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the blog of Jam Tarts, dedicated to writing about good writing

Describing Tastes

Frederick Speers

All men are agreed to call vinegar sour, honey sweet, and aloes bitter; and as they are all agreed in finding these qualities in those objects, they do not in the least differ concerning their effects with regard to pleasure and pain. They all concur in calling sweetness pleasant, and sourness and bitterness unpleasant.
— Edmund Burke, On Taste, 1757

This question circulated throughout the 1700s—and, I would argue, it continues to this day, although less transparently, across our ever-expanding literary circles: Are there objective standards of taste—at least, objective standards of descriptive taste? We may, of course, disagree as to what tastes “good” and what tastes “bad”. But can we at least agree on a description of how things taste, right?

Following Burke's reasoning, when it comes to food the answer would seem to be an easy “yes”: honey tastes sweet, olives salty, etc. We may disagree on which food trucks serve the best grilled cheese sandwiches in NYC, but we should all be able to agree that grilled cheese has a particular taste – creamy with a dry crunch. This would, in Burke’s view, provide enough of a metaphor for literary taste: Once we agree on some elemental building blocks of taste—differentiating between “natural” and “acquired” taste, and focusing just on the “natural” tastes of things—then we can start to find some reasonable common ground. After all, while one might prefer a grilled cheese sandwich to an ice cream sandwich, no sane person would ever confuse the two.

The same could be said for any kind of taste, artistic or otherwise—while some may prefer the opera to hip hop, paintings to installations, gowns to pant suits, as rational human beings we can objectively identify these things as distinct, compare and contrast them, and then sit back and appreciate the differences (and similarities) for what they are and what they are not. And, if we’re feeling empathetic enough, we may even understand why someone else’s preferences, someone else's acquired taste, might be different from our own.

And across this common ground, we may also begin to appreciate how other people’s preferences might be more or less developed than our own.

Last Sunday, my husband made these gorgeous grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. In the grocery store, shopping for ingredients, he asked me what I thought of two different cheeses. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference. With confidence, and no help from me, he chose a 3-year aged Wisconsin cheddar, which turned out to be perfect. If we had gone with my shoulder-shrugging choice, I’m sure the meal wouldn’t have been half as good. Of course, over the last decade, I’ve had practice deferring to my husband when it comes to food—he’s got a wide vocabulary for describing food, not just for judging what’s good and what he likes. “This cheese has more character,” he says. And guess what, he’s right. It's not just good or "the right choice", it in fact has more character.

But if he had said, “This is an award winning cheese”, you know -- I wouldn’t have known what to think.

And yet, that’s often how we refer people's writing nowadays: “This novel just won the Boysenberry Award for Excellence.” Oh, yes. Very good.

In my past career as a publisher, I would often travel to campuses across the country and meet with faculty and students in English departments. One of the questions I’d pose to the younger generation of writers is, “Who are you reading?” Over a matter of several years, the names became less and less familiar to me—while at the same time they became more and more qualified, “So-and-so, you know—she just won the Wombat Prize.”

Is that so? Can you tell me about this writer’s work?

Usually what came next were a bunch of vague platitudes about the writer’s work being “amazing” or “stunning” or “beautiful”. I'm sad to say these words quickly lost their meaning for me. Or, sometimes I’d hear these comparisons: “He’s like a modern-day Walt Whitman.” Are you saying Whitman isn't modern? Indeed, almost all of what was being read seemed to be ultra-contemporary, without a clear sense of what made some piece of writing connected – not only to its current community – but to its historical contemporaries. When pressed, most couldn’t tell me how someone’s writing was “like” Whitman’s or Dickinson’s—they couldn’t describe the common elements in an objective way. It seemed personal to them.

Which is, of course, absolutely fine! Much of literature is deeply personal. No problem with that. But when making recommendations – for literature as with restaurants or department stores or movies – wouldn’t it be great to have a wider and more descriptive vocabulary? 

Clearly, the question I’d like to raise here is, beyond prizes and platitudes, how might we describe what we like – or don’t like – in what we read? Besides resorting to this-or-that school; rather than resorting to external appeals like, he's “award-winning” or to unhelpful judgments, like his work is “pedantic” or “deeply moving”, how else might we describe a poem, a short story, or essay?

As an exercise, how might you describe each of the poems in this first issue of Jam Tarts, for example? Leaving aside platitudes such as “beautiful”, what specific objective words and phrases would you use when talking with someone—some curious yet critically minded friend—who might be interested in reading new poetry? What descriptive properties do these poems have in common, and which descriptive qualities make them different? After all, one wouldn’t likely confuse “Art History” for “Testing is in Room B” or for "South Garden", but why is that? 


Defining Taste

Frederick Speers

When I was young, I hated cheese. The only cheese I had tasted until I was about 10 years old was this sickly orange, highly processed, oily American cheese-product that came sliced and packaged in clear plastic. Then, somehow, I discovered blue cheese. Shortly thereafter, brie.  Thus began my life-long love affair with cheese.

Oddly enough, around the same young age, I used to like--I mean, really like--cheese puffs, those highly processed, powdery orange and crunchy snacks ... until I consumed an entire bag in one sitting and became very sick to my stomach. Now, I can't go near them.

For me, it was an untroubling contradiction, an early form of negative capability, hating one kind of processed cheese yet loving another. At the time, I didn't even know it was a contradiction; it was only later in life, when reflecting on my own tastes in food and how they've evolved, that I appreciated how this example, among many other examples, made my preferences appear inconsistent, absent-minded, maybe even careless. 

Talking about taste tends to get people's juices going. You don't have to be a critic or psychologist to recognize this simple truth. It's how we get to know each other and ourselves:  We put a lot of personal stock in what we like, and what we say we dislike, and both dimensions help to define who we are and who we are not; indeed, a good chunk of our economy now depends explicitly on the concept of like.

Tastes, of course, aren't always consistent or complete over time, or even within a small slice of our lives. ("Odi et amo....").  And as a composite of those individual changes, larger cultural preferences change, as well.  

Food, drink, fashion, film and literature--these experiences have helped to define who I am over time; and, from time to time, like most people, I've also tried to define or rationalize my (sometimes very disparate) tastes through different standards both internal and external. 

[I]t is natural for us to seek a standard of taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.
— David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste (1757)


But, if we take a step back, does this mean we can have "taste" before having "standards"?  After all, when someone says, "She has good taste", he is usually complimenting that person using objective criteria, some standards that are already agreed upon. Or when we say something is done tastefully, or in good taste. Or for that matter, poor taste. The concept of taste seems to have inherent standards, an objective reality outside of personal opinion.

On the other hand, taste is also used to defend subjective quirks: "I just like it."  

Although taste often helps to define us, we have trouble defining taste. 

The Oxford Dictionaries Online define taste as having a "tendency" toward or "liking" of something--as well as the ability to discern good quality or a "high aesthetic standard." These potentially contrary meanings are all in the second sense of the word "taste" (2.1, 2.2., and 2.3). Isn't it possible to like something that you know isn't of good quality? Or to know something is of good quality but not care for it? The definition of taste is clearly a noisy one.

Maybe, as with other studies of language, as with linguistics,  can we should discuss "descriptive" tastes on the one side and "prescriptive" taste on the other.  

Descriptive tastes would then be understood as organic and individual (I like Robert Frost's poetry). Collections of individual, descriptive tastes would then (re)create patterns larger cultural tastes, which could in turn become prescriptive (Many Americas like Robert Frost's poetry). While purely prescriptive tastes would be considered artificial and collective; preferences already codified by authorities and anthologized through canons and transmitted through time (Robert Frost's poetry is widely taught in schools across the country). But insofar as any individual is free to choose to follow the tastes of others, and insofar as individual is free to be inspired by the same works for their own reasons, these prescriptive tastes can also turn descriptive (I like "The Road Not Taken", but not for the reasons that teachers usually offer up).

And so it seems we have a dynamic system of tastes both descriptive and prescriptive. In talking about writing, then, it makes sense to tell which side we're coming from, without discounting the influence of the other. Before we can tell what we like and what we don't; before we can define what is good writing, and what is not, we first need to define our tastes and relate those tastes in the broader cultural context. And then defend them, too. Because that's the best part. People shouldn't get off the hook with, "That's just how I feel"; neither should they get to pass judgement simply with "That's just what is taught."

In the coming weeks, in following posts here in Jam Tarts, we'll explore these two kinds of taste in more depth--descriptive (comparing and contrasting works and opinions of works) as well as prescriptive (anthologies, awards, popular opinion, etc.). We'll look at the tension they create and how that tension creates new spaces for new work.

In the meantime, I invite you to contribute to the conversation here: Name some piece of writing you like that others don't and describe why. Or, maybe there's something many others love that you can't stand (but haven't admitted out loud, perhaps)? What about a particular writer who you tell others you love: How much of that person's writing do you actually like? 90%? 50%? 10%? Oh, but maybe you like 10% of what she has written above 100% of what everyone else has? If you were to read something without knowing who wrote it, would you know right away it was the author you love? Or, make a short list of likes and dislikes in writing, general tendencies, if you will, and share it here with your thoughts for others to read and comment on. You may be surprised how much your preferences follow a trend that you didn't know about. Or you may be surprised to learn that what you've cherished for so long has fallen out of favor. 

Frederick Speers (