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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)