Anosmia in Literature

It’s been a while since I last blogged so I do apologise. It’s been quite a busy couple of months with a Berlin trip, work summer party. Now that everything has calmed down, I have resumed my writing after a short break and thought it would be a good point to discuss how anosmia affects my writing above all things.

You should always write about what you know. This is one of the first tenets taught to any aspiring writer. The more you know about a subject, the better you will describe any situation and the reader engages with the prose more effectively.

However, this falls apart when you’re an anosmic having to deal with the very common human experience of smell. How do we describe what something smells like when we just don’t know? William Wordsworth was famously anosmic and yet he included smell descriptions from time to time. How did he do it? We’ll probably never know. My guess is he either made it up or asked the people around him.

I love reading. I will read most genres in abundance but I have to admit, I do tend to skim or gloss over those parts which describe a particular smell. It means absolutely nothing to me and I fail to engage with it. This of course happens in real life when I’m in a conversation with friends and they start discussing smells or perfumes. Then I feel very much a third wheel. At least in a book, I suppose, I can just skip the bits I don’t get. Guessing “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is gonna be a miss then though I may just try it to see if there is any part of it I can enjoy. Also guessing that the “Amortentia” love potion mentioned in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yield a feeling of empty air (in case you have never read it, the smell of it is different for each person depending on their favourite aromas).

When it comes to my writing, I tend to avoid writing about smell completely. I don’t think it would be right to describe something I know absolutely nada about. It is a large part of most human’s lives but I find I can easily construct a story without it being a major factor in the storyline. I suppose many might see this as a failing on my part for not even trying but I just don’t think it would be being honest if I did make it up or ask others. When I’m writing, I’m picturing the character and what they are saying or doing. If I cannot envisage it, then it doesn’t feel real. At the end of the day, I want the reader to immerse themselves in the worlds I write about and to do that, it must flow so that their concentration is not interrupted. So that they feel it is real and do not remember that it is just a book until they put the thing down.

I found this article interesting regarding smell. It is from the point of view of somebody that does smell and he describes how important it can be to describe in literature. I found it interesting in that he also mentions how difficult it can be to describe as people’s perspective on a particular smell can be different. Which does make me feel a little more assured if even the smellers (or “olfies”) have difficulty doing so. If you’re interested, it is on this link;


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