Openings are important in any piece of writing, but they’ve always struck me as particularly important to critical writing.
Why? Well, because critical writing bears the burden of always being about something else, often something readers have heard of and formed an opinion about. And if the audience isn’t interested in whatever that something else is—particularly if they aren’t interested—then the writer’s already at a disadvantage.
No matter how well-written, how insightful, and how compelling your piece about Avatar may be, if your reader isn’t into Avatar, then you might be out of luck.
This is where the lede—yes lede, spelled journalistically; I prefer it to lead, with its less precise spelling—comes in. The lede, in combination with the piece’s title, is where the writer hooks her reader. Additionally, a good lede can act as a sort of map to the piece, indicating the style, if not always the substance, of the writing that follows it. Per John McPhee, who unfortunately prefers lead, a good lede “is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows.”
Because it’s difficult to explain exactly how to hook a reader, especially in critical writing where the subject changes all of the time, here are some examples of different types of ledes writers have used to reel in their audience. Show, don’t tell.
First up, Roger Ebert on Conan the Barbarian (1982):
Not since Bambi’s mother was killed has there been a cannier movie for kids than Conan the Barbarian. It’s not supposed to be just a kids’ movie, of course, and I imagine a lot of other moviegoers will like it. I liked a lot of it myself, and with me, a few broadswords and leather jerkins go a long way. But Conan is a perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent.
Now here’s Pitchfork on Bonnie Prince Billy’s 1999 album I See a Darkness, which earned a rare 10/10 rating:
Music is a wounded, corrupted, vile, halfbreed mutt that begs for attention as it scratches at your door. You let it in and give in a warm place to reside. It licks its paws and whimpers for store-bought snacks. You tolerate the fact that it shits all over your lovely Persian rugs because it seems so cute and vulnerable. It becomes your center for a while. Time passes, and it learns no new tricks. You begin to grow apart. It shuffles about in the background while you microwave your popcorn, and while you’re vaguely aware of it, it seems less important to you.
Finally, here’s the opening of Kingsley Amis’ 1959 review of Lolita—the piece is titled “She Was a Child and I Was a Child.” Forgive the length of this quote, but Amis takes a while to get to his point:
Few books published in this country since the King James Bible can have set up more eager expectation than Lolita, nor, on the other hand, can any work have been much better known in advance to its potential audience. The interest of this first British issue, indeed, is likely to be less in what the thing is actually like—you and I had already got hold of it somehow, hadn’t we?—than in what ‘they’ will say about it. ‘They’ in this case covers a far wider spectrum than usual, all the way from the inevitable big-review-plus-leader-plus-interminable-correspondence in The Times Literary Supplement to the stern clashes of personality and taste round the local Boots counter; and somewhere in the middle will come Richard Hoggart, Cassandra, Lord Montgomery, two or three bishops, Dame Edith Sitwell, the chairman of the Bournemouth East Conservative Association, Dr. Bronowski, Professor Ayer, John O’London, Mr. Bevan and every last one of the couple of hundred thousand people in Britain who have, or can scrounge, access to some public medium. It is encouraging to see all this concern for a book of serious literary pretension, even if some of the concern, while serious enough, is not literary in the way we ordinarily think of it. One would be even more encouraged if the book in question were not so thoroughly bad in both senses: bad as a work of art, that is, and morally bad—though certainly not obscene or pornographic.
What we have here in these three examples are quite different methods for approaching one’s lede.
Ebert’s is the most straightforward, even if he’s a being playful by referring to Conan—an R-rated movie in which multiple people are beheaded and a drunken Arnold Schwarzenegger punches a camel—as a movie for children.
The Pitchfork lede, meanwhile, is entirely a setup for the first line of the next paragraph: “I’m firmly convinced that Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new record, I See a Darkness is not music.” This is a tricky strategy, because one can easily lose one’s readers with such a meandering opening. However, in this case the writer is assisted by the “grade” that precedes the review. I See a Darkness received a 10, so who wouldn’t want to read on to see why?
And Amis, well, Amis’s long opening is extremely literary and verbose (establishing his bonafides), which verbosity sets up for and leads to his unpopular opinion that Lolita is bad (it’s not; Amis is wrong). Amis could have cut to the chase much earlier, but by outlining the issues and excitement that surrounded Lolita’s publication, he grabs the reader by the ear prior to delivering the news that what you’re about to read, reader, is a spicy, smoking hot take. And who doesn’t love a good take or two?
To learn more about ledes and critical writing, join me for my six-session class, Writing Critical Essays and Reviews, beginning Monday, October 28.
Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works in publishing. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions.
A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he is an active literary and arts critic. Publications where his criticism has appeared include Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, where he is a regular contributor. His work is currently supported by a grant from 4Culture.