This is a guest post from Allison Page Russell. Writer. Reader. Watcher of exorbitant amounts of television. Allison is a Michigan native with an MA in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon. She earns her living writing for other people and then writes for herself at night. She currently lives outside Pittsburgh with her beloved dog Gulliver, who is kind of a jerk. Follow her on Twitter @AllisonPageRuss.
S-Town, a recent podcast from Serial and This American Life, tells the story of John B. McLemore, an eccentric horologist from a part of Alabama he refers to un-affectionately as “Shit Town.” Without revealing any spoilers I can tell you that the show is deep and thoughtful and engaging, fraught with complex, perplexing characters and metaphors about clocks and hedge mazes. You leave the seven-part series with all the weariness and accomplishment of finishing a good novel—closing it, setting it on your nightstand, and staring up at your ceiling so you can just think for a moment. You’re more empathetic than when you went in, with a greater understanding of human nature, and honestly a greater bewilderment of it too.
S-Town has been described by many reviewers as something more like a novel than a podcast, Perhaps because narrator Brian Reed’s prose is more artful than journalistic. Perhaps because the people he meets, John B. McLemore included, seem to leap through your headphones in much the same way Sherlock Holmes or Jay Gatsby jump off the page. Perhaps because the story takes a literary shape on its own, leaning unflinchingly into every metaphor without ever feeling forced to do so. And perhaps even for the simple trick that every installment is titled as a chapter rather than an episode.
S-Town was downloaded 16 million times within its first week, well surpassing its predecessor by the same production team, Serial. Everywhere you clicked the internet was abuzz with the sad saga of John B. McLemore. It’s undeniable: something about this bookish formula works, even when the story in question doesn’t come from a book. And podcasts aren’t the only medium figuring that out.
With streaming services like Netflix breaking the hold of network TV, showrunners are free to produce highbrow content for smaller audiences. We’ve seen it with Girls, Master of None, BoJack Horseman, and countless other contemporary shows. Viewers want smart stories without a laugh track, and producers actually want to make them. Shows have the permission now to be clever, difficult, and even boring at times, in all the same ways that novels can be. Just as readers will fight their way through a David Foster Wallace tome, viewers will endure a slow episode of Mad Men because it means something.
Of course, movies and TV have always borrowed from books, at least in titles and in compromised plots, but TV miniseries are arguably the best thing to happen to book adaptations. Recent series like Big Little Lies and slightly older ones like Olive Kitteridge give you almost the same intellectual and emotional experiences as their respective books, with none of the stretched-out plotting or belching jokes you’d find in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Showrunners–at least some of them–seem to have caught up with us readers. They seem to know, finally, that you don’t need to change everything about a good book to make it translate on screen. And they seem to know, finally, that they can borrow more from books than just their vague plots.
So what does this mean for us as readers?
For me it means that I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to podcasts and watching TV. Granted, I have always done this. But I used to feel guilty about it, back when audio and visual media were designed for mindless distraction. I don’t get that nagging I-should-be-reading feeling I used to, because I’m satiated by the things I watch and listen to. I can go to bed after a Netflix binge with myriad inspiring questions bouncing around my head. I can finish a podcast with that evangelical enthusiasm to text everyone I know about it. And I can have deeply productive and stimulating conversations about them, akin to those I used to have in literature classes about books I didn’t even like.
We’ve often been told that books are dying, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that maybe books are just wounded and bleeding, the best parts of them leaking into other media. This is certainly valuable—we’re getting better content across all forms, but are we losing something, too? Is it crazy to feel like better, more thoughtful television is somehow endangering my beloved fiction books?
And then I have to ask: Does it really matter? If we are adequately challenged by the things we watch or listen to, does it really matter if we read anything at all? My gut says yes, of course it matters. It has to. But I just can’t figure out why.
In the meantime, let’s keep reading.