“A Long, Deadly Release of Flatulence”: The Year’s Foulest Lede?

By Jack Limpert

Here’s the lede of a book review on the front page of the Style section in today’s Washington Post; the book is The Sympathizer, a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen that opens with helicopters evacuating the last Americans from Saigon as the Vietnam war was ending.

“Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind.”

As an editor, I always tried to avoid inflicting vomiting, farting, or other bodily functions on the reader unless it was crucial to the story, which it almost never was. In this case, the reviewer, Ron Charles, is trying to be funny about a situation that was one of the saddest days in American history.

I asked Tom Kunkel, author Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, if he thought Ross or William Shawn would have allowed that kind of lede in the New Yorker. “No,” he said, “that almost literally smells.”

Another longtime editor didn’t hate the lede as much as I did: “It might have worked if the story subject were light, but the last days in Vietnam were anything but.”

A dissent from a younger editor I worked with who doesn’t remember the Vietnam war as vividly as I do: “This doesn’t bother me so much because of the Frequent Wind joke (and the politeness of the word ‘flatulence’). It’s funny—but I remember your distaste for such words (which I do try to avoid when it’s distracting or off-putting).”


  1. The lede of the April 5th New York Times review, by Philip Caputo, of The Sympathizer:

    “The more powerful a country is, the more disposed its people will be to see it as the lead actor in the sometimes farcical, often tragic pageant of history. So it is that we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and elephants was mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras.”

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