An unwelcome trend in audiobooks

audiobooks An unwelcome trend in audiobooksCorrect me if I’m wrong, but lately I’ve been seeing (or in this case I guess, hearing) an unwelcome trend in audiobooks. To me, the first responsibility of an audiobook is to provide a successful translation from print to audio. A listener needs, at the very least, to be able to follow the plot. And of course the goal is much more ambitious: for listeners to enter into the story and invest in the characters and the world of the book, to become carried away by the skill of the narrator. Yet more and more, listening comprehension, the basic communication of a story’s essence, seems to be a secondary concern of audiobook production.

More power to narrators (such as the incomparable Jim Dale) who find distinctive voices for each character while still keeping the listener engrossed in the story. But sometimes that emphasis on “performance” can be a distraction rather than an enhancement. Listen to, for instance, the third book in Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb series, Scrivener’s Moon, which suffers from too aggressive an approach to characterization. To back up just a bit, the second book, A Web of Air, was narrated, admirably and understatedly, by actress Jenny Agutter. Her command of the material was impeccable, and her assured narration pulled listeners right into the book. Perhaps she was tied up with Call the Midwife, but in any case she’s not the reader of this newest book, and I doubt you could find two more different narrators. Where Ms. Agutter’s narration was intimate, Ms. Sarah Coomes is frenetic. She is certainly energetic, and she obviously put a great deal of effort into the creation of the many different voices and accents, but the overall effect is that the listener’s attention is on the voices, not the story. I had read the book in print before I listened to the audiobook, and I literally could not follow it. (It didn’t help that a heavy Scottish accent had been assigned to characters living in the “far, far, far” north country, despite the frequent references to reindeer and shield maidens that might have indicated more of a Nordic setting.)

Less obvious is the trend toward a lack of command of the material. Does it really matter if the narrator sounds just like a character in a book if said narrator doesn’t seem to have read beyond the end of each line of print? So many audiobooks now sound as if the narrator has never read the book, has no idea where it’s going. It’s pretty hard, as a listener, to follow a book if the narrator isn’t leading you anywhere.

Another impediment to listening comprehension is the narrator who randomly varies pitch and rhythm to avoid, perhaps, sounding monotonal. FYI: it matters which words are emphasized in a sentence. If a narrator lands on the wrong word often enough, not just the sentence but the whole book becomes nonsensical.

So please, audiobook narrators and producers — make fluid narration and listening comprehension the priority. Let the story take precedence, not the performance. Let me back into the books.

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About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is executive editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

Comments

  1. Thom Barthelmess says:

    Amen, Martha. This is why Hope Davis is my all-time favorite audiobook narrator. Her readings are understated and restrained and completely enthralling. Her narration of Lynne Rae Perkins’ All Alone in the Universe is exquisite; she dissolves into the character so that the story is all that remains.
    By the by, I would apply all of the arguments you make to storytime as well. I worry that in our zeal to entertain an audience we wrap ourselves in theatrics and lose the books in the bargain. A book is enough. Get out of the way and let it do its job.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Hear, hear! My favorite narrators are those who become transparent, so that I lose awareness that there was ever someone in front of a microphone. I want an experience that is a virtual Vulcan Mind Meld with the author – as if the words never had take form in print, but are magically poured into my brain through my ears.

  3. Colleen says:

    I think tied with lack of command is lack of interest. If the narrator is bored, then the narration is boring. And if the narrator isn’t interested in the story, how could anyone expect the listener to be?

  4. Well said. I love the art of engaging monotone! John Randolph Jones nails it with his Francis Tuckett reading, and our current fave is the glorious Gerard Doyle reading of the Septimus Heap series by Sage. And we cannot suffer through a car ride without the therapeutic voice of Stockard Channing weaving us in and out of Quimby minds.

  5. Simon Jones as Bartimaeus. Sarcastic, fabulous wit.

  6. Thom, Mary, and Colleen—what you said. I couldn’t agree more! And Mary, you captured the ideal audio experience EXACTLY. From your keyboard to audiobook producers’ ears….

  7. Emily and Anna, thank you so much for your comments. I hadn’t seen them when I responded (above). Anna, I completely agree about Simon James–he is one of the best and a PERFECT match for Bartimaeus. Emily, I will check out your suggestions!

  8. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    Mary, I love your point about a Vulcan Mind Meld!

    I wonder how successful adaptations achieve this sense of mind-meld with the author given that authors are not always the ideal narrators of their own work. Are great narrations just a matter of choosing a good narrator, or is there some kind of pre-production phase? I like to imagine authors coaching the voice actors of their books to help develop individual characters’ voices or get pronunciation/intonation correct, but it seems more likely that voice actors are on their own…

    Of course, sometimes the author is the PERFECT narrator of their own book; Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book come to mind.

    One of my all-time favorite adaptations is Tim Curry’s fantastic reading of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy: engaging, nuanced, and dramatic without ever being melodramatic or frenetic.

  9. A very timely post — my husband and I just got back from a cross-country road trip on which we took in a good 5 or 6 audiobooks, and reading this post made me realize just why I enjoyed Ender’s Game so much (other than the fact that the book itself is epic, of course): Stefan Rudnicki did the most phenomenal job narrating that I’ve ever heard in an audiobook. To the point where we had difficulty turning the car off when we reached a few of our destinations and sat in rapt stillness for a few minutes with a hand on the ignition trying to tear ourselves away. It was pure magic! I hadn’t realized what a difference a truly excellent reading made until we took this one in, and in the future I’m going to pay much more attention to the quality of the narration before purchasing audiobooks.

  10. I’ve long been curious to find out what other people think of the two different “Series of Unfortunate Events” narrators. I love and adore Tim Curry, but found his readings of the books to be way, WAY too much (especially with regards to Mr. Poe’s hacking cough). I really enjoy the cadence that Daniel Ha– I mean, Lemony Snicket lends to the narration; I could listen to him all day (and have, in fact, done so).

    Also, I wish upon wish that I could hear Stephen Fry read the Harry Potter books like they can across the pond. Envy. So much envy.

  11. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    The reader/book match that sticks with me the most is Juliet Stevenson reading Jane Eyre. I’ve been spending the summer listening to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, and the first volumes, read by Cynthia Nixon and Frances McDormand were excellent, but then Alan Cumming took over, and took OVERBEARING to a new high. Thank goodness Miranda is back for the one after his!

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