‘Like a Novel’: Literary Aesthetics, Nonfiction Ethics, and the S-Town podcast


This article argues that the longform, immersive podcast is a significant site for tracing some of the rapidly changing contexts and ongoing debates of nonfiction storytelling in the twenty-first century. Taking as a case study the phenomenally successful S-Town podcast, the discussion is framed by S-Town journalist and host/producer Bryan Reed’s often-made claim that his podcast is ‘novelistic’. Reed’s description aligns his podcast to a literary tradition: forms of storytelling that work with complex crafting and literary techniques in order to achieve various narrative effects. But while critics and commentators have tended to applaud the literary and aesthetic achievements of the S-Town podcast, they have also raised questions about ethics and representation. In this article, I argue that understanding Reed’s podcast as life writing clarifies how he is using novelistic techniques in order to negotiate and make visible ethical concerns. Whether or not, as the journalist Gay Alcorn argues, S-Town remains ‘morally indefensible’ is not the focus of this discussion. Instead, this article explores S-Town as an example of innovative storytelling in an emerging media, and as a case study for questions of ethics and representation that will continue to characterise nonfiction forms.

In late 2014, when New York based radio journalist Bryan Reed arrives in Woodstock, Alabama, he is expecting to investigate a lurid if somewhat predictable tale of small-town crime and justice gone wrong. For just under a year, Reed has been corresponding with a charismatic local, John B. McLemore. McLemore has lived his whole life in Woodstock, a town he professes to despise. ‘Something’s happened’ he states in a phone call to Reed, ‘something has absolutely happened in this town. There’s just too much little crap for something not to have happened. And I’m about had enough of Shittown and the things that goes on’ (S-Town Chapter 1).

It is the kind of human-interest true-crime style content that Reed’s National Public Radio (NPR) colleagues have just made waves with for their breakthrough podcast Serial, and for which audiences of audio media are increasingly hungry (Dowling and Miller 168)…

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Published 30 April 2021 in Volume 36 No. 1. Subjects: Ethics, Journalism, Non fiction, Life Narrative, Podcasts.

Cite as: Cardell, Kylie. ‘‘Like a Novel’: Literary Aesthetics, Nonfiction Ethics, and the S-Town podcast.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.079241fcb6.