Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Finding the right voice: Audiobooks versus print

     Audiobooks can be a great way to pass the time on a commute or a long road trip, but not all books make good audio books.
     I’ve previously praised the audiobooks for Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” and “Coraline,” which feature the author reading his own books. The stories are both fairy tales, although “Stardust” is a more grownup fairy tale. I’ve listened to them multiple times, and will no doubt listen to them again.
     Gaiman is such a good narrator that I thought I’d probably like anything he read. So when I found the Suburban Library Cooperative had an audio version of Gaiman reading his novel “Neverwhere,” I checked it out. I’d read the book and enjoyed it, so I expected to like hearing Gaiman read it too.

Cover photo from Neil
     To my surprise, I found it an excruciating experience. It felt slow, repetitive and irritating. I think I actually hit the fast-forward button a few times and, when it was due back to the library with a disc or two still unlistened to, I didn’t even inquire if it could be renewed.

     In an interview at the end of the “Stardust” audiobook, Gaiman explains the difference between reading a book and listening to a book. When reading, you can skip over language and descriptions if you find them boring, while on an audiobook you have to listen to every word. That's one of the virtues of the audiobook, Gaiman said: it makes us more attentive readers. But he also mentioned how he realized that he couldn’t justify every word in his books when reading them aloud. Some words are there, he said, just because he liked them. In his books for younger children, such as “Coraline,” he felt he could justify every word. With “Stardust,” he couldn’t.



      Personally, I found “Stardust” as compelling as “Coraline.” I rarely felt the author was stretching things, but since the story is a journey (into Faerie), maybe the languorous pace seemed appropriate.
     “Neverwhere” is also a journey of sorts (into a secret, parallel London underground). Both books involve someone taken from his world and placed in an unfamiliar, often dangerous one. In “Stardust,” the protagonist is naïve but optimistic, before and after the journey begins, but the protagonist in “Neverwhere” is whiny and pessimistic (not without reason, but still!). I wanted to slap him and tell him to shut up repeatedly.
     It might be that “Neverwhere” was Gaiman’s first solo novel, and his inexperience showed (he adapted it from his original teleplay, so it was changing the medium, too), but I don’t think that’s the only problem. I think an audiobook needs for the characters to be pleasant, sympathetic, or at least unobjectionable. I didn't enjoy the audiobook for Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" either.
     The reader must also suit the material. I suspect that Gaiman’s voice was the wrong one for this novel. A more forceful voice actor might have kept the pace moving better. 
     I have an audio version, abridged, of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “The Club Dumas,” read by David Warner; he might have been better suited for “Neverwhere.” And Daniel Pinkwater has  read several of his children's books on tape and radio.

Cover photo from Barnes and
     (There was an earlier audiobook of “Neverwhere,” abridged and read by a professional actor, and although Gaiman wasn’t happy with it, I suspect it might have made for a better listening experience. )
     Another pitfall of audio books, though not “Neverwhere,” are lists or other caches of information that are included to lend verisimilitude. The reader is expected to examine them, scan them, but not study them minutely. The audiobook of Michael Crichton’s “Airframe,” about an accident on an airplane and the investigation into the causes, included scenes of characters reading lists. In print, that’s fine but, in an unabridged audiobook, it grows tedious.
     Then there are full-cast dramatizations. They don't deliver a pure reading experience, but sometimes they are preferable. Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” books began as a radio series. After 12 episodes, he started adapting them into novels, which were subsequently turned into audiobooks. The plot of the first two books roughly paralleled the plot of the radio series, then went there own way. A few years ago, they reassembled the original radio cast and adapted the later books into radio plays too. I prefer the experience of listening to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Tertiary Phase" to reading  “Life, the Universe and Everything.

Cover photo from 
     The voice actor also needs to have a range of voices, male and female. The voice actor for “This Won’t Kill You,” a Nero Wolfe story, had a monotone delivery and limited range, which he tried to disguise with broad character voices. They were distinct, but annoying. A series of full-cast radio dramatizations of Wolfe stories turned out much better.
     I’m still a fan of audiobooks, given the right voice and the right story.
     Have you listened to any audiobooks? Do you have any favorites? Any you hated? Let me know.


Blogger Bill Wilson said...


I listen to a lot of audio mystery books, now that I have about a 50-minute commute each day to downtown Detroit. I have come to have a lot of respect for the audio book readers. I've found the best are professional actors or audiobook readers, not the authors themselves. I particularly enjoy Joe Montega's readings of Robert Parker's Spencer mysteries and Tony Robert's renditions of Stuart Woods' Stone Barrington series. It's even more imperative that non-fiction books get good reading treatment so that' I'm not tempted to fall asleep on I-94.

Good article. I like your Web page design, too. Is that a standard blogspot design?

January 18, 2012 at 8:31 PM 

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