My car and I have developed a new relationship due to the audiobook. Where before it represented only the oppressive duties of commute and errand, now it serves as my private listening chamber. Focused. Utilitarian. A reading nook can be entered, a book interrupted by a phone call. But for forty minutes a day, I get to enjoy whatever fiction I choose without disruption.
Gaiman classifies it perfectly, of course: “I grew up in a world where stories were read aloud”. When I heard the next story on NPR was going to be an old favorite talking about my latest obsession, I tuned in (pun intended) closer. The first sentence of his essay on audiobooks did more than simply grab my attention; it enlightened me on part of what I enjoy about the medium. I like to listen.
I had a reputation on the schoolyards. Not for shove-fights or brilliant kickball plays, of course. No, the kids knew that if they gave me a chance I would burn up their recess time with over-long jokes. The kind where the joke is on the listener: ‘I can’t believe he made me listen to that whole thing for a stupid pun’. When the other kids asked me to retell one of these extempore epics, it was only to fool another friend into suffering through it. Jump in the lake — it’s not that cold. Here, smell this.
These jokes were my favorite to hear, though. Antimacassar-intricate stories knotted by scout leaders looking to keep the boys entertained on road trips in a time before texting. Yes the puns were bad, but each detail of the protagonist’s journey was built from that wordplay. The disembodied fingers which guarded the drawbridge could not be a full hand. Neither could they be an ominous red or black. The hero could not be a gallant knight; he needed to be the lowest-ranking member of the court to succeed at his Arthurian task. How else could the king let his pages do the walking through the yellow fingers?
See what I mean? Bad (and now dated) pun. But the trick is in the telling.
I’ve been hanging around Podiobooks.com for a while now, and most of what I’ve listened to has been read by the authors themselves. Does that add to my enjoyment? A remarkable level of connection between reader and writer.
How different would my perception of Ishmael Wang be if Nathan Lowell did not read him? Would a voice actor have made him different somehow? More aggressive, more eccentric? The lines between protagonist and author can get a little fuzzy in any form, but particularly in audio. How much of Wang is Lowell? Does he say things the same way Lowell does? How much Mur Lafferty is there in Kate from the Afterlife series? Some? Any? Someone else read Daniel’s sections in season one – why?
When authors read the first-person text of their own stories, I find myself assuming that the protagonist has a great deal in common with the writer. Not intellectually – I understand the difference. But the feeling is still there. “This person is talking about himself”. This is a great fear of mine about my own writing, and I’ve certainly written protagonists who say things I don’t believe. Perhaps I’m just projecting. Or is it that I crave to know the mind of the author? Either way, I can’t stop listening.
The audiobook has its flaws, certainly. I wonder how much I’ve missed by not being able to reread a paragraph or flip back a chapter or two. A narrator puts an interpretive layer between the author and the audience… but is that really a flaw? Lowell did a great job reading Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Conspiracy, a story about as far from the Trader Tales as possible. Robertson Dean’s pleasant narration did not detract from my experience with Zero History any more than an actor’s detracts from a script. Indeed, the opposite is true more often than not.
Why am I obsessing over this, you ask? I’ve asked a highly talented friend to read Rhymer for podiobook distribution. Am I taking something away from the listener by denying them the opportunity to hear my mumbling? I say ‘nay’. ‘Author’ and ‘voice actor’ are two different roles, even when performed by the same person.
PS – Boy, I referenced a lot of stuff in this post. A critic at heart, I guess. I often spend more time thinking about other peoples’ work than developing my own. If only I could write in the car….
Seriously, go listen to all of this:
Gaiman’s NPR story.
Nathan Lowell’s Traders Tales.
Mur Lafferty’s Afterlife series.
Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Conspiracy.
William Gibson’s Zero History.