I'm thrilled with the popularity of Serial. It seems you can't go online without reading some sort of adulation or armchair analysis of the true-crime podcast's breathtaking narrative and ingenious reportage. It's exciting to see true crime receive this kind of media attention.
At the same time, however, I'm frustrated by some of what's been said about the true crime genre as a whole. I've worked in the true crime field for 15-plus years, and published 23 books in the genre, with more on the way. I created, produce and host a true crime series on television.
I get it.
The irritation comes when I read headlines such as the one on a recent NPR blog post, "Yes, Serial Is True Crime -- And That's OK." For me, this headline perfectly represents the lack of respect the genre regularly receives. It says that because "true crime" has made it to the most revered of media, National Public Radio, it has been somehow elevated into something more than what I (and many other competent, committed journalists and authors) do for a living; that because a steely, sonorous radio voice sanctioned by the great Ira Glass is relating the blood, trauma, violence, not to mention the salacious nature of murder and (in)justice, that the genre is now somehow respected and dignified as never before; and that because NPR has decided to wade in the bloody waters of violent crime, well, you know, it's okay.
In the same way Gone Girl was not the first thriller to cut open a violent marriage in an entertaining fashion, let's be straight: Serial was not the pioneering, groundbreaking be all, end all to true crime podcasting and reporting many have over-amplified it to be. Both were lightning strikes. In fact, those gushing reviews at the start, when Serial first caught electronic fire, are souring a bit now that there was no final bow on the package in the end. In addition, Serial never told the victim's story completely. So there are issues here with the content and the problem of a victim of crime not having a voice.
Some forget the simple entertainment they take from true crime and the escape from their day-to-day lives while getting caught up in it. They sometimes hit back when it's over, feeling they need a shower to wash off the filth of their guilty pleasure. This is when true crime is marred by the proverbial labels of "trash," "sensational," "exploitative" commentary -- but note, such comments are typically made after the person (or critic) has taken enjoyment from it or before he or she has even given it a chance.
We often hear the same criticisms -- that many true crime authors are not reporting or practicing journalism; that we're "making money off of somebody else's tragedy."
This is an obvious display of ignorance. The same could be said for Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm, right? Or any book about the Civil War. The news.
Thus, when messages of that nature arrive in my inbox, I hit delete.
Another professional torment for me are the lists now emerging in light of the final installment of Serial: "If you're having Serial withdrawals, check out these top 10 true crime books/podcasts/films ..." Whereupon we are invited to read, of course, Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood, Fatal Vision, and a host of other tried and true, well written pieces of nonfiction crime narrative, some journalism, some not. Some true, some not. Many of which are in the neighborhood of 20, maybe 30 or 40 years old.
It's all rather insulting to those of us who have been working hard, conducting hundreds of interviews a year for our books and other true crime projects, with the focus, at least for me, on the victim's story. The suggestion that our work is somehow less important, less journalistic, less analogous to Serial and other true crime because of the black and red cover art and the titles publishing chooses to slap on it feels disparaging -- as does the approach of a "highbrow" publisher that decides to publish a true crime book under the guise of "narrative nonfiction" by adding an often unfulfilled subtitle. Even the "fact crime" committees for the Edgar Award -- a prize never won by #1 bestselling true crime author Ann Rule! -- regularly snubs the genre by choosing some ambiguous book (generally a hardcover) they deem to be superior because of the cover art, starred reviews by the bow-tie police, and method of print -- many of them hypocritical judges publishing in the genre themselves.
I wrestle with my frustration because, in the end, if Serial introduces new readers and viewers and listeners to true crime, that's wonderful. We want more readers, more viewers, more listeners. We want more people to understand that what we do is not some sort of money-grab and trivial tabloid trope that belongs in the trash or on the bottom of a bird cage.
That said, however, do me a favor. Stop kidding yourself while riding proudly aboard the Serial bandwagon. Don't think for one minute that there is a difference between Serial and serial -- because, in most cases, there is not.
New York Times bestselling author M. William Phelps is the creator/producer and host of the Investigation Discovery series DARK MINDS, an acclaimed investigative journalist and winner of 2013 Excellence in Journalism Award; he has made over 100 television appearances and written 27 nonfiction books. His latest is an exclusive eBook, part of a new series, SHE SURVIVED: MELISSA, focusing on crime victims' stories told through the victim's point of view.