The Power and Limits of Voice

Fans of Serial have the option of either listening to the podcast, or reading the transcript of the podcast (which can be found on This American Life’s website). The real decision they’re making here is who controls the tone. Serial is a major departure from most pieces of creative non-fiction because it, in it’s intended format, is presented directly by the author — in this case Sarah Koenig — with all of Koenig’s inflections and emphases. While this is a huge convenience for those on the go, or those who prefer to sit back and relax and let the author do literally all of the work, or yes, even those who are seeking some virtual company on a lonely Valentine’s Day evening; I, for one, preferred to read rather than to listen, as I was able to more easily further separate myself from Koenig’s intentions. I am not accusing Koenig or the producers of Serial of deliberately fooling their audience, but it cannot be ignored that voice is a powerful tool. She sounds nice enough, but, as Koenig herself points out in Serial’s first episode, you can’t judge a person’s character on physical characteristics alone. Whether she means to or not, Koenig’s voice affects the way we see the story in a huge way. And we aren’t talking about Las Vegas here, we’re talking about a man’s freedom and a heartbroken family’s ability to sleep soundly with their daughter’s killer in prison.

The ideal way to experience Serial, in my opinion, would be to read Koenig’s narrations and listen to the audio clips of interviews. The only vocals that matter are those of the people involved, as they hold the key to the truth. We could read Jay say something but miss his shifty tone. On the flip side, Koenig could use neutral language in her narrations, but her tone might rub us one way or the other. Those who choose to listen are not powerless against Koenig’s inherent bias, but it does take some extra effort to separate oneself from it.

Voice serves as an advantage for Sarah Koenig in every way except for character development. An author, even one who writes CNF, usually has complete control over the wording and tone of a character’s statements. Koenig, however, is totally at the whim of those who she talks to, and her beliefs evolve as she talks to these people. Joan Didion and many of the authors we read this year let their characters speak for themselves in their stories, but not quite so literally as Sarah Koenig does in Serial. Koenig can’t paint Sayed as a nice guy, whose facade slowly decays over time. He’s just a nice guy, and Serial has to evolve around that.


2 thoughts on “The Power and Limits of Voice

  1. Simone Louie

    I agree that the best way to view the case in Serial objectively might be to read the manuscript and just listen to the audio clips of the interview. But is that the same as being the IDEAL way? How important is it to be objective? If it’s creative nonfiction, doesn’t that imply that it must be subjective? If we were to just be a detective and look at Adnan’s case in the most objective way possible, then why even produce something like Serial?

  2. Ian Duffee

    I think reading Serial’s transcripts would be like reading a movie’s screenplay so that you don’t get distracted from the plot by the scenery. Serial was’t made to be read. Koenig is an experienced radio producer, and is fully aware of the vocal tricks she uses. If we’re considering this creative non fiction, we should focus on the “creative” part there, and grant Koenig some artistic license. She could have written this for a magazine, she could have written a fact-heavy public letter to a judge, or she could have made a film documentary, but she didn’t. Her vocal inflections are just a tool for the radio, in the same way that a writer might selectively include dialogue in a piece, or a filmmaker might use a piece of symbolism.


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