Magazine article The Spectator

Crime and Punishment

Magazine article The Spectator

Crime and Punishment

Article excerpt

Nit-picking often stems from loathing, not from a passion for accuracy, warns Michael Tanner There used to be a game of conjugating 'irregular' verbs along the lines of 'I am sensitive, you are irritable, he is touchy'. One I don't recall circulating, but which I have been forced to conjugate recently, runs 'I am a precisionist, you are a pedant, he is a nit-picker'.

I have been thinking about nit-picking because it is so very annoying, yet also so difficult to distinguish from the virtue of accuracy. I have come across two things in particular which have made me try to find some general criteria for making the distinction. One was a letter complaining about a Spectator article of mine, in which I got the forenames of an anti-Wagnerian scholar the wrong way round, and also said that a television programme in which he appeared was one in a series of eight, when I should have said seven. The complainer wondered how `this sort of slovenliness and factual inaccuracy' could help The Spectator's sales or `encourage constructive controversy'.

I have mixed feelings about that. I was vexed with myself for getting those things wrong, especially since both would have been easy to check - it was just that I had felt confident that I had got them right. But I wonder how much my inaccuracies either warped the judgment of readers or, if they spotted them, made them feel that The Spectator is a useless rag.

The other experience which made me think about nit-picking was going, a few days ago, to Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, with its extraordinarily inward portrayal of A.E. Housman. He was, of course, one of the great nit-pickers of scholarship, deliberately choosing very minor writers to edit because there was more hope of getting them exactly right; and composing those notorious prefaces in which previous editors are torn to shreds for their misreadings. That is the gospel of scholarship, a self-sustaining discipline which is not justified by any results other than an allegedly perfect text which hardly anyone could wish to read.

Auden, in his sonnet on Housman, has as the first four lines of the sestet,

In savage footnotes on unjust editions He timidly attacked the life he led.

And put the money of his feelings on

The uncritical relations of the dead.

Which seems to me as acute a commentary on the psychology of nit-picking as we are likely to get: the huge displacement involved, so that the true source of misery and rage is treated in a quite different way from the trivial slips which occasion the furious outbursts; and the implicit notion, in the first two of the quoted lines, that Housman despised what he was doing so much that he did it to perfection; that is a profound insight of Auden's. Perhaps what justifies an ascription of nit-picking as opposed to a passion for precision is that the amount of emotional energy expounded is grotesquely out of proportion to the alleged offence; indeed, and what makes Housman so exemplary, it is the very minuteness of the cause which gives the thrill to the violence of denunciation. It is the explosion itself which is what's needed, and if there were adequate grounds for it the required relief wouldn't be forthcoming.

That, at least, is my conjecture about the causation of nit-picking. Samuel Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare, has others, and expresses them immortally: `It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed . …

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