A couple weeks ago, I listened to the podcast S-Town. It was exactly as compelling as you’ve heard — a story of death and crime and poverty and hatred and mental illness. Of course the story of S-Town is more complex than just what’s in the narrative— the way it’s told, the elements of the story that don’t appear in the audio, are part of the podcast’s puzzle-box fascination.
It occurred to me as I was listening to S-Town, though, that fifteen years ago, before the dawn of podcasts, the story almost certainly would have arrived in the form of a book. In fact, you could easily argue that the story of S-Town would likely be better served in book form.
Podcasts are terrific ways to relay certain kinds of information — interviews, current events, deep dives into a single topic. But the nuance of S-Town isn’t especially great for a podcast, which is a medium that continually moves forward. Books are better-suited to address the kind of complicated questions raised in S-Town — the recursive questions of reporting and ethics and respecting the wishes of the dead while honoring their legacies.
S-Town is in the spirit of two recent true crime books by local authors: Eli Sanders's While the City Slept and Claudia Rowe's The Spider and the Fly. Both of those books provided context, introspection, and complex narratives in a way that S-Town could only hint at. It's frustrating to feel that there's more just outside the reach of the storyteller, and that certain aspects of the story aren't covered as thoroughly as they should because of the limitations of the medium.
The characters and situations in S-Town are rich, deep, and they possess many levels. They deserve the richness, depth, and nuance that only books can provide.