Serial and the Dynamics of Nonfiction

Experiencing Sarah Koenig’s expressive and detailed recounting of the events that transpired January 13, 1999 has expanded my perspective of nonfiction and how the genre can use a hodgepodge of mediums to convey meaning. Koenig’s Serial, for instance, combines a meticulous blend of analytical/humanizing rhetoric, music, maps, documents and various other forms of multimedia  to sculpt a complex narrative that we, the listeners, can sit back, absorb, contemplate and interpret at our own leisure. The way Koenig and her colleagues deliberate upon these variables, however, has certain implications at the level of storytelling that differ from traditional, script-based nonfiction. In particular, Serial guides us down its very delineated path with more of a push and a pull than its manuscript counterpart could ever muster. For instance, the perennial introduction with its sharp, exciting score and manner of rehashing previous episodes—”previously on Serial…” and “This is a global tel link prepaid call from… Adnan Syed… an inmate at the Maryland correctional facility,” being constants after episode one—frames the show with a grain of drama, show and glamor reminiscent of popular television. As a microcosm of the podcast’s entertainment value, this narrative device on one level lures me into the next episode at an almost obsessive rate: it engrosses me, entices me, turns me into a giddy and (usually) stringent listener who acknowledges this story as powerful and endearing. Regardless, though, another side of me sees this as gimmicky and exploitative, a way in which manipulative show-artists catalyze the tragic events back in 1999 for the sake of meaningful entertainment. Perhaps it is both.

I can understand why Adnan would rather experience Koenig’s efforts in the form of manuscript, though. He doesn’t care for the podcast’s narrative in all its devices. As an experimental form of literature, as a commentary on the American judicial system, as a prolific entertaining escape from every day monotonies, it’s more inconsequential to him than genuinely helpful or appealing. Rather, the fifteen year inmate cares far more about the logistics and essential details of the case. Instead of being pulled or pushed or guided or however one construes it, Adnan, it seems, would rather flip through the pages of the manuscript to gather details and weigh analytical options for his potential appeal. A narrative in written form is more conducive to this than a recorded, musically complemented duplicate that the masses of America have and continue to consume, digest and rave about. Moreover, what does a imprisoned man want more than fame, wealth or success? That’s easy—freedom. Anyways, listening to the vast and intricate scope of this podcast—from the past voices of people who either failed or condemned Adnan to the flourishing and feigning doubt of Koenig as surrogate voice of the people—would surely weigh heavy on Adnan more than a textual equivalent might.

As for character development, I believe it depends on the audience as to which medium—podcast or manuscript—might lend itself to most fully. The imaginative reader who conceives of a character and all his or her various features in a developed and dimensional manner will, in my opinion, know that character on many, many levels. That isn’t to say an imaginative listener will be trumped by the imaginative reader or vice versa; it completely depends the particular audience and how well they can connect with characters they’ve never met before and create abstract, visual imitations of these permeating characters in their minds. It’s entirely relative. The music of the podcast, for instance, dramatizes the characters and the narrative in a way that draws me in and makes me pay very close attention to every itty-bitty nuance in every itty-bitty moment. Hearing Adnan’s voice and all his mannerisms is immense and colorful, and allows me a further dimension of his character that a manuscript could not pull off. However, there is something so fantastically unlike moving my eyes over written text and allowing the character development to seed itself in my brain on my own terms. Flipping from page to page and weighing specific revealing moments against others is so, so much easier with text than podcast, for instance. So, on a personal level, I still prefer text, but I haven’t read the manuscript and compared the two head to head in this specific account, so who knows. To me, it’s just more open and liberating and less vexing from moment to moment. As well, and I feel this to be especially important, I have to be more active with words on a page; my mind is more stimulated, more interested. At times I have listened to Serial before bed and drifted off to sleep for minutes at a time simply because Koenig does all the work for me!

With Serial, Sarah Koenig has irrevocably expanded the nonfiction genre in her own way. Of course, whether or not this expansion is good or bad for the discipline is up in the air. On the one hand, it may continue to draw in an audience that dislikes written nonfictional texts and elucidate the significance of the genre to them, if only by a more agreeable medium. On the other hand, it also has the opportunity to turn the overarching body of potential and previous nonfiction adherents into the types who, in passivity, listen to the voices of others without analytical tendencies, podcasts serving as nice little substitutes for Ambien right before bed; that sounds too absolutist, though. Both of these outcomes will, to their particular degree, manifest in the coming years, I’m sure, but an expansion and awareness of any genre is hard to disregard as negative and counterintuitive to the aims of its long time creators and constituents, especially in this early stage. I’m optimistic. I like the ability to listen as well as read. It’s a nice novelty, and such a wider opportunity is always freeing in its own way. Just like how it’s nice to watch Gone with the Wind one day—or two days (just finished it and that movie is so long it’s a damn odyssey)—it’s also nice to sit back and allow Keanu Reeves and his diffident facial ticks take down an entire Russian mob in 100 minutes in John Wick. That isn’t to say written texts are in the spirit of Gone with the Wind and podcasts are in the spirit of John Wick… it’s the capacity to have both, the opportunity, the freedom, et cetera. Hell, you know what I mean.

4 thoughts on “Serial and the Dynamics of Nonfiction

  1. Joe Blasioli

    Do you think audio is a viable replacement for paper based text? Some would argue that children these days don’t read enough printed literature as it is? Would comprehensive tests need to be used to reinforce classroom participation?

  2. Dillon Murphy

    I wouldn’t argue that audio is a viable replacement for text, and here are two pieces of anecdotal evidence, take them how you will:

    1) How often do you text somebody instead of calling them?

    2) I’ve been listening to an audiobook instead of reading the physical copy for one of my classes. I’ve found it much harder to analyze the story, take note of important words or phrases and subsequently don’t have as much to offer during discussions. I don’t think this deficit in retaining information is a coincidence, and there are certain levels of understanding that come with being able to read at your own pace, in your own inner voice.

    3) (Bonus) Don’t song lyrics seem to hold more meaning after reading them as opposed to just listening to them?

  3. Zach Muhlbauer Post author

    I don’t think audio should ever be a complete replacement of written text; rather, I see them as supplemental to one another. I don’t think academia should be black and white, entirely precluding certain mediums in favor of others. However, I do believe that written text should be emphasized because, in my opinion, reading a great deal allows for the development of active concentration and articulation. It stimulates the mind in a way that listening to audio or watching a movie does not. The kind of thought that goes into reading and absorbing material without the exciting stimulation of video, music, or the like, is disciplined and complex. I don’t ever think it should be replaced.

    1. Stephen J. West

      Interesting conversation here, and I think all of the points raised are valid. Joe, your take on generational changes are important–especially as they influence how we measure educational outcomes.

      Dillon, great point about audiobooks versus traditional text-based books. Zach’s post alludes to the passive way audio is consumed–a fact that I think might be culturally constructed and conditioned. But I wonder: does this exclude texts not bound to the page from being “literature?” Or, at least pose a serious barrier to those being canonized?


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