Editor’s Rant #3: Smell-O-Vision and Critics, Weak and Strong

By Maurice Mierau

In August my Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra tickets arrived as they usually do in a fat envelope. I opened the envelope, and before the tickets or covering letter appeared, this notice on a tiny pink slip fell out on the table:

Share the air, go scent free.
All WSO concerts are scent free. We ask that you please be considerate of those in the audience who may have allergies and/or multiple chemical sensitivities and refrain from wearing perfume, cologne or other scented products.

This wasn’t the first time that the symphony had asked patrons to refrain from the use of scenting technology. My usual response has been to automatically dab more Classic Old Spice on my face before leaving for a concert. But I was aware that many arts organizations and religious institutions warn their customers about the horrors of chemical sensitivity, maybe because Mozart and Jesus seem like old white dudes now who just don’t translate or sell product the way they once did.

Was there something to this olfactory puritanism? I asked a friend for his opinion, and he said (in capitals), “Perfume Related Incident? PRI? Have you seen one? Never happens.” And indeed the aging patrons of the symphony usually stand in front of the concert hall in winter while large automobiles and diesel buses belch their peculiar odours into the air. PRI, not to be confused with the Mexican political party, has never existed, at least by my low and anecdotal standards for data collection. Then what about PRI in the developing world? Imagine the whiff-spasms a smell-challenged individual might face in Mumbai or Kingston, Jamaica.

But the symphony has good intentions—they might want audience members to concentrate only on the auditory by eliminating all other sensual experience. Perhaps the musicians and the extremely youthful-looking conductor could all wear body-length burkas as well, to reduce visual distraction for the audience.

On the other hand, imagine a young man (since most violent crimes are committed by young men) sneaking up on you with evil in his heart. Normally you could tell he’s coming, because he’d be wearing Axe or some other odoriferous fertility symbol. But what if he decided to honour the perfume-related sensitivity of the general public, and what if he was driving a Prius in its silent electric mode? You could neither smell nor hear him. All of a sudden a well-intentioned rule might produce a public safety hazard, the kind of hazard a Conservative government could do something about what with their switchblade-sharp focus on crime. They too might be worried about PRIs.

There are also book critics who want to avoid Perfume Related Incidents. I’m thinking of T.F. Rigelhof, a contributing reviewer to the Globe and Mail. I was going to say “contributing reviewer for the Globe and Mail’s books section,” but that would be inaccurate, since the paper no longer has such a section: the nasty smell of books cannot be mentioned in the presence of the lifestyle columnists and other advertisers who dominate this newspaper.

Rigelhof is a critic so determined not to use his own senses that he simply regurgitates the words of others more famous, more articulate, and less Canadian than he is. On August 12, in his seven-paragraph “review” of Wayne Johnston’s new novel (our reviewer liked it too, incidentally, although at slightly greater length), Rigelhof spends his last two paragraphs quoting or re-hashing book blurbs. In case you’re counting, that’s almost one-third of the review. Rigelhof’s second last paragraph begins, “Experienced readers know that Johnston’s greatest strengths are, as Richard Ford says….” What follows is Ford’s book blurb for Johnston. The last paragraph of this review consists of a paraphrase of Annie Dillard’s plumping of the Johnston pillow. Amazon.ca now quotes Rigelhof quoting Dillard. Who needs the sophistication of smell-o-vision in a country where critics don’t even manufacture their own opinions?

Since the Globe does still pay real money to reviewers, I have a modest suggestion for the accountants who run the nation’s leading newspaper. Instead of paying critics to high-five themselves while quoting book blurbs, the Globe could simply run advertorials using the blurbs and whatever other bumf the big corporate publishers provide. (Cautionary note to beancounters: removing the steak will reduce the sizzle.) Removing reviews would also create space that could be used for lifestyle features on Toronto-based celebrities (an oxymoron, but let’s not get hung up on details).

“I am a writer,” wrote the great American critic Alfred Kazin in his encyclopedic journal, “and interested in everything I can see and read and feel and touch.” Imagine what it would be like to read someone like that in a national newspaper. Of course Kazin had trouble keeping his zipper up in polite company, but he also engaged fully in what he wrote about, with all five of his senses.

This new issue of The Winnipeg Review will include some of the country’s finest book critics, people like Stephen Henighan, Michael Bryson, Valerie Compton, Jonathan Ball, and Melissa Steele. The issue will also feature recent poems by Leigh Kotsilidis and new ones by Zachariah Wells, among others. And I’m pleased to announce two new columns: Bruce Clark’s musings on political issues, Stand Up Guy, and an occasional column by John K. Samson called The Sporting Life.

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