An unwelcome trend in audiobooks

Correct 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.
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Roger Sutton

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!

Posted : Aug 05, 2013 07:08


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.

Posted : Aug 01, 2013 09:43

Sarah Kolb-Williams (@skolbwilliams)

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.

Posted : Aug 01, 2013 03:40

Katie Bircher

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.

Posted : Aug 01, 2013 03:27


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!

Posted : Aug 01, 2013 03:13

View More Comments


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more