Fiction in Truth:

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.


Filed under Aesthetics, Charles Dickens, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, Meditations, Modern Life, Persuasion, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

9 responses to “Fiction in Truth:

  1. Thomas

    Have you read Capote’s “In Cold Blood”? I don’t know why, but your post made me think of it. Didn’t he employ the same sort of technique in that book?

    I liked this line of yours: The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention.

    • dmarshall58

      I’ve studied and taught In Cold Blood and really admire it. I thought about it as I was writing this post and, if I hadn’t already gone too long, would have compared it to Serial. Both lean on fictional techniques, but the difference for me is that Capote never intrudes. Though he’s organizing and presenting all he’s learned, he doesn’t make that process his subject. In an interview with the NYTimes, he said he wrote the book to escape the sort of navel-gazing self-involvement of the novels of his time:

      It seems to me that most contemporary novelists, especially the Americans and the French, are too subjective… I’d name myself among others. At any rate, I did feel an artistic need to escape my self-created world. I wanted to exchange it, creatively speaking, for the everyday objective world we all inhabit.

      That doesn’t seem to be Koenig’s approach at all. Subjectivity seems central to her method, how a brain seeks to make sense of a story, which—I think—makes her account quite a “self-created world.”

      I hope I didn’t come across as fussy here. I appreciate the mixture of fact and fiction and do enjoy Serial. I was just trying to account for the vague discomfort I’ve sometimes felt as I listened.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment. –D

  2. “…not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share.:

    In the episode I’m in the middle of (six, I think), Koenig brings up a piece of evidence and says something like, “I’ll talk about it in a future episode, I promise…” So whatever this project purports to do, it does seem to hold things back.

    • dmarshall58

      I’ve heard those moments too and wondered what to do with them. Are they excusing not digging deeper… because she worries her audience will be skeptical of her method? Are they building suspense… overtly and explicitly instead of using more subtle (and maybe sophisticated) methods?

      It’s smart to have an eye (or an ear) on your audience, but what confuses me is bringing attention to listeners so far out into the open, from a sort of “aw-shucks perspective” that assumes listeners want someone as ignorant as themselves. What if she appears more ignorant? It’s certainly an interesting and risky strategy.

  3. Also: I don’t find myself liking Koenig a whole lot, which may not be a big surprise since I’m easily annoyed, but I don’t like her language. She uses slang, even when she isn’t quoting someone. It rings so false coming from her sigh-riddled voice right out of the This American Life Guide to Having a Radio Voice.

    The fifth and sixth episodes are good listening, though. I’m looking forward to finishing the last ten minutes of 6 on the bus in the morning.

    • dmarshall58

      I like her, but I don’t like feeling I’m onto her technique, which includes that slangy regular-folks perspective and breathy wide-mouthed shock.

      When I don’t share those feelings, I wonder if she’s entirely sincere, if she is exaggerating for effect and underestimating my capacity to sense that.

      To me, dispassion draws more emotion from an audience. Writers play a dangerous game when they count on their audience feeling as happy, surprised, saddened, etc. as they profess to be.

    • Jon

      I agree. She goes back and forth from formal to informal. It’s like she’s trying to be two things at once, which she can’t. Especially when the topic is a murder. It’s not professional. Also, it just annoys me when I hear street slang being appropriated by these highly educated types. Quit trying to sound cool. You’re not that cool, and it’s embarrassing. It just

      As far as the case goes, I feel like Adnan likely did it. How else would Jay know where her car was? And if Jay did it, Adnan would have accused him. But at the same time….I still would have had reasonable doubt. Not enough evidence. I think I would have found him “not guilty” because of that.

  4. I agree. I’ve listened to all of them now, and while I like the series a lot more now that they’ve introduced this lawyer from Charlottesville, I’m cringing every time I hear Koenig whine about how ambivalent she is about Adnan. It feels like she’s falling in love with him.

  5. Kiksterrn

    Finished the series today.
    Felt the same regarding the author of this series and yet it did captivate my curiosity .nonetheless,never quite felt as convinced of the innocence or guilt of Adnan because the evidence is limited.Omitted intricate details and individuals concerned- and on all levels -cannot possibly bring forth any conclusive decision on this case w…I guess I was expecting too. Ugh from this series.

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