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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?