An Observation on Audiobooks
Over on MetaFilter, there’s a conversation thread about this opinion piece on audiobooks in Vulture, where the author has a personal preference about how audiobooks should be performed, and wishes to suggest their preference is actually the best way, which it isn’t really (as with many things in life, the answer is not clear cut, and the best way to narrate an audiobook is heavily dependent on both the text and the performer). I wrote a comment in the thread which I am transplanting here for archival purposes, and because I think it might be interesting to the readership here, many of which also listen to my books in audio.
Unless the book is read by the author — which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers — then inevitably the recording is going to be an interpretation, one, because the narrator is not the author and can’t/won’t know the precise intent behind every single sentence, and two, because the narrator is a human with their own inclinations, preferences and opinions about the text (and three, because there’s also usually an audio director/producer involved, who again is usually not the author and has their own opinions, so there’s another layer involved there). An additional factor can be the nature of the audio production process itself — narrators who get booked a lot don’t necessarily have time to read the book before the recording, which means another set of choices about how the book gets read.
As an author, I was not initially in love with audiobook versions of my books because it was an interpretation, and because the narration was not the way I heard the book in my own head — the narrative beats would sometime be different; a word would be given a different emphasis; a character who I heard one way in my head would sound different (and sometimes would feel like they had a different personality entirely).
Two things got me over this. The first was that audio increased my annual income from writing by about a third, which smoothed over quite a lot. The second thing was that I realized that audiobook narration is a performance and that, like one can appreciate the myriad of ways that actors have approached the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy in Hamlet, one can equally look at the choices the narrator makes in their performance and see how they are in conversation with the text, often in ways that are a surprise to me, the author. So the necessary fact of the interpretation stopped being an annoyance and became a thing of interest.
Which is not to say that I like every narration of my work (although I do like most of them just fine). It does mean I don’t get especially annoyed if the way the book is narrated is not precisely the way it was in my head, or how I would do it if I were the one narrating my book (which I am not especially tempted to do, unless I write a memoir). Even the narrator who I think is closest to my own personal voice — Wil Wheaton, who is within a few years of my age, grew up where I did, has the same vocal tics and intonations that I do, and is an actual friend of mine and so can text me when he has a question when recording — makes choices I wouldn’t, or didn’t, with the words.
It offers a certain level of surprise to the text, which means that, oddly, the audiobook version of my novels are the ones I can appreciate most in the role of a reader — filtering the words through someone else gives them a remove that helps me appreciate the words in themselves, and not dwell on the fact of how I set them in their form, and how I was feeling the day I wrote that particular bit, or whatever.