To all intents and purposes, a psychoanalyst’s couch is in fact a bed—after all, it lacks a back and armrests. And yet, this item of furniture must be called a couch. Nobody would offload their traumas on a psychoanalyst’s bed unless, that is, they were in a relationship with said psychoanalyst.
In October 2019, I found myself sitting in the Silencio recording studios, headphones over my ears, reading aloud my novel My Friend Natalia, which had been published in Finland six months earlier.
“‘Natalia’ was one of my first clients to lie on her back without prompting,” I read and continued: “When I showed her round my office, which I had rented in an apartment next to my house, I told her about the couch.”
These two consecutive sentences are from the opening chapter of the novel. Reading these sentences aloud irrevocably sprained something in my brain.
When one reads a book aloud as an audiobook, the visual aspects of the text all disappear. Of course, one could read the word couch, which appears in italics, in a slightly different way, perhaps by holding a short, artistic pause before the word. But this is not the same thing. Italics are not the same as a short pause.
The therapist, the book’s narrator, gives the patient the code-name “Natalia.” Under the cover of this anonymity, the therapist then proceeds to divulge intimate details of Natalia’s life to the reader, then at one point removes the inverted commas from Natalia’s name “as I might remove the safety catch from a gun”. When read aloud, this sentence is absurd: the listener cannot hear the inverted commas around Natalia’s name.
Let’s be clear: I am very skeptical about the practice of turning works of literature into audio recordings.
If audiobooks become the primary way in which we interact with books, it would be strange if at some point this did not have a direct impact on how people write literary works.
Will writers—either consciously or subconsciously—start writing books so that they sound good when read aloud? The succinct speech between Me (the writer) and You (the reader) works well when spoken aloud, so the current appetite for autofiction is unlikely to dwindle any time soon. A linear narrative, in which we already know (or think we know) something about the end point, is also easy to listen to. For this reason, celebrity autobiographies and so-called true stories make for successful audiobooks.
However, complex narrative structures, shifting perspectives, narrative polyphony, long, meandering sentences and the visual aspects of a text find themselves increasingly under threat from a medium that relies solely on hearing. If linear narrative becomes the only acceptable form of complex literary expression, our thoughts will be the poorer for it. Imaginary worlds and possibilities will shrink because such worlds and possibilities are not “content” that can be detached from “form,” they are not statements, suggestions or questions isolated from their rhetorical devices.
That being said, I’m not a militant opponent of audiobooks. To my mind, it is simply important to recognize that there is a significant difference between the printed book and the audiobook. Written material turns into vibration, letters become sound waves. They always come from a concrete source that guides our interpretation, a source that is completely different from the reading process heard through our “inner voice.”
A new element appears between the book and its recipient: a voice that shapes how we receive the text. It is a sound born of a human body in a unique way and that is (generally) readily identifiable as the voice of a man or a woman.
In the audiobook of My Friend Natalia, this unavoidable fact becomes a poetic problem in its own right. Throughout the text, I have scattered conflicting clues as to the sex of the therapist, the novel’s first-person narrator, but I was careful never to define the therapist as either a man or a woman. With certain exceptions, in many languages a writer and a translator can easily disguise or at least avoid the matter of the narrator’s sex. A writer can also play with this ambiguity, as is the case in my novel My Friend Natalia.
. . . .
Some readers have been convinced that the narrator is a man, others have considered the therapist a woman. Several readers have told me that their perception of the matter changed as they were reading. Readers always read a text through the prism of their own experiences, preconceptions and cultural stereotypes.
For this reason, I wanted to read the Finnish audiobook of My Friend Natalia myself. I am a woman, but because I am the book’s author my voice is above all an authorial voice, and in this way I feel I managed to resolve the dilemma described above.
Link to the rest at LitHub
Perhaps PG is a bit cranky today, but this all sounds like mountain/molehill anguish to him.
In the first place, women have done a perfectly good job of performing men in audiobooks (and on stage) for a good long time. Ditto for men performing women.
Strictly speaking, when a person reads a book, the story takes place in the reader’s head regardless of what the author intended while he/she was creating it.
Finally, the word is not the thing. The author uses words to describe things, people, exterior and interior behavior, etc., etc. If the author does a good job, readers will enjoy reading the author’s words and the images, thoughts and emotions that the process of reading those words causes to come into a reader’s mind.
One reason that love in its various manifestations is so popular in stories people write is that a great many readers enjoy the experience and emotions that are engendered by such stories when they are well-written.
That said, the words on the page (or screen) are just words on the page.
An author can have complete control over the words on the page so long as she/he keeps those words for him/herself.
Once the author turns those words loose on the world, it’s foolish and egotistical for the author to feel she can control how others understand her words, how they feel about them and what experiences they have with those words and conclusions they draw concerning the imaginary people who are depicted in the words of the story.
As for PG (and he suspects for other readers as well) unless clear from the words, he doesn’t care whether the characters in the story are one gender or another. In most cases not explicitly involving men and women in the story, he doesn’t think in terms of gender. This is especially the case with a narrator.
With respect to audiobooks, PG finds the idea that a woman cannot effectively perform male figures as well as female figures to be ludicrous. Ditto for men performing female characters.
People have been effectively performing the roles of another gender for centuries. Boys or small men almost always performed the women’s parts in the performance of Shakespeare’s plays while he was alive. In ancient Greek theater, the actors had masks that allowed one actor to effectively play the roles of several characters.
The word “theater” comes from the Greek word theatron, which means “seeing place.” The theater is a place where we see what the actors and author of the script want us to see.
The entire assumption behind plays and movies is that the viewer/reader will willingly suspends disbelief to become involved in the story.
In that respect a theatrical performance is no different than reading a book. We lapse into suspended disbelief the moment we read, “It was a dark and stormy night” on a sunny afternoon.
PG has concluded that he is, in fact, a bit cranky. MS Word has been behaving badly on a client project and that has put PG off his usual jolly stride.
See, there PG goes again, personifying a computer program that has no concept of behaving well or poorly. He hasn’t decide if MS Word is male/female/trans, etc., etc., etc.