Are You Listening?

Have you ever been sitting peacefully on your bed in your room, when your mother or father enters unexpectedly with a demoralizing speech at hand about how you failed to do a simple chore like taking out the trash or cleaning the cat’s litter-box? If you do, try to remember their tone of voice. It wasn’t pleasant, was it? In cases such as this, an authority figure uses inflections in his or her vowhisper-in-earice in order to inspire feelings of negativity, guilt, and sorrow in their audience (you). Although in this case the use of the voice is being used to carry out a punishment, it is used in an unbelievable variety, everywhere you look.

When a movie producer scouts talent for a movie, they study the ability of actors and actresses to use their  facial expressions, body expressions, and voices. Just like parts of the body, the voice is an expressive tool used to display an unlimited amount of emotions and feelings. This is something that Sarah Koenig uses to her advantage in Serial. Koenig’s inclusion of various characters and their voices allows her listeners to hear the emotions of her subjects in the truest nature. The audience of Serial needs little imagination in order to comprehend and enjoy the podcast fully. But does Sarah do this in order to establish a story that’s  unique, or is it just her intention to project her own feelings to the story?

When Sarah uses these hauntingly realistic samples of characters in her podcast, she keeps the story in her control, choosing carefully from her arsenal of dialogues. Along with projecting the emotions of the characters in the story, Koenig constantly interacts with her audience, subtly sneaking her emotions into the listener’s head.

Now the real question is: is it better to be overloaded with true emotion, or rather leave the interpretation of emotion up to the reader? Whether you are reading the manuscript of Serial by the fireplace with a cup of cocoa, or on a train listening to the sweet voice of Sarah Koenig whilst admiring the scenery of the earth from your tiny window-seat view, you will be entrapped by the case of Adnan. Isn’t this the purpose of a good story?

With the debate on if tTrainman.jpghe inclusion of a literal narrative voice in storytelling is better or not, I am still indifferent. Everyone has a mind that is their own and unique to themselves. While one audience may enjoy little effort and interpretation in the story they are choosing to divulge themselves into, another may prefer to look at the story from a perspective that is their own. Reading text on a page gives the reader an ability to interpret the story in whichever way they choose, receiving minimal emotional bias from the storyteller.

This is, in my personal opinion, why hard-copy books will never be abolished. Listening to an audiobook or podcast is far superior in terms of efficiency and effort, but it cannot compete (once again in my opinion), with the joy a reader feels while attempting to decode the character’s true nature that the author intended to give them.

Serial epitomizes the word “creative” when used to describe nonfiction, and is a work of CNF that represents how the genre, when executed well, can be extremely successful in enticing its audience and describing a story in the realest sense.

2 thoughts on “Are You Listening?

  1. Jackson Lathrop

    For the most part, I definitely find myself agreeing with a lot of the points made. However, I disagree with the part about Koenig influencing the audience’s opinion. I think that she really tries to remain objective throughout the podcast. There are obviously some instances where her opinion is so blatant, but that is impossible to avoid no matter what. Every always has some sort of bias when telling a story, especially a true story.

    Going off the comment about physically holding a book compared to listening to a podcast/audiobook, I wholeheartedly agree. I listen to NPR sometimes so I understand the draw of the medium, but there will never be a time in my life where I won’t want to read a physical book. It would be interesting if “Serial” were turned into a book.

  2. Dillon Murphy

    Looking at Sarah Koenig not just as a creative nonfiction writer but as a journalist by trade, I’m not sure just how much she allowed herself (or was allowed by her producers) to put in too much emotional guidance for the purpose of leading the readers on. Granted, her ever-present defense of Adnan is that she likes him, she thinks he’s a good guy, and I can’t help but take her word for it– I too see Adnan as a genuinely nice person thanks to her constantly reassuring me of it. But on the other hand, she also doesn’t withhold information that could be possibly damning for Adnan’s case. Not only do we hear about the letters that could have possibly provided a rock-solid alibi fifteen years ago but we hear about all the problems with his story, the cell phone records that don’t quite make sense, the money he stole from his mosque. Though Koenig sometimes puts Adnan on a pedestal she also brings light to the possibility that he’s lying.

    And while Koenig’s inflections are used with superb skill to guide the plot along at a good pace, she often lets characters speak for themselves. These characters are given a chance to voice their own emotions, free of her manipulation, at least in most cases. It is worth noting that sometimes Koenig will narrate a conversation herself, though whether this is due to the original recording being hard to understand, for her to paraphrase, or even perhaps to twist the inflections and possibly the meanings of the words used is unclear. Not helping Koenig’s case on this subject is the fact that she made a habit of re-recording her half of the recorded conversations. Once again, her intentions aren’t made explicit, but making the sound clearer or changing inflections of words used are both viable options.

    Let’s go back to Koenig not just as a writer but as a journalist– and a good one at that. Her job, her source of income, is selling a story to as large an audience as she can. She admits herself that she is not a detective nor is she even a crime reporter; going into this podcast thinking she can solve the murder mystery herself is a practice in futility (though even I was disappointed when we ended in the same place we started). I don’t think that her use of narration was to guide us in any particular direction or project her feelings into the project any more that other writers do on a normal basis. In fact, I believe that Serial’s success is due to Koenig not leading us and not projecting; she gives us as many bare facts as she possibly can and leaves us guessing at every turn. Admittedly, her placement of the facts in the “plot” of the podcast is intricate and deliberate, but I interpret that as a ploy to add to the excitement of the piece. She’s trying to sell the story (evidenced by their continuation into Season 2) and crafting it as a suspenseful murder mystery seems to me like a more effective approach than simply projecting her feelings into the narrative.


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