine needles, citrus and rosemary, but there are a lot of other man smells. Heroes who work on cars or motorcycles should smell like gasoline and motor oil.  Shouldn’t a man who swims or surfs smell like chlorine or salt water? Guys who have been working out should smell like sweat. Or at the very least, some kind of deodorant. And office-working billionaires do smell subtly expensive: like an upscale hotel. I can’t be alone in finding any or all of these things sexy on the right guy. Man smell seems like an unnecessarily safe choice.

So please, no more “man scent”. I don’t know what that means. It isn’t interesting. It isn’t alluring. Tell me what he smells like instead. Whether that particular scent gets me hot or not, it tells me something about the hero that I want to know. Man scent does not.

12 comments

  1. I'll bite on this, as I'm sure I've written this before, at some point. Scent is so difficult to describe. We can imagine it, but the experience is so chemical, so atavistic, that this – the oldest sense, neurologically speaking – defies words. The essential smell of a person doesn't match any other THING, so we approximate. And yes, I'd argue that there is a male scent. Men don't smell the same to me as women do. It's beyond soap, beyond whatever scented substance they apply on top. There absolutely IS a scent of man. Call it pheromones (detected through olfaction but not consciously registered as a scent) or what have you, it's there.

    1. Well, shucks. That's one thing I didn't consider. Do men really smell different than women and I just haven't noticed? Now I'm going to have to walk around smelling everybody. Where do I find people who will agree to this?

    2. Hey, this is for SCIENCE. Maybe you could make up a card? "Hi, I'm conducting a scientific study. May I cuddle in and sniff your neck?"

    3. I suspect you could get away with this Jeffe!

    4. I'm very tempted to try! 🙂

    5. Now I'm concocting all kinds of insane ideas that would enable me to actually do this. Never say I'm not crazy and obsessive.

  2. Love this post! My first boyfriend had a car that was a real beater, and required filling up with transmission fluid (that leaked) every week. To this day, when I smell transmission fluid, I can't help but think of him. In my dating days (post first boyfriend) the cologne Drakkar Noir was very popular, so if I smell that now there are one or two men that immediately come to mind. However I have found that as I've gotten older, colognes and other strong smells can really turn me off (it was a pregnancy thing for me that never went away). Because of this my husband only wears cologne on rare occasions (Swiss Army specifically). I much prefer just a clean scented soap smell these days – those Axe body sprays advertised for 20 something men would drive me crazy, and not in a good way.

    1. Axe makes me murderous. If I can still smell you 10 minutes after you walked down the hall…

  3. Love your post! You're so right with how smells are described in romances. Don't all heroes in historicals smell like sandalwood? 😉 But I think it is hard to specify these kind of things because everyone has a different understanding of how something should smell or what smells good.
    I'm very smell sensitive. Strong smells give me easily a headache so I try to avoid perfume. And I absolutely have to steer clear of perfumed candles. One sniff and hello headache! Unfortunately I have a colleague who likes to use a stong flowery perfume. You can smell her from miles away. I really like her but I would love to tell her to tone it down on the perfume front.
    That's why I like my man to just smell of soap and himself. I think Jeffe got a point. It sounds stupid I know but women smell 'softer', I think. As I teach mostly teenagers it's always real fun when the boys come from PE smelling like they've rolled around in Axe. There is nothing wrong with the smell of clean fresh sweat on a man but those teenagers stink. 😉

    1. Ha! Yes! What does sandalwood even smell like anyway? And why don't more of them smell like horse? Strong smelling creatures, horses. They don't smell like anything else.

    2. See?? Now *why* can you say a horse smells like a horse but we can't say a man smells like a man?

      (And, yes, Claudia, women totally smell softer!)

  4. […] couple of weeks ago, I wrote about “man smell”. Today, let’s talk about heroines who taste like honey. Have you noticed this descriptor? […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *