Quote? Unquote?

I’m reading and very much enjoying a book by Jane Errington called The Lion, The Eagle and Upper Canada: a developing colonial ideology.  The book was awarded the Corey Prize in 1988, a prize for the best book on Canadian-US relations, jointly sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Canadian Historical Association.  Reviews that I have read about the book at time of publication have not been universally glowing, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless, oblivious as I am at this stage of the nuances of US-Canadian historiography and politics.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that she does not use block quotes but instead snips them up and integrates them into a paragraph. For example:

On 3 June 1814 Rev John Strachan preached a Thanksgiving Service to his congregation in York celebrating the deliverance of Great Britain from the devastating conflict in Europe. “Thankfully and devoutly” he declared, we “acknowledge the mercy and goodness of Almighty God; for protecting His Majesty and His dominions during the whole of this arduous contest; and for the signal and glorious victories obtained by its armies.” “Our joy is full,” he continued, “when we reflect that … Great Britain has been chiefly instrumental, through the blessings of God, in bringing about the happy changes which we now contemplate.” “Truly” she was “the preserver of the independence of Europe” and “the proclamation of peace,” he declared, would triumphantly bring her to “a new era of glory.” And though peace had yet to be won in North America, Strachan called upon Upper Canadians to “rejoice”. We have earned “the happiest time…now rising upon us,” he maintained. (p.97)

This quote is duly footnoted as “Strachan, A Sermon Preached at York on the third day of June, Being the Day Appointed for General Thanksgiving, 1814, 22-3, 38, 34.  It reads smoothly, and it’s only when you look closely that you notice the rather clunky double inverted commas.

Still, I find myself a little uneasy about it.  It reminds me of the technique of “The Week” magazine, to which I subscribe largely because of the generous discount for subscriptions.  As a way of distilling the essence of commentary (and perhaps to avoid copyright issues), the magazine likewise uses snippets of sentences in inverted commas, although sometimes I wonder why they choose such banal words to highlight in this way. For example, it summarizes Rex Jory’s column from “The Advertiser” in this way:

The perfect monopoly has struck again, says Rex Jory. The price of postage stamps “crept up” 5c to 60c last week, and what could we do about it? Nothing.  This is preposterous and outrageous. It’s bad enough that Australia Post can charge “pretty much what it likes” but it also “contemptuously” refuses to provide a weekend service.   etc etc.

Errington’s integration of snippets into a prose summary probably does justice to the sentiments expressed- possibly better than verbatim slabs would have done, but I feel wary- what if she’s misrepresenting what is said?  Although, short of slavishly writing out the whole document, how is any reader to know that paragraphs are not chosen selectively and skewed by ellipses and omissions?

I think, too, of the advice given in Ann McGrath and Ann Curthoy’s recent book How to Write History that People Want to Read that examiners and readers always skip over slab quotes anyway.  Do they? Do I?  I must admit that I think I do sometimes.  I think I’m looking for the analysis rather than the evidence.  Yet the fear of plagiarism or sloppiness prods me into backing myself up when I am writing, even though I don’t always read the evidence when somebody else backs themselves up the same way.  Errington’s technique weaves the analysis and evidence together in a way where it is less easy to skip.  I think I like it, but I’m still not sure.  A little writing challenge to meet, I’m sure.

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4 responses to “Quote? Unquote?

  1. I skim read slabs of quotes and if there is something there that interests me, I go back. In your postage stamps quote, I got to ‘nothing’ and glimpsed the next sentence and I reckon correctly summed up it was an old person’s rant at the what he or she remembers as the PMG who delivered mail twice a day and once on Saturdays.

    You are right though, integrating quotes into what you are writing gives you ‘interpretation options’. Only one word needs to be changed that is not even in the quote for it to mean something entirely different.

  2. This is an interesting one. Block quotes are less succesful in writing because they make people stop by breaking the flow. But they also provide better accuracy. I used block quotes in my PhD thesis, but in more recent writing I tend to use them less, to try to keep people reading.

  3. Your post has raised some interesting questions. I have started incorporating this style in my writing recently. However I agree with your concerns. I think of this technique as interpretation rather than quoting because the writer is selectively using the quote to support their argument. This method does not allow the subject to speak directly to the reader.

    I think there is a place for both the block method and this interpretive method of quoting, however I think the latter should be used sparingly. Errington’s use of the interpretive method of quoting is overdone. I found myself getting annoyed at how the writer was continually inserting her voice rather than allowing me to hear the subject properly. To be fair it is an excerpt and if I had read the preceding text I may have a different opinion.

    I prefer to restrict my intervention to just once in aquote. In the extract you have provided I would use a block style. Unlike Andrew I don’t skip block quotes – I enjoy getting a chance to hear what the subject has to say.

  4. Pingback: ‘The Lion, the Eagle and Upper Canada’ by Jane Errington « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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