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.