On trimming the quotes

The author and an unidentified woman with bad taste

The author and an unidentified woman with bad taste

One of the dark arts I learned as an English major was how to trim a quote. You write an English paper by thinking of an argument and then finding quotes in the text to support it. Your reader will encounter these quotes in the context of your argument, not the original material, so it’s important to crop and frame them in a way that makes sense. Like karate or bagpipes, this skill can be used for good but easily bends to evil. I present Madeleine Holden’s essay in Wondering Sound, Women Don’t Collect Music to Impress You, Dan Brooks.

It’s kind of a straw man.1 Holden’s thesis, if you will, is that my “grievances about Spotify and women” are elitist and misogynist. It’s elitist to think that streaming all music to everybody is a bad thing. It’s misogynist to suggest that “women simply [have] crap taste in music.”

The problem is that neither of those ideas is stated explicitly in the original essay. As the author of said essay, I don’t think they’re in there at all, but now I’m committing the intentional fallacy. What the author wanted to do does not matter; we’re talking about what the text does. Without speculating on his intentions, however, one can cite textual evidence that suggests Brooks does not “bemoan the way in which previously obscure and inaccessible music has been made widely available since the rise of streaming sites and mp3s.”2 For example:

“The good news is that digital distribution neatly solved Albini’s problem with music: Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along.”3

One ready interpretation of this passage is that Brooks considers digital distribution good news. In order to refute Brooks as “a male music nerd who is disappointed that decent music has been democratized,”4 Holden must steer away from that interpretation and quote the text in a way that implies elitism. She must trim the quotes to fit her argument.

Here is Holden’s longest quote from the original text:

“I once attended a party at the home of a poetry professor who, in her meticulous preparations, happened to leave out one CD: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines. Any other album would have revealed her taste, but instead she had only shown that she understood what our kind liked.”5

That’s a pretty mean way to talk about a poetry professor. Holden quotes almost the entire paragraph, but she cuts out the first sentence—what journalists and composition teachers sometimes call the topic sentence. Here’s the full paragraph, including the first sentence, as it appears in Brooks:

“The translation of musical taste to social acceptance was in many ways terrifyingly complex and arbitrary. I once attended a party at the home of a poetry professor who, in her meticulous preparations, happened to leave out one CD: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines. Any other album would have revealed her taste, but instead she had only shown that she understood what our kind liked.”6

The restored first sentence informs the rest of the paragraph, suggesting that Brooks might find such snobbery “terrifyingly complex and arbitrary.” This portion of the quote undermines Holden’s claim that the essay is pro-snob, so she wisely omits it.

A filleted quote becomes more versatile when you can embed it in a sentence of your own. By combining quotation and summary, Holden introduces new words to the source material that add elements of misogyny and elitism. Here is how she summarizes the last sentence of Brooks P10:

“Years later, when he and his friends discussed the ‘powerful and surely arbitrary forces’ that had kept them single in college, they deduced that it was because women simply had crap taste in music, and that it had nothing to do with the fact that they were insufferable elitist bores.”7

Compare to the full sentence from the original text:

“Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that ‘into music’ was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.”8

Holden repeats the first half of the sentence almost verbatim, then summarizes the second half using language from her thesis. Trimming and then larding the quote in this way allows her to present Brooks’s original claim—that liking music could be a very important quality in a mate—as a different argument: that women have poor taste in music. Her summary adds the words “women,” “crap taste,” and “elitist” to the original,9 so that the text appears to advance the same argument she is refuting.

Internet wags have suggested that Holden misunderstood Brooks’s original text, but her skillful trimming of quotes shows she understands it well. What it does not show is why she responded so strongly. Elitism and misogyny may well be present in Brooks’s essay, but they are not present in the textual evidence she has mustered. I encourage Holden to apply her skill at quotation to an argument that more directly engages the source.

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  1. Holden’s essay reeks of fear and fury over “being judged”; this is what she criticizes you for, Dan — judging the poor girls in your path. But she also says she doesn’t care that men have judged her. It’s a little hard to believe, given what she’s complaining about.
    Of course, our culture’s revilement of “judging” is a bit odd; discerning who to befriend and who to bang is part of living in any mass of more than 12 people. But there *is* something particularly gendered about judging/fear of it. Women feel themselves under scrutiny all the time, and under pressure to respond to the judging, whereas men generally just fart and put on their bullshit ska albums. That is a sad state of affairs, and perhaps the one that Holden meant to or should have responded to.

  2. Hmm, I’m having too much fun watching Dan use his supreme writing skills and dizzying intellect to squirm out of what is likely the result of revealing a little bit what lays deep down under the surface of his carefully crafted, ghost-costumed exterior.

    Too much time in the mirror on this one Dan? It’s ok, I’ll join you there and cringe at myself too. Not before I try to like what I see though.

  3. So re that Poetry Prof bit, were you being tongue in cheek in calling her gutless for leaving only a Malkmus cd out? Maybe she just likes him (he is fond of poetry). If everyone is misinterpreting you, perhaps you are being less than clear.

    Also, you are in your thirties now, haven’t you realized that some people might like both Kesha AND the Slits? Or maybe Kesha and Miguel and blues and other non-rock? Or maybe just books, and yes no music. Shocking …

  4. No, dude, that had not occurred to me. I’ve always assumed that each person only likes one band. It’s the same way that you either like Spotify or you don’t; liking some things about it and disliking other things is inconceivable.

  5. It is unusual for a person to write with more clarity and style than I can think, but Dan and Mose have achieved that here. Unfortunately, the other commentators and Holden have either missed or deliberately misunderstood the self-effacing narrative in Dan’s music piece. It felt clear enough to me, through the following sentences, that the author of the music piece was exploring the transition from a benighted past to an uncertain future (emphasis mine):

    “when my friends and I discussed the powerful and _surely arbitrary_ forces that had kept us single, we _toyed with_ the idea that ______”
    “everyone can finally listen to what we _snobs_ wanted them to hear all along.”
    “The translation of musical taste to social acceptance was in many ways _terrifyingly complex and arbitrary_.”

    You have to ignore his self-judgment to think he’s a male music nerd who is disappointed. But someone needs to be outraged, it’s what the talking heads and opinion pages teach.

  6. Hi Dan. I read your article and I thought you articulated pretty perfectly how I’ve also felt for a while. I went to write a comment on NYT to that point but got distracted by the impressive backlash. How your commentary on shared interests and social interactions could be construed into a personally offensive vendetta against people that occasionally like to stream Katy Perry is hard to grasp. You could substitute New Kids on the Block for any obscure band you mentioned and the point would have remained the same: shared interests in real time lead to relationships with real people. I’m a little worried about the commenters who think Googling up some friends who overlap in your Venn diagram of interests is an equally valuable substitution for, like, life.

    But what I would have said in the comments is this: Even more than my relationships with other people, streaming music has left me adrift from myself. I was born in 1984, which means that I started to become an actual active listener of music by, let’s say, 1995. Which is to say, I would hear a song on the radio that I liked, wait long enough for the DJ to give me some rudimentary information about the band, check out their album by listening to a few tracks through some greasy headphones at a Sam Goody or Tower Records, save up my allowance to buy a CD that cost $18.99, and then have to make a decision because that was going to be it for the month. It was an involved process that I’m sure you share. (Ironically, I bet your critics are big fans of the value of a dollar.) I have very distinct memories of spending hours of my preadolescent years sitting on my twin bed with headphones on (connected to my boom box with a CD PLAYER!) reading the liner notes as I listened to an album from beginning to end (plus bonus tracks – ‘member those?). This was an important, identity-shaping part of my youth. I learned lyrics by heart. I listened to all parts of a song. I developed a taste for what I liked and what I valued. And I defined myself with those details. Which then in turn helped build relationships, etc. as you mentioned.

    Digital music became mainstream when I was in high school. Napster made it possible to own almost anything; money wasn’t an obstacle anymore. But the process was (relatively) labor intensive. You still had to choose carefully if you were going to tie up your parents’ dial-up connection downloading a seedy, broken version of a song. There was still a process.

    During and after college, iTunes became the only act in town. Music became easier to obtain, which led to amassing a lot of unfortunate top 40 and worse, all “just in case we needed a party mix.” But there was still a component of ownership. Everyone had a collection of music that was still specific to his person.

    Which brings us to today: If I like a song, I Shazam it. I make something of a mental note, but no need to commit anything to memory because my iPhone will do that for me. I may download that song later, but probably not because I already pay for a streaming service. When I turn the streaming service on, I’m suggested what I should like by a computer that’s been tracking my ongoings and whereabouts. I may listen to something new, but what pains me most of all is that I probably won’t listen to all 3:30 minutes before I’m onto the next. Because why not? There’s so much and it’s so easy and nothing demands our undivided attention anymore. And to listen to a whole album in the order it was carefully selected? Or read the lyrics? Forget it. Our children won’t even know what album artwork is.

    What I think you were really talking about, and here’s where I think you readers got lost, is that the digital music era doesn’t just muddy the waters between indie music elitists and light country listeners. It breaks down the wall between those who write “music” as a hobby on their resumes (which I did at one point in my life) and those that listen to “whatever is on the radio.” It robs us of the experience of being active participants (“I play an instrument,” “I go to shows,” “this is IMPORTANT TO ME”) to instead be a generation of only passive listeners. It’s the difference between people who wear sweaters and those that fucking KNIT them. I’m not a snob, but I’m just not going to like a sweater purchased at the Gap as much as the one I spent 6 months making myself. Having all music from all time tucked away in a small portable phone waiting at the ready on my coffee table would have sounded like a really terrific idea to my insatiable 14-year-old self. But there’s no process anymore. So then, who am I?

    Anyway, good talk. I thought your piece was great.

  7. Sorry I got snippy there, guys, and thank you Julie for your thoughtful response. I don’t think of myself as a person who disdains women, so that criticism got to me, but so does the selective interpretation of irony. The sentences none of the takedown pieces mention—the pull quote in the print edition, for Pete’s sake—are these:

    “We embraced art and rejected a major-label system that cared only about selling records. Oddly, we expressed our position by buying records. The problem with my life as an anticorporate bohemian was that it was predicated on a consumer behavior.”

    I think that pretty directly problematizes the indie-snob identity that Holden et al. claim I am defending. And as Attempt pointed out, I think the essay maintains a self-deprecating/-lacerating tone throughout. It’d better, because I did that shit on purpose. Anywhom, I am less crazy re: intentional misreading now. That kind of pious outrage powers a lot of writing on the internet, and new writing is always a good thing. Even when it is about what a jerk I am.

    Also, if you like schadenfreude and would like to get a sense of how Holden writes about subjects other than me, there’s this piece in Vice:


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