Romance as a genre receives more than its fair share of mockery for, among other things, its overwrought olfactory descriptions. But one Twitter user has spent the past couple of years lovingly chronicling those very descriptions through the Male Scent Catalogue, which documents how authors describe male love interests and their odors:
Allison Breed, who runs the account, quit her job at the end of last year to spend 2020 traveling with her husband, only for the coronavirus to change their plans. Now Breed is filling the time in lockdown by reading at her home in Portland, Oregon, finding more fodder for the catalog in the process. Slate spoke to her about the Male Scent Catalogue and what it has taught her about the role of smell in romance. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: You created this account in July 2018. What made you start keeping track of the male scents you read?
Allison Breed: That was the year I started recording everything that I read. I thought it’d be fun to pick out some things to keep track of in romance novels. I was highlighting female smells, male smells, tastes, the names for, like, a woman’s sex. But it was the male scents that stuck out to me.
Back up. When you say “names for a woman’s sex,” are you telling me you have a list of vaginal euphemisms somewhere?
I used to! I got rid of them because I had too many lists going. But I have them all highlighted. If I go back through the books that I read, I could find them. That year, 2018, I read, like, 420 books. That was when depression and a really boring job had their hold, and I was reading more than a book a day. I was reading a lot of good books as well as a lot of bad books, and the bad books always had the best ones. A lot of “pleasure buttons” and “happy buttons.” How is that sexy or appealing?
Why did you ultimately settle on smells for the Twitter account? And why male smells, in particular?
I was noticing what seemed like more variety in the way that women smelled until I started to break it down into groups, and then I realized that women just smell either like sweet-smelling flowers or strawberries or baked goods—something edible, something delectable, something decadent. That was boring to me. It is weird that so many protagonists know specific flowers. I’m reading one right now in which the woman apparently smells like carnations. I can’t for the life of me imagine what a carnation smells like. I can picture a carnation, but I can’t smell it.
Why do you think there are so many floral scents for women?
I think for the same reason that so few men smell like flowers, right? They smell strong, or they smell like the woods. It’s gendered. They’re not going to smell like some delicate little thing that doesn’t live long and is only there to be pretty. Men want to have substance. There are some crossovers. Women can smell like mint, and men smell like mint a lot. Citrus was a shared scent I noticed.
What smell trends have you noticed for men?
Woodsy, cedar, evergreen, pine. Spice and citrus seem to be mentioned together—although I read one today that specifically differentiated between spice and citrus. Sandalwood is common. Smelling clean and fresh, like soap—Irish Spring makes an appearance quite often. I know one author, Kate Clayborn, talks often about her love of Irish Spring.
And then, there’s always the essence of … whatever the male lead’s name is. He always smells masculine or male. In doing this, I learned a little bit about scents, and I learned that there are head notes, heart notes, and base notes. You’ll find that most scents are described in threes. So in A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole, he smells like steel, citrus, and “the essence of Tavish.” From Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn, he smells like a bonfire, the trees, and “like him.” In The Kiss Quotient, he smells like hotel soap, minty toothpaste, and himself. In Samantha Young’s War of Hearts, he smells like earth, spice, and “incredibly male.”
I’m seeing the pattern.
It’s always in threes, it’s always those notes, and the base note is so often the man or some sort of essential notes of him. Class and career also affect the way a person smells. Working class tends to be clean and soapy and crisp. Billionaires tend to smell like expensive things, like leather and whiskey or some name-brand cologne. Athletes I’ve noticed are musky or fresh, in a sexy way. Honorable mentions would be mint, bergamot. But mostly essence of man.
What are some of your favorite male scents you’ve come across?
My favorites are the ones that don’t necessarily describe a smell but evoke a feeling. “He smells amazing—like a spicy, misty forest that I want to run through in a white silk nightgown,” or this one guy who smelled “oceany. Deep mysterious ocean with huge surges of waves.” Oh, and one from Sally Thorne, this is one of my favorites: “He smells like he always has: a blown-out birthday candle, sharp and smoky. It’s that smell in your nostrils when closing your eyes and making an impossible wish, and your mouth is watering for something sweet.”
Tell me more about your methodology. Are you actively seeking out scents, or are you just coming across them as you read?
Just as I read. I’ve slowed down a lot since 2018, but I average around 20 romance novels a month. Once I finish a book, I enter it into my spreadsheet, and I track the title, the author, the pages, the genre, the format I read it on, the date, and comments, so I can go back and reference it. I just recently added a line for the male scents. I do everything in Kindle, so if I see a male scent, I’ll highlight it and mark it MSC, because I call it the Male Scent Catalogue. I’ve tried to start highlighting other things again. For a funny name for a sex part, like “his velvet-wrapped steel,” I’ll highlight that.
Does every male scent that you come across go on the Twitter account, or is there a threshold the scent has to meet?
Lately I’ve been more discerning. When I started, I did every scent, even in the books that I hated. Now I’m trying not to pull from books I dislike, and I’m focusing on actual descriptions of scents instead of just “his scent was overpowering and I wanted to nuzzle into him forever.” That happens a lot. I try to only tweet one scent from a book. I just pick my favorite. I try to get ones that don’t mention the man’s name. I think it’s more fun if it’s a random description without the character attached to it.
Reading through them all, it’s almost as though they’re all describing one man of many smells.
That’s what I want. It takes you out of it a little when you read “the rooftop breeze carried Luke’s fragrance.” I don’t care about Luke. Who’s Luke?
I notice you tag a lot of the authors of these books. Is there any particular author who is especially good at describing smells?
It depends on the scene. Pippa Grant is someone who writes hilarious descriptions of smells. Some of them are really long. Here’s one from The Hero and the Hacktivist—oh, you need to know that she refers to the hero as “the ass” because he has a great ass. OK, so this is the heroine’s inner monologue:
The Ass—which isn’t a bad nickname, I swear, I like asses—smells like he had street hot dogs for lunch, except somehow the smell on him makes me think of hot dogs that are made of ground bear meat if it was a bear he wrestled to death after it tried to eat his ice cream while he was camping, and he’s secretly a chef who put the right seasonings in the bear dog to make it taste like some kind of exotic delicacy that causes orgasms when it hits your tongue. I can’t exactly explain it. Let’s just go with he smells good. That’s easier.
Earlier in the book he had been described as smelling like “starched tequila and danger.” I love that.
Romance novels are sometimes mocked for exactly those kinds of overwrought descriptions. Where does the Male Scent Catalogue stand on that mockery?
I like to think that it celebrates it. Some of the descriptions are ridiculous, but it depends on the book that you’re reading. I love when authors revel in it, like, “Yes, we are romance, and yes, we do get made fun of for this, but I’m going to live in it and it’s gonna be great.” But when people from outside of romance make fun of it, a little part of me goes, “Well, it was a really sweet moment in the book.” We can laugh at it but still love it.
Have you noticed male scents in books of other genres? How do they compare to romance?
Romance wins hands down. Every time. For a genre that describes however many men smell like the woods, there are a thousand different ways to describe smelling like the woods. I can joke about how everyone smells like sandalwood and strong, manly smells, but I don’t ever read the exact description twice.
What does your husband think of all these male smells? Also, how does he smell?
He thinks it’s hilarious. And he asks me that a lot! He’ll be like, “What are the three notes you’d use to describe me?”
I usually just say, “Sorry, my nose is stuffed up. I can’t smell right now.”