How Stories Change When They Move From Page to Voice

From LitHub:

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.

15 thoughts on “How Stories Change When They Move From Page to Voice”

  1. “I’m not a[n] opponent of audiobooks; it is simply important to recognize that there is a significant difference between the printed book and the audiobook.” I’d suggest there’s a “difference” but for most novels and non-technical, non-fiction works, it’s not that significant.

    “Will writers—either consciously or subconsciously—start writing books so that they sound good when read aloud?” I would hope so. Anyone that’s ever attended a critique group likely had their work read aloud, preferably by another person so they can hear how it’s delivering. There, you’ll find those awkward sentences that are difficult when heard or read. Anyone that has had their audiobook produced likely cringed at certain sentences and may have even done a slight re-write. I have.

    • I have only produced one audiobook, partly for the experience of what it would take (and to evaluate cost/earnings — disfavorably). Since I have a radio-esque gender-puzzling voice, I did it as a “read by the author” version.

      It was an eye-opener.

      First of all, the very act of reading it out loud turned up all sorts of typos and infelicities on a manuscript I thought was finished and all “done” with edits. (I now recommend reading out loud as part of the final editorial process.)

      Since my character names were mostly Welsh, I got to use the same pronunciation guide I’d added to the index, and wasn’t that fun.

      Still, I wasn’t displeased with the result, as a recording.

      But for the rest of the article above, I don’t think there’s any problem conveying in narration the details you can convey in writing. Bold and italics are simple to voice. Gender doesn’t matter. Even her “Natalia” in quotes, which is harder to voice, could have easily been dealt with by a sentence the first time it was used (“Let’s call her Natalia”) and another sentence the first time the quotes disappeared (“I confess, her name really is Natalia”).

      So, yes, get over it. You can’t control what readers think with words or voice — you can only paint the bare sketch (“a red barn”). No matter how many details you add to your description, the reader will still see a red barn that they create themselves, not yours. Even the visual arts (like a movie or play) can only show a particular red barn — they can’t make it echo in the reader’s mind as the place they lost their virginity or where their dog finally killed the rabbit — that’s what the reader has to bring to the communication process.

      • About voicing to find typos: text to speech is pretty good there.
        Especially since most engines will spell out mis-spelled words. Some will also highlight the words as they’re read out.

        Its a readily available *free* tool that is underused.

  2. One of my narrators uses that compares his recording to the text and finds any discrepancies. Super helpful in both finding a little word he may have missed or maybe a word he slurred.

  3. Some prose is made to be read out loud, performed. Most prose is meant to be read on the page and turns to gibberish when spoken out loud.

    This is an example of prose meant to be read out loud.

    Neil Gaiman Reading Instructions

    When I have tried to listen to an audio book, it is simply noise. When it begins to be understood, I start feeling a strange anxiety as it slips in and out of comprehension.

    This is an example of that, read by the author. Despite that, it is hard to listen too.

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy read by Douglas Adams [Part 1 of 4]

    This is the Radio play, meant to be performed, and is clear as a bell.

    Primary Phase [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Series]

    I can listen to my iMac speak text because the words are said wrong, while I read along with it. I use the speak text feature to catch errors because everything sounds wrong anyway, and the error leaps out clearly.

    BTW, what I just wrote is hard for me to read, because I’m seeing it and trying to read it out loud. Basically, I’m tripping over my own words. Shudder.

    • I never listen to audiobooks, myself. I can stomach performances of plays or poetry, but that’s about it.

      I just hate being read to — I’d much rather get my information visually than through audio input.

  4. P.G., I agree with you completely regarding audiobooks. (I am often cranky, though, so my judgment may be suspect.) I listen to audiobooks several hours each day, since there are too many hours during which my eyes must be focussed on the mundane (driving, dishes, laundry, walking the dog, etc) and cannot be focussed on words on a page. But the words reach my brain much the same way whether they use the eye or the ear for entry. If a narrator is subpar, my brain quickly adjusts and somehow projects the words in visual format and ignores the voice. The only time I find audio particularly difficult is when a very familiar voice makes it impossible to give the words themselves priority. An example: I found it distracting to listen to Tom Hanks narrate Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House; my visual mind kept projecting an image of Tom Hanks which did not at all correspond to the image I felt the words themselves were conveying from the book’s character’s point of view. But such instances are rare. My Friend Natalia’s author should relax and be grateful that audio allows so many more “readers” the chance to experience her book.

  5. Oral storytelling was around long before literacy and tales were created and performed within this framework for many generations. If (somehow) audio becomes the norm, stories will be crafted for voice once more and thus not sound strange. Frankly, I doubt that it will replace anything, it is yet another method to deliver the visions from our heads into the heads of others.
    I’m waiting for cerebral implants to bring the story directly into the mind (ok, probably not in our lifetimes).
    I personally don’t like audiobooks as they allow my eyes to wander around and engage with other things in my environment and I find myself ignoring the spoken words. Plays and movies keep my attention because my eyes engage with the actors, and print sucks me into a world within my mind that blots out all around me.

    • Cerebral implants?

      They’re coming and probably sooner than expected: The Disruptor Supreme™ of tbe decade is on it in his spare time:

      The guy wants the 21st century to resemble what the 50’s positive futurists proposed.

      As the cited piece points out there’s a dozen outfits working the same space. He just brings the big bucks. ($100M for starters.)

        • Actually, what Musk wants is to emulate FALLOUT NEW VEGAS’s Robert House, the billionaire industrialist who was still active after 200+ years through the use of a life support tank and a neural interface that let him mentally teleoperate robots. House controlled everything in the part of Las Vegas he managed to protect from the chinese nukes in the global nuclear exchange of 2077.

          Musk is an engineer, not a writer, so he’s focused on near term tech: A form of immortality that combined with hybernation can allow STL star travel. 😀

          Unlike SF cyborgs, that much is doable, initially for quadraplegics and sufferers of ALS and other diseases. It’s on the same path as the recently reported “brain wave typing”. Let’s say he’s planning ahead against likely assassination attacks. 😉

Comments are closed.