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.