A few thoughts on audiobooks and who narrates them

Audiobooks are a great way to get some “reading” done while commuting, doing chores, or lying in bed, too lazy to hold up a book. I used to have an Audible account and one of the things I loved was that they ask you to rate the story and the narration (performance). Who reads them (or, how they are performed) can make or break an audiobook experience:

The author

Having the author narrate a book can feel like a special treat. First they wrote this lovely book for you, and now they’re reading it to you! The only thing that could improve this scenario would be if they brought you a nice cup of tea.

The author knows the book better than anyone. They know the nuances of emotion and inflection that are needed to convey their story wholly and honestly.

On the other hand, some authors don’t have good voices for audiobooks. Margaret Atwood, for example, is a delight and I would gladly invite her over any day, but her voice is a bit too monotone, even for her own stories. While I enjoy listening to her read excerpts, I’m not sure she would be a good option for reading a whole novel.

Narrators who can distinguish between genders (or ages) without sounding cheesy

Nothing ruins a book like a whinny, high pitched attempt at mimicking a child’s voice. That may be perfect for comedies or cartoons, but it’s like fingernails on chalkboards in audiobooks.

The same can be said for any over-the-top attempt at conveying a person’s gender or age. It just ends up feeling like you’ve stepped into amateur territory. Not all women have high-pitched or sultry voices. Not all men are gruff, baritone wonders.

While it’s true that a story should provide us with enough detail to know a character’s gender (assuming that’s an important factor in the story), a good performer still has to be skilled in finding a way to convey not just the gender, but also the personality – soft-toned men, strong willed woman, wise children, etc.

Narrators who can mimic (or have) the appropriate accents

As I draft this, I’m working on listening to The Bear and the Nightingale, which is set in Russia. While the performer speaks with a familiar-to-me North American accent for the narration, she uses a Russian accent for the dialogue, which helps to make the story feel more authentic. And, an audiobook I listened to last year had a performer that spoke with a French accent, which was perfect because it was set in France.

These little things help to set the stage and to remind us of where the story lives. It can also add a great deal of richness and enjoyment.

Celebrities

For the most part, I don’t really care who reads the story, as long as they are a skilled performer. But, sometimes a celebrity adds an extra layer of enjoyment. When I listened to a couple of the Harry Potter novels, I opted for the versions read by Stephen Fry because I knew that his voice is lovely and that he had the skills to add the right amount of drama, sadness, fear, and other emotions to the narration.

Last year (the year before?), I listened to a John Scalzi book, which was narrated by Wil Wheaton. This annoyed me at first. I was convinced he only got the job because he was a celebrity geek. But, as the story progressed, I found that he was really well suited for Scalzi’s book. There was something about his regular-Joe voice that felt very appropriate for the story.

Group performances (audio plays)

This is when you get multiple performers, sound effects and little (if any) narration. Lots of people adore these. The sound effects make them sound extra exciting,  the use of multiple celebrities makes it seem extra cool, and they can find performers that match the gender, age, and temperament of each character in the book. A good example is the audio play for Neverwhere, which seems to be quite popular.

I’m not a fan group performances. I don’t mind if a second performer is included (ex: to do a different gender), but I find the multitude of voices and sound effects distracting. I’m just not the right type of listener for group performances.

***

It’s worth considering all of these options when looking for audiobooks, especially if you’re new to audiobooks. It’s also worth remembering that most audiobooks come in several versions, so if you don’t like one performer, look for a different version (ex: there might be one read by a North American and another read by a British performer). Sometimes, it’s also worth looking for other books read by a narrator who’s performance you especially adored. True, they likely do performances for a lot of different types of books, but this might be a good way to try new things – you know you’ll appreciate the performance, so take a chance on the story, genre, etc.

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