The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.
—Leonardo da Vinci
My wife Laura has a group of friends who don’t care about food. At least they don’t the way I do. These friends, all gay men, have a lot of parties. Sometimes the parties are potlucks and other times they are held at Stoneground Kitchen, a restaurant where one of them once worked as a waiter. To please Laura, I have eaten at Stoneground. I have eaten pizza with corn syrupy sweet canned marinara and gluey mozzarella on an under-risen, underbaked crust. I have eaten a wilted salad with guar gum-thickened dressing, refrigerated tomatoes, and flavorless carrots. I have eaten a dish with vinegary artichokes and overcooked, packaged fettuccine.
“I can’t do it anymore,” I told Laura, “I can’t eat at Stoneground.”
“OK,” she said.
Then we were invited to another birthday, also at Stoneground. I offered to bake a carrot cake, the birthday boy’s favorite, as a gift. It is an expensive cake because of the dried fruit and nuts and the cream cheese and white chocolate frosting, but it’s easy to make. Through the back door of Stoneground, I carried the heavy carrot cake on a copper platter. The twenty-five or so guests oohed and aahed.
Laura ordered eggplant parmesan. When the waiter brought bruschetta for everyone, I was not tempted, in part because I had eaten my usual big lunch, as well as because this bruschetta was just canned tomatoes on toasted bread. I enjoyed the conversation and avoided the food.
A few weeks later, Laura let slip that the birthday boy noticed I didn’t eat anything except a thin slice of my own cake. “They were offended,” she said.
“You know I don’t like to eat much at night,” I replied. I was reminded of a dinner party we gave where one woman moved food around on her plate and kept exclaiming, “delicious,” but ate barely a tablespoon of each course. Was I offended? Mostly puzzled, because I knew the food was good. Perhaps she had an eating disorder.
I said to Laura, “I am an adult who must decide what to put into her body.” When people try to force other people to eat something they don’t like, food becomes the medium for a power play. So many human interactions angle for power and status. What we say or don’t say, do or don’t do.
“Couldn’t you at least have ordered something?”
“I don’t like to waste food,” I said.
“You are a such a food snob,” Laura said.
Or an enthusiast? Laura likes to tell the story of me elbowing an old man with a cane on my way to sample chocolates in the Valrhona factory store in the Rhône Valley. I remember feeling restrained, sly, and excited by all the new varieties waiting for me to taste them.
A naturopath told me she thinks chocolate works on the deepest level of any food because of the combination of the dark roasted beans and their fat, and the beans’ complex blend of neurotransmitters. When chocolate is low in cacao, you don’t get these. Phenylethylamine affects blood pressure and pulse, like falling in love. Theobromine (the ingredient that dogs and horses can’t metabolize) works like caffeine. Swedish botanist Linnaeus named the cacao tree “theobroma,” food for the gods. Thinking about chocolate’s melting point, the soft texture of the cocoa butter and the fruity dark flavor, makes my mouth water. Who first opened a cacao pod and thought to cook the acrid and rubbery seeds, albeit wrapped in a white, sweet membrane? Imagine that person’s face tasting those seeds, roasted. I think of Sappho’s “Fragment 130:” “Once again Love, the loosener of limbs, shakes me, that sweet-bitter, irresistible creature.”
In Baltimore, my friend Albert gave up his chef job, went back to his native Germany, spent six months learning how to make molded chocolates, bought equipment and then set up shop. My favorites were the Earl Grey, the Whiskey, and the Pear Williams. That was twenty-five years ago. I ate so many of Albert’s chocolates and learned them so well—like the Scrabble tiles whose wood patterns I memorized for cheating as a child—that I became tired of them. My tastes moved on. Novelty is seductive, and it causes a surge in dopamine. Novelty also represents self-renewal. Whether we buy new clothes or start a love affair, the real change happens in ourselves. The newness can “attain the intensity, if not the quality, of the emotion of love,” says critic Jean Baudrillard. We either extend that sublime period or move on to another new thing.
Even Albert’s chocolates are too sweet for me now, too familiar, and thus not worth forty dollars a pound. When he started, his competitors were Godiva and Burdick’s, and his recipes were cutting edge. Today, the chocolate world touts bean to bar or tree to bar and fillings flavored with mustard and cardamom and rose petals or fève de tonka, the bean illegal in the US because it contains the blood thinner (and rat poison and perfume ingredient) coumarin. Tonka beans smell like sweet woodruff and taste like nutmeg, like vanilla, like flowers, and if you ate forty of them you might be sick. Half a bean is enough to flavor chocolate mousse for four.
I discovered fève de tonka in Marseille at Xocoatl Chocolaterie Maino on a short street ironically called the Grand Rue, where father and son Maino confected three-quarters inch by one-half inch, exquisite Valrhona ganache in blends so unusually flavored Laura and I often couldn’t guess them. We’d close our eyes and then share a piece, letting the flavors melt over our tongues. A year later we discovered Soma in Toronto. Enveloped in a rarified scent of fair trade, perfectly roasted cacao beans, we chose pralines from among the flavors of green Iranian raisin, toasted corn, Australian ginger and lemon, Arbequina Spanish olive oil, Douglas fir (shaped like an asymmetrical cone), and eight-year-old balsamic vinegar. Soma doesn’t ship. The difficulty of obtaining something adds to its value.
Along with the food section, my favorite parts of the newspaper have always been the columns devoted to ethics, advice, and etiquette. From them—and from the fiction I read—I learned how to be an American, how to be an adult, how to do the right thing, which, of course, keeps changing. If it is sometimes polite to refuse sweets so as not to appear greedy, other times it is polite to take them and show enjoyment. As a child, refusing food was permissible in what seemed like direct correlation with its desirability. I could say no to chocolate, but not to lamb and green beans. How well I knew the person offering the sweets or the lamb was relevant, as was the time of day, who else was there, and what would happen after the meal. I learned via on-site training, but also by reading: Sue Barton, Nancy Drew, Doctor Dolittle, Little Women. I was Jo, whose ethical dilemmas pit what she wants against what other people need. Thinking about other people first usually results in being liked.
But how to know what others are thinking? In my thirties, I took the Meyers-Briggs personality test and realized that not everyone operates as I do, as an ISTJ. The test, based on the Jungian opposites of introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, and perceiving/judging, made me realize that all my life I had been hurting people’s feelings when I said what I thought or did what I wanted. If I am, as Jung said, becoming my best self as I age, mitigating my introversion and quick judgments, I am still sometimes unsure when to hold my tongue. My contribution to conversations should be useful. During one dinner, when I was being interviewed for a job, I told the woman who jogged two hours every morning—while wearing a Walkman—that aerobic activity intensifies acoustic trauma. When I saw a woman at the gym using a machine that my orthopedist thought should be outlawed, I told her what my orthopedist had said. Because the learner in me can never get enough feedback, no matter how negative or inappropriately timed, I make the mistake of thinking that others are like me.
My food snobbery still punctuates my relationship with Laura, although now, six years after that Stoneground birthday, we are married and our knowledge of each other rarely surprises us. I continue to think about the performance of taste. I’ve learned a lot about literature and a fair amount about food. In fact, I mostly alternate planning what to eat or cook with thinking about what I’m reading. Roasted nectarine crumble. I’m two eyes looking out of a suit of armor. I write because I can’t talk (May Swenson). Broad beans with pickled red onion. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman (Judith Butler). The tissue connecting food and words is my worry about the right thing to make or say, balancing my ideas with other people’s feelings.
Laura tells me I should have ordered a salad at Stoneground, and if I didn’t eat it with relish, “at least picked at it.” My offense was not just rejecting the food, but also not spending money on it. Because the birthday boy worked at Stoneground, my not ordering something (even something that Laura would pay for) hurt his feelings. He told his friend who subsequently told Laura (a sequence that framed talk about my suitability as her partner), Make sure she doesn’t offend us again with her snobbery. If I can’t help that I’m older and better traveled, that I know more about food, should I withhold what I know or disguise it, as in the ruse of ordering and then “picking at” a salad? Maybe there’s also something “ur” about refusing food. After all, God preferred Abel’s gift of lambs to Cain’s gift of garden produce. Because God did not respect Cain and his offering, Cain became so angry he killed his brother.
How we present ourselves to others is the subject of sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1959 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, in which he analyzes face-to-face interactions as theater. Through deliberate or unconscious utterances and acts, people reveal aspects of identity to those around them, who might notice, or not. A situation provides its own rules about what will be ignored or commented on, and how. A guest using the wrong fork at a formal dinner would not be corrected by other guests. Waiters might make fun of customers in the kitchen, but not in the dining room. “Impression management” can mean withholding evidence that might be unfavorably interpreted or it might mean revealing deceptive evidence—for example, displaying Spinoza’s Ethics on the coffee table while hiding pornography. Goffman points out that a host pays more attention to how much and how eagerly people eat rather than what they say about the food, which suggests that if I had ordered something at Stoneground, I would also have been required to consume it with gusto.
Our ethical positions are complicated by our motives and by the changing nature of truth. Discerning truth means constantly reassessing our stance, just as we reassess our food preferences. Which of our own truths are worth saying or doing? If, while walking, you pass through a swarm of angry bees, you’d tell someone headed that way. But when the danger is not life-threatening—for instance if you see someone planting a noxious weed—do you speak? I would, but then, that’s me. Thus I have a record of getting into trouble by offering what I think are helpful bits of advice. Part of that trouble is created by my class privilege. Or rather, by the way I perform it.
An early poem by Carolyn Forché, “As Children Together,” ends, “I have been to Paris since we parted.” I was always bothered by the superiority implied in that last line, perhaps because I replicate it. My ambivalent cosmopolitanism comes from embarrassment about having had opportunities that others may not have had. Travel enlarges what we think is good by increasing the options of consumable items and experiences. So do other kinds of education. One resulting dilemma is deciding when to reveal what we know or like—or, more aptly, what we don’t like. Enthusiasm doesn’t usually bother anyone; it’s negativity that irks.
In his book on improvisation, Keith Johnstone argues that every performance relies on status-raising and lowering. When someone reveals they know more than someone else, they raise their status. Others respond either by lowering or by raising their own. As a teacher, and especially when teaching issues of race, class, and gender, I keep lowering my status—often by admitting my bafflement—so that students feel freer to speak. Figuring out when and how to reveal what you know is a game like the one played by the TV detective Columbo. Gathering information to solve a case, Columbo (played by Peter Falk) seems naive or even dumb. People often equated my father’s heavy Slovenian accent and occasional grammatical error with a lack of intelligence. Instead of getting defensive, he’d lower his status, saying without irony, “What do I know, I’m a foreigner.” And then, when the person he was talking to was disarmed, my father might say, apologetically, “English is the most difficult of the seven languages I learned.” A power play, of course.
Having the opportunity to choose anything, especially a luxury like expensive chocolate, indicates the privilege of abundance. Choice is a form of power, although too many choices can overwhelm us, as when we stand in front of a wall of vinegars trying to decide between balsamic aged for five or ten or twenty years. Our public choices of what, how, and when to eat help create our class status, as noted by Thorstein Veblen who first used the term “conspicuous consumption.” I have a friend who turns up her nose at Lindt chocolate (commercial, ubiquitous) and I am sure there are people who reject Valrhona. Although I’ve seen cacao bushes growing and I’ve held a raw pod filled with milky flesh studded with seeds, I haven’t studied cacao and chocolate beyond a few minutes of accrued knowledge here and there, along with enthusiastic and increasingly careful consumption. Although I eat chocolate every day, my status as a chocolate connoisseur depends upon to whom I’m talking. Compared to the Maino family, I’m a neophyte.
I buy wines by the numbered rating or the price. And although I care about fabrics and the construction and fit of clothes, perhaps because my mother did, I limit myself. Shantung is a wild silk (made with worms that do not have to be killed for harvest) that spots when water touches it. I will not pay seven dollars to have a blouse dry-cleaned each time I wear it. I don’t insist on having the best in most things. I’m happy to choose what I like or can afford. In her essay “Against Connoisseurship,” novelist Ginger Strand is nostalgic for her grandparents’ “tacky” tastes in contrast to her own educated ones. She links travel and wide experiences to the development of taste and the ability to analyze.
Yoking enjoyment to evaluation confuses a striptease with an anatomy lesson . . . . Distanced from his own experience, the connoisseur replaces appetite with achievement. What he thinks becomes more important than what he feels, because in the end, it’s not about liking something; it’s about liking the right things. There’s more than a whiff of compulsion here . . . .
[C]onnoisseurs are elitists. “To eat is a necessity,” according to La Rochefoucauld, “but to eat intelligently is an art.” And if it’s an art, it must be learned.
But wait: can’t a striptease also be an anatomy lesson? In looking desirously at a body, aren’t we learning its contours? Thinking and feeling are closely twined. Why must we turn off learning in order to enjoy something? Jung’s dichotomies are useful only as a starting point. Connoisseurship means, for instance, recognizing cacao and cocoa butter percentages, qualities about which learned people agree, and then choosing with that knowledge. For that matter, what isn’t learned? Cats who have been reared with rats do not hunt and kill them. While hardwired emotions, bodily reactions to threat or reward, are primal, feelings are the mind’s processing of a bodily state. Feelings, which are learned, vary from person to person, and persons are shaped by their cultures. Fried crickets are a bar snack in Thailand. Ant soup is common in China.
Citing research at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Frank Bruni writes that our taste for food is not physiological. In other words, it’s not a matter of taste buds or “a palate,” but rather psychology. Taste is a “function of expectation, emulation, adaptation.” A taste for something we may initially dislike, for instance cilantro or lamb, can be learned. With repeated exposure, even people like me with “soapy taste” receptors for cilantro can learn to love it.
When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability. If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. But every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.
If something as apparently instinctual and visceral as a taste for food can be learned, then almost everything can be learned. Albeit not easily or quickly or to the point of expertise. And only if the learner is willing. I will never learn advanced math, but that is my choice, albeit a choice based perhaps on lack of talent for math. However, I think talent might be overrated; as Joyce Carol Oates says, “there’s only the work.” I believe that most people can learn anything although I prefer to learn more about things about which I have some knowledge, like literature or food. Just as I’ve evolved from Hershey’s to Bonnat, I’ve evolved from the dry debris of supermarket tea bags to fresh tea leaves ordered from growers or online purveyors. My favorite type of Camellia sinensis is oolong. I can distinguish between varieties, and in one case, can tell whether a milk oolong is natural or has added flavor. Milk oolong has a dairy flavor that has nothing to do with milk. The natural Taiwanese variety is expensive, so price is one indicator. Because my first milk oolong was of excellent quality, it set the bar, so now my taste buds notice a chemical when it’s not the real thing, which is the result of terroir, the soil and climate it was grown in. Something added, exaggerated, something not quite right. How is the reality of anything determined?
Henry James’s short story “The Real Thing” is narrated by a painter who employs a genteel and financially desperate married couple (the Monarchs) as models for his illustrations in potboiler novels. To their dismay, the painter eventually realizes that his previous, working-class models “do” nobility better. Of Mrs. Monarch, the painter says,
Her figure had no variety of expression—she herself had no sense of variety. You may say that this was my business, was only a question of placing her. I placed her in every conceivable position, but she managed to obliterate their differences. She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing. There were moments when I was oppressed by the serenity of her confidence that she was the real thing.
Mrs. Monarch’s stubborn performance, her “serenity” in her own habit, prevents her from moving, figuratively as well as literally. She controls her emotions to such a degree that they cannot move others. She withholds the most vulnerable aspect of her nature. The Monarchs have lost their money, but they cling to their class superiority. James’s story dates from a period when class distinctions were being shored up precisely because they were also being eroded. The story suggests that class is a learnable set of behaviors, a performance, not an intrinsic quality. James antedates the insights of Goffman, of Foucault, of Derrida, of Butler, by suggesting that there is no core individual self that cannot change and learn. At the end of the story, Mrs. Monarch does change, evidenced by her serving tea to the cockney model and doing the young woman’s hair.
When it comes to the taste of food, say a tomato, the “real thing” is an extremely complex set of flavors. In The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor, Mark Schatzer points out that because these flavors have been chemically replicated and enhanced to produce such things as tomato-flavored chips, the result is that the laboratory version often supplies only flavor, not nutrition. This leads to two things: overeating and yet undernourishment because people are not absorbing the nutrients of a real tomato. Moreover, as Jo Robinson argues in Eating on the Wild Side, the bland taste of agribusiness tomatoes is linked to their lack of nutrients. With food, the real thing gives life. Like a counterfeit tomato, a human being’s deceptive performance is not usually lethal but might still be harmful.
Connoisseurship represents the highest level of achievement and learning. Thanks to art history classes and museum-going, I recognize the work of many painters, but I would never presume to distinguish an original from a forgery. My knowledge is superficial. Perhaps the word “connoisseur” does not have as strong a taint of pretension in the fields of wine or visual art because understanding these commodities demands so much training, relying on science as much as taste. Americans have a conflicted relationship with education, training, and expertise. In Switzerland, for example, these things are respected, to the point that people’s degrees are part of the way they are addressed. In the US, we only agree with a medical doctor’s right to pronounce his degree with his name.
When the substance under consideration is accessible to everyone, however, Americans apply the label “snob” to those who perform their taste. Linguist Charlene Elliott points out that ordinary commodities like coffee have recently been made fields for connoisseurship, while previously elite commodities like wine have been democratized. Starbucks allows everyone to be a coffee connoisseur, which nudges some longtime enthusiasts to go the newly converted one—or more—better. Wine tasting classes at shops and through community education give many more people the language to describe what they are tasting: wood, steel, stone, flint, berry, citrus, spritz, and so on. However, Robert Parker’s point system not only belies the complexity of wine, it masks the favored criteria, for example an American taste for “big” wines.
Is our reluctance to recognize the value of learning a form of anti-intellectualism? Is American reluctance to accept expertise related to an idea of fairness, of hearing all sides even if one of those sides is patently wrong—for example, by including a climate-change denier on a panel of experts? Perhaps it is an American notion of democracy that insists that everyone’s opinion is equal in every way and at the same time insists that “taste” is so individual it cannot be argued with.
Literature also falls into this category of democratization. In the US, we have the sense that anybody who reads can critique, ancillary to the notion that anyone can write if they just sit down and do it. The shift from the professional reviewer to the amateur and often anonymous reader—facilitated by the cultural revolution of the internet—has been noted by theorist Linda Hutcheon. This shift includes a simplification of criteria—the awarding of stars or points (like Parker’s wine system) as opposed to more nuanced analysis. Whereas previously reviewers’ opinions had authority because of their training and reputation, now reviews are democratized. Professional critics are no longer arbiters of taste. Amateur critic-reviewers use platforms such as Amazon, Goodreads, and TripAdvisor to establish themselves by the quantity of reviews, or often merely to declaim or laud a specific thing. Hutcheon points out that consumer reviews invite further response from readers, widening the context for “response-ability,” and extending aesthetics to include morals and ethics.
The word “snob” once meant the opposite of what it means today. In the late eighteenth century, the word referred to a shoemaker or his apprentice, then to anyone who was not a Cambridge student. Although etymological research reveals it probably does not come from sine nobilitate, “without nobility,” the gist is the same. A snob used to be someone who was working class. By the mid-nineteenth-century the word referred to people who “imitated the habits of their social superiors.” It carries the sense of sham: they hadn’t come by these habits through bloodline and breeding. In other words, they hadn’t learned them at home, like James’s couple, the Monarchs. The word “snob” was coined as a response to the anxiety of not recognizing strangers, not knowing where to place them in a social schema, not knowing whom to trust. Medieval villages with a clear social hierarchy where everyone knew everyone else differ from cities where strangers from various places encounter each other. Foucault argues that, starting in the seventeenth century, legal systems, universities, hospitals, and prisons were among the institutions developed to manage these growing populations of strangers.
Because of newly intersecting social classes, people were also more likely to be conned. Obviously, a confidence trick can only be successfully performed when the recipient doesn’t know the con man. Thus, anxiety in determining “the real thing” increases as opportunities for being fooled multiply. Jean Baudrillard believes the difference between the real thing and the image or copy is erased in our postmodern era. A “theology of truth and secrecy” becomes an age of simulacra and simulation, wherein signs have no referent, and “there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.” The US presidential election of 2016 can be cited as an example in which “fake news” and falsehoods stood as facts. Today’s connoisseur performs her taste in a world that is suspicious of learning and disinclined to trust expertise, a world that also increasingly disregards facts.
What I read affects me on as visceral a level as what I eat. I can read the first page of a book and realize that it will neither delight nor nourish me. These judgments grow out of the fact that I have spent more time with literature—reading and writing it, learning about it, teaching it—than with anything else. Literary professionals earn an education that separates them from general readers. Janice Radway notes the gulf of purpose between academics and general readers. Although both groups read to understand how to live, academics also read to explicate, to discriminate, and to judge. Academics are trained to dissect and judge literature in formal ways and this training unites them, something made clear to me when I was asked to participate in a model book group at the Salt Lake Public Library. The leaders had put together as “diverse” a group as possible: a disabled Chicano lawyer, a Mormon woman in her seventies, a Mormon writer of adolescent fiction, a Latino professor of communication, a humor writer, a judge, a recent college graduate and poetry-slam winner originally from Tonga, the associate director of the Utah Humanities Council, and two university poets. Interestingly, those of us with graduate degrees in literature had more in common with each other than with anyone else, despite racial, ethnic, or religious differences, because we had been trained to analyze literature formally and contextually. Everyone else in the group responded to the “feel good” message of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, but the four literary professionals focused on form and on the disappointing simplicity of the characters. We would have liked a more complex book, one whose problems inspired debate.
Each year I attend thirty or more literary readings sponsored either by the colleges where I teach or by bookstores and community organizations. Their quality varies in both performance (writers are not necessarily good readers of their work) and in the writing itself. Because literature teaches us how to live, subjects such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are central to it. Sometimes I feel as Keats did when he wrote about discovering a new translation, “like some watcher of the skies / when a new planet swims into his ken.” Other times, I am held hostage.
At one literary nonfiction reading a few years ago, when the writer (who is white) reached an insight about her spiritual journey that she thought brilliant (signified by the dramatic pause)—“we are all slaves”—I stifled the urge to moan. In his second annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” But the white writer who said “we are all slaves” was talking about something else: she was attempting to connect human beings by equating all varieties of psychological, social, and historical bondage. Apparently her insight came to her in an all-black church, a journey that caused her to leave “her comfort zone.”
In a classroom, I would have asked how that essay might avoid a phrase that dumps disparate human experience into one basket. I would have prodded the student writer to think in more nuanced terms, noting that the institution of slavery deserves historical consideration. I would have asked her how, precisely, she felt “enslaved” and asked her to distinguish that feeling from those expressed in slave narratives. My own understanding of race is neither instinctive nor comprehensive, and it continues to change. I could list many instances where my lack resulted in offense, such as the time I entered a classroom containing a white man and a black woman and I mistook the woman for the student instead of the professor. Or the time I mistook one black woman for another.
But the reading I attended was not in a classroom, and the writer’s introduction included the fact that the essay had been published and cited as “notable” in an anthology. Of course, within the broad category of “publishable” are subjective criteria not universally agreed upon, criteria that change over time and place. Shakespeare’s tragedies were rewritten by Nahum Tate in the seventeenth century. Today, who reads Vachel Lindsay’s 1919 much-anthologized poem “The Congo” (subtitled “A Study of the Negro Race” and beginning, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room”) without a roll of the eyes? Each era has a threshold for publication, and ours is low. Publishing is a democracy, I tell students, a conversation that anyone can enter, somewhere. The fast-and-easy publishing offered by the internet and print on demand can bypass quality gatekeepers. Anyone can edit a literary magazine or start a press, but not everyone is an editor who can, as poet William Stafford said, save a writer from embarrassment. Once an essay is published, its chance of being critiqued is slim, because our culture produces far more than it reviews. Moreover, reviews might be written by someone who hasn’t thought deeply about literature, issues of identity, or much of anything else.
When I used to review books, I reviewed only those I liked. In fact, when sent books by a journal, I was told to choose ones for a positive review. I reassured myself that I was following this practice because I didn’t want to waste time on bad books, but the truth is I didn’t want to risk the personal fallout of a negative review. Early in his career, a colleague used his intellect and wit to negatively review books by senior poets. Although the reviews were fair—even famous poets publish bad books—one poet didn’t take the criticism well and began a vendetta against my colleague, then in his thirties. Because the world of literary art—especially the poetry world—is small, my colleague was hurt professionally.
But writing and reading solely positive reviews is often not as instructive as fuller critiques. By learning what’s not good, we learn what is. Because of the fallout, negative literary reviewing is done privately, if at all, via gossip. At that reading, the teacher in me was irked—both that the writer didn’t realize how bad the piece is and that an editor had chosen it for publication. I had encouraged my students to attend that reading. Looking around and seeing them there in the audience, I worried that they thought I endorsed the work.
Alongside a plethora of venues and a paucity of critique is the assumption that creative writing is a form of expression, not a form of thought. We imagine it’s unfair to criticize personal experience. Who are we to challenge what the writer felt? This is akin to challenging someone’s taste for a specific food and is based on the assumption that feelings are not learned. That they are inviolable, like a taste (or not) for chocolate. Yet woven with feelings that are in fact learned is an argument that must be questioned, especially when its assumptions affect all of us. Perhaps that’s the difference between my judgments about food and my judgments about literature. My not eating at Stoneground restricts the offense to a few friends. My silence at a piece that lumps the experience of enslaved people together with that of a privileged white woman goes beyond the personal.
The ancient Greeks and Romans routinely hissed and booed performances they did not like. Today it’s rare for audiences to make any negative reaction. At poetry slams, racism or sexism in a piece might be booed, but even then, the stage is a largely protected space, a place for praise. We come to readings to provide community for the writer, hoping for, in Horace’s words, instruction or delight. Although we might get neither, we still applaud at the end.
In Quaker circles, the reading might have been treated to silent reflection, as applause inappropriately focuses on the individual’s ego. In US literary circles, being nice is more important than being truthful, and silence seems rude. Or perhaps booing or withholding applause—especially when writing has been published—is just too late.
While more than a few of the readings I attend offer self-indulgent or trite work, even those writers tend to be cautious with the subjects of gender and class, not leaping to the conclusion that “we are all women” or “we are all proletarian” in an attempt to establish solidarity. By contrast, “we are all slaves” is a flash point. Yet for every Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who recently wondered if blacks were “better off” during slavery, there are a thousand people whose misguided ideas about race receive polite applause.
When creative writers are offered only praise, including the default praise of publication, they aren’t pushed to improve. By contrast, at a Toastmasters’ meeting, the audience gives feedback on both argument and delivery. Similarly, a scholar’s argument and its assumptions would be rigorously questioned by more than one person due to the critical response built into both scholarly conference presentations and peer-reviewed publication. Beyond literature, restaurant reviews in large cities with a demanding clientele offer a chef honest—and often negative—critique. Yet aside from these it is becoming less and less appropriate to offer negative reviews in public spaces.
Once I hosted a famous poet and good cook who, at the reception in her honor, took the trouble to tell me that the kiwi fruit was not ripe and therefore she would not eat it. I was taken aback by what seemed like gratuitous rudeness, but perhaps she needed to let me know her standards for kiwis. Her reputation as a connoisseur was on the line. In her seventies, with a lifetime of practice bucking social niceties, she might also have had the courage to speak to someone whose essay she disagreed with. Commenting on the food at a reception is not the same as sending it back in a restaurant. In restaurants, the chef needs to know when someone doesn’t like the food or when there’s something wrong with it. Years ago, at what was then Utah’s best restaurant, I ordered a sour cherry sorbet. Tasting it, I noticed it had been made with salt instead of sugar. When I called the waiter over to tell him, he said, “No. That can’t be.” I had to insist he take it back to the kitchen. I cite this gross example of feedback to make the point that sometimes cooks make mistakes.
Recently I performed a new poem of my own, in the form of a letter addressed to Caitlyn Jenner. I question her use of traditionally feminine artifacts to construct her “normalcy.” The poem quotes Jenner, and I worried that she was too easy a target. I wondered how to signal her words while reading the poem. I lowered my voice during the quotes, feeling uneasy about this choice, but I announced that I welcomed feedback. Afterward, a colleague and a student told me, separately, that I should not embody a trans person by lowering my voice. Of course! The moment I heard that correction, I realized its truth. If I read the poem in public again, I’ll make quotation marks with my fingers to signal Cait’s sentences. Or maybe I won’t read that poem again; maybe it’s a poem for the page—or I’ll decide it needs a major revision or should be tossed into the trash.
“There is nothing permanent except change,” said Heraclitus. Stoneground has a new chef. The Mainos have gone out of the chocolate business. Perhaps the writer of “we are all slaves” realizes her error, despite the fact that one of her Amazon reader reviews praises this exact insight.
As for me, six years after that birthday celebration, I take a deep breath and look away when I see someone using the dangerous knee machine at the gym. I’m more conscious about when I perform my knowledge of food. I try not to hurt someone’s feelings, but I won’t eat what I don’t want to eat. I’d rather not go than pretend enjoyment, and Laura understands this. On the other hand, when there’s something more important than food involved, I try to be less cautious. When I published a bit of my reaction to “we are all slaves” as a blog post, one man called it “passive-aggressive.” Yes. Because I didn’t have the nerve to say something to the essayist, I’m thinking through my lack of performance at that moment with the essay you are reading. I could excise my discussion of that reading and make this essay solely about food, less obviously political than literature. I could name the writer and make my disagreement public, but that would focus more on her lapse than my own.
I don’t want to waste the time that I have left on earth, either by eating food I don’t like or by holding my tongue in cowardice. Or by hurting people’s feelings. We live in a world where genetically modified food and “fake facts” require us to judge them, and to speak when it could make a difference in someone else’s life. What good is knowledge if it doesn’t teach us how to live? What could be more important than doing the right thing, whatever that might be? ☐