It’s official. Serial, the American true-crime podcast that is nearly breaking the internet is getting another season. Following a plea for listener donations combined with a call for sponsorship, Sarah Koenig and This American Life have confirmed they will team up again for a second series. The timing of the announcement was savvy, giving new meaning to Thanksgiving Day for fans who were otherwise lamenting the scheduled holiday break.
It is something of an understatement to say that Serial has become a cultural phenomenon. The statistics are widely quoted – each episode averages 1.5 million listeners. It is both the number one and the fastest downloaded podcast in the history of iTunes. The show has inspired countless opinion pieces, interviews, analyses, memes, google hangouts with program ‘characters’, and even a parody. There are dedicated discussion outlets. Slate has its own weekly Serial forum, podcast and aggregated feature story site, for example; while Reddit, in typical fashion, has taken its obsession to another level, with its devoted citizen-sleuth pages. Even without the season return news, the show remained in high circulation on yesterday’s interwebs with ‘no thanksgiving episode’ trending on social media and numerous sites clamouring to provide listeners with a panacea to soothe ‘Serial withdrawal’.
I am a latecomer to Serial (if you are too, you can find it here) but I am already compelled by the form and what it’s doing for narrative and storytelling. As commentators have noted, Serial draws on older genres and traditions, ranging from oral storytelling, nineteenth-century serialised publications, New Journalism feature reporting, and pre-television nights spent sitting around the radio. It evokes crime classics, such as In Cold Blood and the old-fashioned murder-mystery, and it invites a new kind of attentiveness to language and the act of just listening. In many ways, Serial can be said to be doing for radio and audio narrativity what HBO has done for television; it brings cinema to the ears.
Still, I am also interested in tracking the criticisms of the show, particularly with relation to the ethics of turning what is, after all, a real life tragedy into a popularised cultural sensation, delivered and structured by way of episodic cliff-hangers. Some of the more recent critiques have highlighted the show’s representation and profiling of race and class. Given its close connections to digital writing, and the collaborative power of participatory media, which produces its own kind of narrative interaction between writers and listeners, I will be keen to see what literary festival programmers will do with Serial and the issues it raises in 2015.
There has been no confirmation of when the new season will start. First, Koenig and her producers need to reach the end of this season, which does not yet have a finish date. If the hype is to be believed, Koenig – who has always maintained that she is only one or two weeks ahead of listeners – still doesn’t know the end of the story or when it will come. ‘We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it,’ the creators say. And that is part of the brilliance of the thing.
Bookish types could soon have their own televised ‘night of nights’ with news that the Abbott government is interested in supporting a broadcast of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. In a move that seems just plain strange, given the general lack of support for culture and the arts in this country, the talk is that the government would like to see the awards televised in their entirety, not unlike the BBC’s broadcast of the Man Booker Prize. Proposals were sought from different stations, but, as the national daily reported, the ABC is unlikely to be the broadcaster of choice after it proposed a studio-based, package show hosted by Jennifer Byrne. It is said that awards chair Louise Adler and the office of Arts Minister George Brandis rejected the idea, with ABC’s head of television arts Katrina Sedgwick noting that ‘part of the feedback to our proposal was that they were not keen to have “Jen Byrne presents” as a tag line on the title’. It is understood that Sky and SBS are now front-runners for the broadcast.
Fiona McFarlane can now add the inaugural Voss Literary Prize to her growing list of achievements. McFarlane, who was shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin (amongst other awards), beat five other writers to win the Voss for her debut novel The Night Guest. Earlier this month, the book picked up the Barbara Jefferis Award for 2014, a prize that celebrates the ‘best novel by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society’. The Night Guest, which also won a 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Award, is up for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Also making history is another Australian writer, Anna Krien, who has just become the second woman in 26 years to win the coveted UK-based William Hill Sports Book the Year Award. Krien takes home $41,000 for Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport, a book about sportsmen and their treatment of women that the judges described as ‘balanced yet fearless’. You can read Deb Waterhouse-Watson’s review of Night Games in the SRB.
Beware of the House at Pooh Corner and its resident pantsless bear. That was the warning that sounded last week in the Polish town of Tuszyn during a heated council debate about the moral character of Winnie the Pooh. The proudly short and stout, honey-loving bear had been nominated as the mascot for a new children’s playground, but the suggestion was quashed after several councillors declared Pooh ‘wholly inappropriate for children’ due to his ‘dubious sexuality’ and ‘inappropriate attire’. The councillors went on to secure their place in the internet Hall of Fame, by claiming Pooh free-wheeled on trousers (and underpants) because ‘it doesn’t have a sex. It’s a hermaphrodite.’ Another councillor advanced psychoanalytic approaches to literary studies by noting A. A. Milne had ‘cut [Pooh’s] testicles off with a razor blade because he had a problem with his identity’. The town has yet to decide on a more suitable mascot, but Donald Duck, Porky Pig, the Chipmunks, Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, and Da Easy Crew on Rasta Mouse should probably not expect a call anytime soon.
This week the Sydney Review of Books is delighted to publish essays from Shannon Burns and Peter Goldsworthy. In his review of The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber, Shannon Burns notes that Faber ‘writes like a practiced musical soloist, striving to produce the exact effect demanded by the score – no more, no less – irrespective of genre, scale or mood’. Burns’ essay highlights Faber’s linguistic and imagistic dexterity, yet its focus is on the way The Book of Strange New Things engages with a perennial question. To claim that a writer is concerned with ‘what it is to be human’, Burns observes,
is the sort of statement that can mean everything and nothing at the same time. But with Faber the claim can be made in its exact sense: in his first novel, Under the Skin, and in his latest, Faber questions the culturally specific distinctions that are drawn between Homo sapiens and other species, particularly the egotism that prompts normative constructions of ‘the human’.
Our second essay also begins with a musical evocation that comes in the form a compelling recommendation. In his review of two recent poetry volumes by Stephen Edgar – Exhibits of the Sun (2014) and Eldershaw (2013) – novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy writes:
As with an ear for music, an ear for the rhymes and rhythms of language is hardwired into the human brain; the deeper structures of poetry, in other words, are inscribed on our DNA. Like music, their evolutionary purpose is, in part, mnemonic: to help us to remember the knowledge of the tribe in pre-literate times. Hence we remember every nursery rhyme we ever heard. Hence, the lyrics of every second song. Hence, a hard-to-forget stanza … in an earlier, justly celebrated poem of Stephen Edgar’s.
Goldsworthy’s review moves from a consideration of Edgar’s much-admired poetic ‘ear’, which can ‘turn the music on and off at will’, and his ‘eye’, which Goldsworthy describes as ‘painterly’; ‘he especially loves the way light rebuilds the world – or the consciousness that perceives it’.
From the Archives this week looks back to Paul Hetherington’s review of Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ by John Mateer, a poet who – like Faber – has an interest in ‘what it is to be human’ in imagined landscapes and, as Hetherington puts it, in ‘cross-cultural historical currents and transformations’ and ‘how history and its associated human ambitions and cruelties taint or inflect much that we know’.
Our Week in Review feature artist is Jon Campbell. Based in Melbourne, Campbell has been exhibiting for over 30 years. His work takes an interest in the ‘overlooked and undervalued’. It is peppered by a keen enthusiasm for, as he describes it, the ‘local Australia language and rock n roll … constructed with a lo-fi aesthetic’.