“Serial”, The Intercept, and the absolutes of American media

I spent most of November and December engrossed in the drama of “Serial,” the 12-episode podcast that investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. If you listened to podcast, then you know how redundant that last sentence is. Of course I was engrossed. You were, too.

But a little background for the uninitiated: On January 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School, disappeared. Her body was discovered in a shallow grave on February 9. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was arrested and charged with first-degree murder a few weeks later. In February of 2000, Adnan was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

“Serial” reopened the case. For 12 weeks host Sarah Koenig brought listeners along as she fact-checked the state’s case against Adnan. She talked to friends who knew the couple, examined cell tower pings, contacted witnesses, tried to recreate the state’s timeline of events and attempted to find some kind of certainty in Adnan’s guilt or innocence. She found neither.

I loved that she found neither. Maybe this is just me and too much exposure to Facebook and Twitter, but I feel like we live in a time that demands you see the world in black and white. Teams aren’t just limited to sports or love triangles in YA fiction — you’re expected to pick a side for every issue and they are all mutually exclusive. Absolutes abound. Now, if you venture over to Twitter or Reddit, I’m sure you’ll find a few Team Adnan or whatever, but I don’t think “Serial” intended this. There were no absolutes in Koenig’s narrative. With every ‘what if’ and ‘well, maybe…’ Koenig made it almost impossible to say with certainty, “Adnan did it” or “He’s innocent.”

If you’ve fallen down the Reddit rabbit hole, then you also know that even though “Serial” is over, the story has gone on. At the end of December, Jay — an accessory to the murder, a key witness in the state’s case against Adnan and the ultimate “Serial” enigma — spoke to The Intercept about the crime, the podcast, and Koenig’s reporting. This week The Intercept released another exclusive interview with another major player — Kevin Urick, the prosecutor in the state’s case against Adnan.

I read the interviews. The first made me mildly uncomfortable, but the second left me so bothered that I won’t read the conclusion — not even to find out if Urick answers the million dollar question and tells us how Jay got such a sweet plea deal. The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by these follow-up interviews. It’s not just the 1,000-word editorializing or the “he said/she said” style of reporting. It’s that their very existence seems to undermine what “Serial” was trying to do in the first place.

“Serial” explored the grey areas of a black and white system. (Seriously, what is more absolute than a guilty verdict and a life sentence?) It asked the hard questions — Could someone who seems so wholesome murder his ex-girlfriend? But if he’s innocent then why can’t Adnan remember where he was that day? And really, what is the deal with Jay? These questions aren’t so much answered as they are examined — over and over again. It’s left up to the listener to answer them, or at least to acknowledge their possibilities and what they mean for Adnan’s innocence or guilt. Listeners looking for certainty were probably disappointed, but I was not. Life rarely has simple, certain answers. I was content to be on Team Who The Hell Knows? when the podcast ended.

So I’m bothered by the fact that these new voices have chosen to speak now, long after a good faith effort was made to include them in the story. The SF Gate blog put it best: “the people on one side of the case talk to one reporter, the people on the other side talk to another.” The message coming from the interviewees is simple and consistent: Serial was poorly reported, they say. They got it wrong, they say. There is no reason to look any deeper into this.

Put another way: Choose Team Adnan is Innocent or Team Adnan is Guilty. Either or. Find an absolute. That’s what I mean when I say The Intercept undermines the principle of “Serial.” Instead of being an objective exploration into the justice system, it’s become the voice for the other “side.”

That The Intercept has taken this position is disappointing, but not really surprising. More and more it feels like political parties aren’t the only ones pandering to a base — all our information outlets are. Whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC or whomever “the liberal news media” is at the moment, people can pick their information from who is on their Team. And the black and white world keeps turning. Issues become more and more polarized to the point that everything must be an absolute.

Personally, I like to live in a world that’s a little less black and white and where people embrace the shades of grey.

Team “Serial”. All the way.

Could You Point Me To the Real Literature Shelf?

Like most young-adult fiction writers I know, I spent a good deal of last week thinking about a certain Slate article that claims adults should be embarrassed for reading YA fiction. Hereto that article shall be known as It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked.

Many writers and readers have already pointed out the flaws in the piece, for instance, that the author makes sweeping generalizations about the YA genre. Or that genre-shaming is frequently aimed at books for women and children. (And, for that matter, written by women.) That adults can benefit from reading about teen-age experiences. That marketing, rather than quality, defines what is or isn’t YA. And, of course, that no one should be telling anyone what to read.

And then there’s my favorite response to the idea that adults should be embarrassed by what they read:


It’s not like we haven’t had this dust up before. I can recall at least one heavily publicized tirade against YA books, and chick lit has been getting genre-shamed since Bridget Jones first cracked open her diary. Every few years, someone climbs upon the literary high horse and decrees that we should be reading Real Literature, not Crap.

Of course, what is and isn’t Real Literature is anybody’s guess.

There’s no Real Literature shelf in a bookstore. Believe me, I’ve looked. As a writing graduate student, I was encouraged to read Real Literature. Assigned readings included classic novels and contemporary critical darlings like Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. There didn’t seem to be room for the books I loved and wanted to emulate – Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance. Or any of the women’s fiction that was racking up sales at local Barnes & Noble. I read both the Real Literature and the commercial entertainment. I’ll admit that sometimes the distinction between the two categories was obvious, but most of the time it wasn’t.

I’m no more the wiser when it comes to the YA / Real Literature divide. Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, emotional book with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. Despite her age, or the fact that it’s a coming of age story, you’ll find it on the fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble. Why? Is it the page count? The typography? It *is* kind of small print, honestly, but shouldn’t that mean it’s better for younger eyes?

It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Linked claims the differentiation between YA and Real Literature lies in the pleasure of reading, the satisfying ending, relatable protagonists. All of these are qualities of the “inferior” young adult novel. They are also the qualities of the not-YA Tell The Wolves I’m Home.

It would be fascinating to go behind the scenes of the publishing houses and get the editors and marketers to explain the distinctions they use to categorize books. I’d love to know why one book ended up in one part of the bookstore while a similar book is in another. But I fear that the answers would be so widely varied so full of caveats and exceptions that the answer would be just as murky as it is now.

Which makes me wonder: why have them at all?

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople -- North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Three beloved books on one shelf at BookPeople — North of Beautiful, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

My local independent bookstore, BookPeople, has a large, well curated Teen book section. I’ve been browsing it for years and have watched it grow and change. The teen section is not only stocked with books that are arbitrarily designated by the publisher as Teen or Young Adult. Within it you can find 1984, The House on Mango Street, The Life of Pi, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are cross-shelved in both the teen section and graphic novel section. And it isn’t just that books are cross-shelved into the teen section. As I was browsing the fiction shelves I was pleased to spot a face-out stack of The Book Thief.

Anytime there’s another war of words over which books one should or should not read, I think of BookPeople and how we’d all be much better off if books weren’t judged by what section of the bookstore they’re shelved in. I’m not so radical as to suggest that we do away with labels completely. They’re handy for describing what you like (or what you write, for us writer types) and bookstores would be chaos without them. But many, many books cannot be neatly pigeonholed into just one category. We frequently talk about books that have cross-over appeal — books that appeal to readers of multiple genres. What harm is there in cross-shelving a book in both General Fiction and Teen if it would appeal to both audiences? When books “cross over,” let them actually cross the bookstore.

And then wouldn’t it be interesting if readers like the author of It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Linked got the opportunity to browse those mixed up shelves? She might pick up a book, read the description, and find out it is the critically lauded, experimental piece of Real Literature that she’s always dreamed of reading.

And it might be YA.

Women writers, sexism, and something that shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.

I posted a couple of links over on my Facebook account earlier, but then realized that they probably deserved a blog post,  especially since the two of you that read this here blog regularly probably care more about writing issues than all my Facebook friends combined.

Thing #1: Dan Harmon on hiring women writers

For those unfamiliar with Dan Harmon, he’s the showrunner for Community. I’m convinced Community is one of the funniest, most intelligent sitcoms on television and Harmon is one wickedly smart dude, as evidenced by his epic 4-part AV interview. The above link comes from today’s installment and I’m just going to quote from it here, because it’s awesome.

The energy is different. It doesn’t keep anybody polite. We’re not doffing our caps or standing up when they enter the room. They do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty. That’s not fair, but women writers, they acquire the muscle of going blue fast because they have to counter the stigma. I don’t have enough control groups to compare it to, but there’s just something nice about feeling like your writers’ room represents your ensemble a little more accurately, represents the way the world turns.

A-men. That thing that he says in the last sentence? About half the world being women and, you know, maybe that should be a little bit better represented? That idea touches on the thing that makes me so grouchy whenever another ‘Best Of’ fiction list makes it into whatever paper or website and there are 19 male authors and one female one. Or two. Sometimes there are two, just so the list collaborators can pat themselves on the back about how diverse their list is. Okay, now I’m just being ornery. Let’s move on.

Thing #2: The Magical Vulva of Opportunity

This one was recommended by a friend that saw Thing #1 and told me I needed to read Thing #2. I’m so glad she did because I have never actually experienced the sensation of laughing while also going into blind rage. I am bookmarking this to show to the next person (usually a man) who tells me that we don’t need that crazy feminism thing because sexism is so outdated. At the risk of going into more of a rage, I will cease that rant here.

Except to say:

Thing #3: All this talk has reminded me of the of the dude who once told me, “The thing with women writers is that they’re either really talented or really hot.” *

. . .

. . .

Okay then. Glad we have that sexism thing under control.

Come to think of it, I never did find out which I was/am.

And if you’ve made it this far, through my rants you deserve to end on better than what some jerkwad once told me. So here you go. Ladies and gentlemen, fellow lit nerds, your moment of squee:

Thing #4: Daisy’s Lullaby (The Great Gatsby Rap)

Thanks for bearing with me.

*Yes, he was serious.