Managing Expectations: Serial, Speculation, and Interpretation

AUDIO ESSAY by Greg Langen

This audio essay centers on Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, and investigates broader questions about the writer’s role in directing the cultural reception of their work.

Up front, I should say that this audio essay has as much to do with an inarticulate frustration as it does with the more scholarly concerns of authorial intent and responsibility. During its first few months, Serial bothered me so completely and inescapably that I felt the need to write about it, not only to release some steam, but to locate, for myself, the actual target of my frustration. Frustration is also the reason why I talk about the commute in the essay – a modern purgatory that is both objectively irritating and woefully unavoidable. The fact that Serial willfully targeted the commuter seemed a unique opportunity for me to further pick away at this scab.

My concerns are aimed first at Serial, sure, but this more convenience than calculation. A critic needs something to be critical of, and the podcast Serial, for me, simply hit the right frequencies: tragic yet terribly gripping; a charismatic reporter/protagonist who deliberately inserts herself into a story that might, in fact, actively resist her presence; a massive public response to a work that I myself experienced; and, more importantly, a public response that I myself could be critical of. Again, the podcast unnerved me – not only did the inescapability of the podcast bother me, but so did the seemingly uninhibited fun listeners had in playing cold-case murder detectives. What did Mencken say? “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I’m sure this has something to do with it too. To come to terms with my own dread surrounding the podcast and popularity, I put myself literally in conversation with Sarah Koenig to talk through my concerns regarding Serial, and, more broadly, about a writer’s relation to its work once it’s released to the public. In the end I produced a critical confession (of sorts) on writing and the appeal and ramifications of Sarah Koenig’s confessional journalism.

Ultimately what I want to know is this: where do the responsibilities of the writer end? Does a writer, journalist or otherwise, have a responsibility in shepherding the interpretation of their work? If so, what would a successful application of this principle look like? Or, if not, why?


Greg Langen (MAPH’13) studied contemporary American literature during his MAPH year and writes fiction and nonfiction. He works at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation where he facilities connections between writers and readers in the DC area.

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