Monday, November 09, 2015

`A Real Urge to Persist'

In journalese, a “lede” is the first sentence of a news story, intended either to encapsulate what’s to come (the fabled “inverted pyramid”) or, in the case of a feature, seduce the reader into consuming it. Long before I went to work for my first newspaper in the nineteen-seventies, the lede had been fetishized and romanticized. With a crafty lede, you could hypnotize a reader – or so went the newsroom mythology. According to pulp wisdom, a good lede was short and “punchy.” After all, with each word you added to the lede, your readership plummeted – such was newspaper gospel. An editor once showed me a graph correlating sentence length and readership – a line of Alpine descent. The same editor claimed the average newspaper consumer read with fifth-grade proficiency. As a result, reporters sweated ledes. I knew some unable to proceed with the body of the story before they crafted those opening words of deathless prose. Others could write a serviceable lede but the rest of the story was a mess. Lazy reporters, of course, would open with a question rather than proposing an answer: “So, what happens when the members of the Ditch Maintenance Board can’t agree on sedimentation removal?” (I covered such a body.)

Simon Leys in “Overtures” (The Hall of Uselessness, 2013) notices something comparable in works of literature. His own lede is devoted to Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and its famous opening sentence: “The human race to which so many of my readers belong . . .” Leys recalls the first time he read Chesterton’s lede, in a bookstore: “I bought the book on the spot and left the shop in a hurry. The sight of an old man laughing loudly all by himself in a public place can be somewhat disconcerting, and I did not wish to disturb the other customers.” Leys can admire the skill of a writer like Chesterton, the enviable way he compels a reader to go on reading, without entirely endorsing the strategy. He cites the amusing and much-admired lede of Earthly Powers (1980) by Anthony Burgess: It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” I read the novel for the first time last year, and Leys voices my reaction precisely: 

“For Earthly Powers, Burgess contrived an opening that was striking indeed; the only problem was precisely that it was contrived, and that is probably why, in the end, it could not provoke, in this reader at least, a real urge to persist.” 

As Leys elegantly puts it, “this weighty volume has been majestically gathering dust on my shelves, still unread after nineteen years,” and he goes on to oppose the formulaic lede to the inspired. In theory, Leys and I have nothing against ledes that hook the reader. It’s the follow-through that poses problems. He recounts the obviously masterful and memorable openings to novels by Tolstoy, Melville, Dickens and L.P. Hartley, but their openings are not detachable. The subsequent text flows naturally out of them. Leys offers an interesting if slightly romanticized explanation: 

“Some writers find the initial spark in words, others in ideas, and others again in an image—an inner vision. The latter are perhaps the quintessential fiction writers. For them, very often, writing is an obsessive activity, sometimes performed as in a trance, and generally conducted under the blind dictation of their subconscious. Writing is the safety valve that preserves their very sanity; if they did not write, they would hardly survive.” 

My preference is for novels and stories that seem to begin with inconsequence, the way some of Chekhov’s stories end. This approach is true to life. We understand the significance of events only in retrospect, whether minutes have lapsed or decades. Here is a favorite, deceptively casual, subtly portentous opening by Henry James, from The Golden Bowl (1904): “The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they had left by the Tiber.” Leys doesn’t mention this novel but describes the effectiveness of its lede: “. . . there are masterpieces that begin in a more inconspicuous manner, and it is only in hindsight that their low-keyed openings have come to acquire the magical resonance they have for us today.”

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