I have no taste.
I don’t mean this in the bizarre and terrible and wondrous way that, say, Grant Achatz once could have meant it. I also don’t mean it in the colloquial manner – in which ‘no’ taste means to have ‘poor’ taste. (Bizarre colloquialism!)
I mean it more like this: by ‘no taste’ I mean that my tastes in things – really in almost any text, be it a novel, a poem, a movie, a slice of pizza, a burrito – is amazingly context-dependent – especially when repeated contacts with the text in multiple contexts occur – I like hyphenated interruptions, you should see me teach – and so my ever-changing tastes can become at times certainly contradictory and even occasionally a sort of lame way to prove that I’m right/smart/better educated than someone else and his or her tastes.
I went wine tasting recently (just three wineries, all afoot, this is something I do at most once a year, do I protest too much? I do: I’m not a wine snob! At all! I’m very fearful of being considered one! A baseball announcing crew snob, on the other hand . . .).
I tasted wine at Foursight Wines in Boonville. The winemaker’s unfiltered pinot noir was strange: biting, almost, fruity, great. When I drink it again later, in a week or a month or so, it probably won’t taste as good. But if I go back to Boonville: maybe it will be amazing again! Or maybe it will be even worse!
This is the way with me and wine. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. Depends on: other things I’ve been drinking. Company. The general context – vacation, not vacation. Home, away from home. How hungry I am. What I have to look forward to in the day. My attentions to the wine itself. Here some people take careful notes: this tastes of tobacco, mushroom, and mulch-of-river-oak, pairs well with In N Out double-doubles. These people will, in their futures more certain than my own, re-read the notes, go to In N Out, sip the wine: think, Yes, in fact, I again taste that mulchy oak. Chew the burger: Yes, it does pair well! I have recreated the experience! Huzzah!
And what has happened is not a sensory experience: what has happened is the verification of a memory. A proving to the self that prior tastes were, after all, correct.
Simpler example: I liked Catcher in the Rye when I was fourteen. Five years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. The book, I’m certain, did not change.
Had I developed, when I was fourteen, tasting notes for the book – unreliable narrators with hints of cherry, peat, and vanilla – maybe I’d have liked it again, as I’d have been re-recognizing those things that once I recognized, once I enjoyed. Which would have been insincere – just an attempt to show to myself that I was right when I was fourteen.
Simply: telling myself I’ve aesthetic taste – in texts – is a lie.
This is not ground-breaking, to say that my taste in a given text changes.
But my taste in how a thing is composed – that changes less. Much less.
I have taste, then, in composition. Not in compositions.
Right now many people are very much into Ander Monson’s Letters to a Future Lover. I think sections of the book are particularly great but don’t love the whole thing quite as much (the love of the book is so great right now that I almost wince at writing that, at imagining people reacting to such a tiny bit of criticism). I can see why so many people like Letters to a Future Lover. It’s keenly and intellectually sentimental, nostalgic, is obviously a very unique text. It’s comforting and ruminative and it privileges the reader’s individual mind. You matter, it says. Which is a niftily inviting rhetorical move. But also the book repeats patterns: section by section, the author generally goes to a new library-like space or considers an interesting textual sliver, reflects on the meaning of that space/sliver frequently via a series of rhetorical questions, directly addresses a future reader and wonders what that future reader will think of these thoughts, and uses many sentences with internal rhyme.
To me, the book is a wonderful microproject – smart, interesting, unique – that is repeated many times.
My (less-shifting) taste in composition is that I enjoy process-problems that are in scale to the size of their text. That’s confusing, maybe, but what I mean is complexity and process (and praise?) for me are in proportion to how hard the undertaken task has been: I think less about the text and more what the author (or, say, chef) has tried to do. An exaggerated and easy example is Joyce trying to recreate the (to him) awesomeness and (to him) awfulness of Dublin through his series of bizarre overlays (color, organ, style, time, space, allusion, etc). What a strange challenge! Of course it took three billion words. Same with Bolaño: he set out to write a tome about a little-discussed horror in a terrible and frightening and magnificent way. (And did. And well.) Even “small” problems can be grand: think Lydia Davis, think Diane Williams. (Constraint is a fun challenge, too.) The moments they create – frenzied, spare, still, bizarre, fraught – come in the right size of text and by putting them in that tiny little pill they’ve show an impressive amount of considered process. Let’s call that artistry, maybe.
(It occurs to me that I’m arguing with opinions that I frequently hold and assert. This is strange, feeling out thoughts in a blog. Oh well. It’s free for anyone to read. I’m not asserting so much as probing. I hope that’s okay. Caveat, caveat, caveat. Words, words, words. But to try to be clearer: I’m not saying a given text should be “perfectly composed” or formed letter by letter. Maybe I’m saying that the challenge undertaken is what impresses me. Maybe I’ll take that back in five minutes. As maybe my taste in composition shifts, too. Probably!)
Anyway: since taste is so subjective, maybe textual criticism should be aimed less at valuing the product and aimed more at the undertaken process/problem: an artist’s process in dealing with the textual problem they’ve invented.* “What did you try to do, and how did you try to do it?” This seems to me – given the subjectivity of taste – a more interesting line of critical questioning than ‘how good is the final product.’ This is certainly true with teaching: the focus is much more on process and problem, less on final product. If a student turned in to me a blank page (don’t do this, students, if for some reason any of you are reading this) as a “completed” story yet explained to me that the story he or she was trying to write, and described all its depth and complexity (or even aimed for vapidness), all the vast considerations put into it, and showed me all the wonderful or crummy sentences he or she had written and deleted, all those abandoned endings, the false starts, the too-slow scenes . . . showed, then, a depth of process in dealing with an interesting problem . . .
. . . well, perfect. Because it’s not about whether or not I like it.
For me, it’s about what you tried to do and how you tried to do it.
(OMG. Am I arguing for a world of Cutthroat Kitchen? I am not. I swear. I hope.)