For all the column inches downloaded to Kindles this year about how electronic books will someday replace traditional ones, little has been made of the steady rise of another rival to the printed word: audiobooks. Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.
Today's recorded book has come a long way from its humble, federal origins. In 1931, Sen. Reed Smoot (he of the arguably Depression-spurring Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) helped bring forth the Books for the Adult Blind Project—a bit of progressive do-goodery intended to give the gift of literature to the sightless. The result was audiobooks with a vaguely institutional air, employing bland, monotone narrations thought appropriate for the incapacitated. They remained this way through the 1970s, until the gas crisis brought over more fuel-efficient Japanese cars and their standard-issue cassette decks. Soon commuters in their Datsun B210s discovered the time-killing properties of audiobooks.
The industry came of age in the '80s: Sales grew, and the listening experience improved. Nowadays, narrators are recruited from the ranks of top-notch voice-over talent, big-name authors, renowned stage actors, and Hollywood stars. Audiobooks can be spectacular. But too many fine books are still being turned into bad audiobooks; worse still, their producers are making the same mistakes over and over. What follows are the three most common pitfalls—and how to avoid them.
The Perils of Genre Rigidity
Genre fiction can make for great audiobooks. Detective novels come to life when read by a well-cast, hard-boiled narrator, and the smoky-voiced actresses of Great Britain are kept very busy these days by the demand for erotic audiobooks. But producers get flummoxed when a title bumps up against the confines of genre. Take Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon's nonfiction account of the year he spent shadowing the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit. Simon's remarkably well-observed account is written in matter-of-fact prose that destabilizes the reader who has previously encountered city police only through Hollywood stereotypes. The audiobook is read by actor Reed Diamond, a regular on the TV series inspired by Simon's book. Diamond's tough-guy noir narration is dissonant with the text: The dismal reality of Simon's work gets undercut by the unreality of Diamond's heavy-handed line readings.
A similar fate befalls Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. Ross' history of Classical composition in the age of mechanical reproduction, atonality, and world wars is written with a passion and urgency that helps make the esoteric relatable. Appropriately, it reads like a really long New Yorker article, and in a more perfect world the audio version would sound like a really long episode of public radio's Studio 360—smart, witty, and intimate. Instead, audiobook veteran Grover Gardner comes off like a tweedy prat holding court at a dinner party. The stentorian, lecture-hall tone is off-key; just as Homicide is miscast as a potboiler, The Rest Is Noise is miscast as a dusty dissertation in an unvisited corner of a university library. With Gardner reading, Ross' vibrant book about Life and Art and Passion becomes a book about Classical Music.
One Reader + Multiple Voices = Multiple Problems
The audiobook experience descends from that of the old radio-plays, but full-cast dramatizations are rare (though, typically, rad; Max Brooks' smarter-than-it-has-any-right-to-be zombie novel, World War Z, and Phillip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy are great listens in large part due to their full casts). Usually, the listener gets one reader who uses tone and inflection to distinguish between the narrator and the book's characters. The best readers aren't necessarily great at "voices"; they're able to differentiate between characters without resorting to showy parlor tricks. British actor Jim Dale has achieved a deserved rock-star status (of the peculiar, audiobooky sort) for his work on the Harry Potter series, modulating between Lavender Brown, Parvati Patil, and Gilderoy Lockheart with a nimbleness that should be the model for all school librarians and bedtime-story readers.
But too often, an overreaching reader ruins a book. Nothing is less intimidating than a noir tough guy voiced by a hammy female narrator, and nothing is less sexy than a literary seductress voiced by a dude in falsetto. Too often a narrator will opt for bad audio drag when "she said" would suffice.
While gender bending can grate, racial drag can offend. Consider Columbia sociologist (and occasional Slate contributor) Sudhir Venkatesh's best-seller, Gang Leader for a Day.The book recounts the author's decade-plus immersion in a decaying Chicago housing project. His observations about the social and economic lives of crack dealers, prostitutes, project-squatters, and poor strivers reveal a side of American life few readers—including academics and policymakers—have ever experienced. The book humanizes characters that most of America has encountered only through crime statistics. The audiobook does something quite the opposite.
The reader, actor Reg Rogers, is a white guy. Every character but the Indian-American narrator is black. This is always tricky audiobook territory, but here, not only has Rogers unwisely chosen to bring a little "sound of the street" to his characters, he's opted to bring the sound of the street from movies of the 1960s. JT, a twentysomething gang lieutenant, sounds like Sidney Poitier circa In the Heat of the Night. * Ex-gang members in their 50s veer toward Fred Sanford at best, Uncle Remus at worst.
After forcing us to suffer through seven hours of Rogers, the producers of the Gang Leader audiobook make an interesting choice: The book's final hour is read by the author. In that hour, the lives that Venkatesh worked so hard to bring to the page become real lives. He's no professional voice actor—he doesn't always punch the right words for emphasis, the art of the dramatic pause eludes him—but he tells a straightforward story in a straightforward fashion. No outrageous accents. No audio blackface. And the listener, and his subjects, are better off for it.
Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt
Actors can often find in the audiobook realm a stardom that has eluded them on stage and screen. Roles such as "Deputy" in the direct-to-video The Killing Grounds have not made Scott Brick a household name, but the man has narrated more than 200 books—he has a devoted following and is one of the most in-demand readers in the business. (His tone is cultured with a dash of swagger—he's brought an enjoyable air of righteous indignation to books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.)
Lately, with the audiobook business booming, actual Hollywood stars are frequently stepping behind the mic. Kevin Spacey has read Bob Woodward. Oprah reads White Oleander. Matt Damon reads A People's History of the United States. While a big-name Hollywood actor may help sell a title, using a big star can backfire on the listener. I can't listen to Sean Penn read Bob Dylan's autobiography without thinking, "That's Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan's autobiography."
You can't help but wonder if the demands of celebrity prevent the Hollywood star from taking the time with the source material that an audiobook star would. Whether it's a clumsy cadence or a preponderance of retakes (which jump out at you when listening on headphones), there seems to be an inverse proportionality between the size of the star and the quality of the experience. Here, Brad Pitt shows off his español while reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.
But we can't really blame Brad Pitt or, for that matter, any of the mis- or overmatched narrators who keep good books from becoming good audiobooks. The unsatisfied listener should direct her complaints to the producers making the casting and directing decisions, who keep making the same mistakes. As Brad might put it, no más.