Saturday, February 27, 2010


Taste in the sense of discernment is not easily come by although few among us will stand up to proclaim not having any. It is the unspoken element in the literary equation, the thing we retreat to when some work achieves a success that is to us bewildering, undefinable. Taste inheres in all the places democracies and republics find it difficult to address, which is to say class, ethnicity, gender, and to some extent, even nationality. This last was made manifest a year or two back when there was briefly a move to include American authors in the competition for the prestigious Booker Prize from the UK. How, some of the Brits protested, are we to compete with them?

In a sense, the trope "I don't know what art is but I know what I like" comes from a defensiveness expressed toward one's depth of taste in such matters as reading or writing. Back in the day, when individuals associated with the judiciary, the prosecutorial arm of the law, or church-based organizations attempting to propagate their views of what is and what is not pornographic, taste was a code word for having little or no sexual content.

Chiming in from the academy, the critic gives us his or her vision of taste, depending in large part on his or her specialty.

Chiming in from the rest of us is the notion that the things we like represent good taste, the things we either could not read or could read but not understand were of a more doubtful provenance, suspect, uncertain.

The editor is often considered a paradigm of taste, particularly when the editor has moved through enough corporate shuffle to arrive with his or her own line of books, ala Nan Talese. In some cases, the next destination for editors who have been fired is to become a literary agent, thus those maddening but spot on notes we sometimes see from them in which we are told that a particular project doesn't seem or feel right, imparting a kind of special needs child, by all means something that so far as this agent is concerned does not represent high water marks for taste.

Good taste is of course what you write, but so too is good taste the aggregate of your bookshelves, the things you have turned to over the years at those moments when your own good taste seemed as whispy as a curl of smoke. It is the product of the dialogue you have had over the years with the men and women who set the bar so high for you in the first place.

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