Approaching Serial

One of the most important aspects of a piece of writing is, time and time again, the author’s voice. When reading a piece of writing, the presence of the author’s voice depends on factors such as the level of skill involved, the subject, and even a little subjectivity on the readers’ part. But Sarah Koenig, in narrating her podcast Serial, ensures that her voice is quite literally present throughout the story at the cost of losing our interpretation of certain aspects. The question of the value of narration, either to the bane or benefit to the overall story, comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Koenig tells Adnan that the podcast is made to bring a certain type of life to the story. We get to hear her voice alongside the voices of those who were interviewed. This is a powerful tool; it reminds us that these are real people and not simply letters on the page. Just by hearing them speak Koenig gives them characterization outside of the reach of traditional writing. Just as powerful as the voices in the foreground is the music in the background which subtly manipulates the way our minds react to the information. The music sneaks in almost completely under the radar but we feel its effects coupled with Koenig’s narration: increased suspense, relief, a sharp pause to leave us thinking. Whatever Koenig wants us to feel, she can amplify it using the soundtrack.

Adnan’s preference is reading the manuscript, approaching it as if it were a traditional piece of nonfiction. The advantage here is that his interpretation is the dominant one in his reading; the “life” that Koenig argues her narration brings to the table is left to the mercy of the skill of her writing, of her presentation of the case. All readers get this benefit as well by choosing the manuscript over the podcast. But while we are free from Koenig’s possible biases or the manipulations of the music, our own biases come through. In our mind, characters sound how we believe they sound instead of how they really sound (I may be the only one surprised by how nice of a guy Adnon is despite his thick city accent, an admitted bias of my own, or how villainous Jay sounds while being interrogated contrasted with how innocent he sounds during the trial) and if a reader is blasting death metal in their headphones while reading they are going to have very different reactions to the scenes than someone hearing Koenig’s atmospheric music in the background.

The approach one takes when taking Adnan’s story in, either through manuscript or podcast, affect reactions or emotional responses to particular scenes but I’d argue that neither route is inherently better. The characters’ voices do breathe in life to the story and allow them a depth they may have otherwise missed out on but we must also be on our toes to avoid being led on by Koenig’s narration. On the other hand, by eliminating Koenig’s voice and the atmospheric music readers are open to stronger interpretations but are plagued by their own biases that come along with those stronger interpretations. For me, I prefer the podcast. Hearing the characters speak for themselves change the stakes for me and the reinforcement of reality is pivotal to the story in my reading (or rather, listening) and that’s the most effective way for me to remember it. Ultimately, it is comparable to talking to a friend over the phone or through letters: both have benefits but both have drawbacks and at the end of the day it falls into the readers’ personal preferences on how to best experience Serial.

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