Twenty years ago, Grover Gardner began narrating a series of comic mysteries whose title character is a white lawyer named Andy Carpenter. In the series—written by David Rosenfelt—Carpenter also has a partner, Willie Miller, who’s a Black ex-con, which means Gardner had to voice Miller too. Back then, he hardly gave any thought to the fact that he was a white narrator voicing a Black man. “I probably modeled him on something I’d heard on television, on Hill Street Blues, or The Wire,” Gardner said. Today, 14 books later, he’s still voicing Willie—but he’s changed his approach. “I’d think very hard about doing that kind of accent now,” he said.
In an era of heightened sensitivity to issues of representation and misrepresentation, it’s no longer acceptable to cast a white actor as a character of color in a movie or TV show. But audiobooks play by different rules. It’s customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book’s narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel’s author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own.
When audiobooks first rose to popularity in 1980s, the field was overwhelmingly white. Gardner, who has been an audiobook narrator for four decades and also works as a producer, recalls that, for the first couple of decades of his career, “the whole industry was geared toward middle-aged white businessmen” who listened to “books on tape” while on the road for work. There were hardly any narrators of color, and few female narrators back then, Gardner said. “I recorded Scott Turow’s [1990 novel] Burden of Proof. The narrator of that book is a Latino lawyer,” he told me. “I did it. We did whatever they sent us back then. But I wouldn’t do that book today. You would find a Latino narrator to do it.”
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Apart from the amused response to the cartoonish accents Ronan Farrow rolled out when narrating the audio version of his 2019 exposé Catch and Kill, the audiobook world has so far been largely free of the sort of scandals that have triggered reckonings about representation in other creative industries, like magazine publishing and television. This is partly because it’s a low-profile, unglamorous field that doesn’t attract a lot of attention from the press. But many who work in the industry still feel the tensions around casting acutely. Amid a publishing boom in literature by writers of color, nonwhite narrators are being offered more work than they once were. Meanwhile, like most narrators, they find themselves getting asked to voice marginalized characters from backgrounds that bear no resemblance to theirs. January LaVoy, a biracial narrator who identifies as Black, said that cross-cultural audiobook narration is freighted in different ways for white narrators and narrators of color. “For many white narrators, it’s difficult because of fear [of backlash]. For many narrators of color, it’s difficult because of the weight of responsibility.” The industry is grappling with these issues daily. “It’s difficult for everyone,” LaVoy said.
Although some publishers have audiobook divisions, they usually function separately from the print division, and the audio rights for many titles get sold to separate companies such as Brilliance or Blackstone. The producer of an audiobook, who is employed by the publisher, acquires the rights and oversees casting and other big-picture decisions, such as opting for multiple narrators on a novel that often switches points of view.
Michele Cobb, a producer and the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, told me that she and her colleagues have tried to figure out how they can sensitively ask narrators to provide producers with information about their backgrounds—such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability—that can be helpful when casting. Cobb explained that it’s an ongoing challenge to cast appropriate narrators for books by authors of color, while avoiding typecasting. In her own company, which publishes romance audiobooks, “I’ve definitely had authors come back and say, ‘Well, this character is white so I wouldn’t go with a Black narrator,’ ” a choice she feels obliged to respect.
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Traditionally, both a director and an engineer, usually both freelancers, work on the recording with the narrator. Director Simone Barros outlined an exhausting list of tasks to me, from making sure the narrator doesn’t skip or add words to researching accurate regional pronunciations and maintaining continuity. “You can get to the last page of the book, and it will mention that a character had a German accent the whole time,” said Barros, speaks with the mile-a-minute lucidness of a person whose job is anticipating every contingency. Barros is of Cabo Verdean descent and identifies as Black.*
In the case of some first-person narrators, such as the one in Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, an audiobook Barros directed, the book is “written so much within the perspective of the first person that the ethnicity of other characters are specifically heard from the narrator’s perspective of them. More specifically in Antkind, the author’s very point is this shifting, mutable and even unreliable perspective, to shine a light on how too often minority characters go unseen, or only seen or heard through a bias cipher.” But with a book written in the third person, she and her narrator will work up a full voice profile—a cache of recorded dialogue and biographical information—for each speaking character. That way, if, say, a villain appears in a novel’s first few pages only to disappear for several chapters, the narrator and director can remind themselves of what he sounds like. Such profiles are particularly helpful with recurring characters in sequels and series, which may be recorded years later.
In the past, it was largely left up to the professionals behind the scenes to anticipate and head off any problems. Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a book’s author—the person most intimately acquainted with a title—to have no input at all in the audiobook production. But as audiobooks became a more mainstream and high-profile format, authors began seeking more oversight. Today, writers often get the final say on casting, and are often invited to choose a narrator from a selection of sample recordings and encouraged to provide crucial information about how characters ought to sound. Nathan Harris, a Black writer whose debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, is set at the end of the Civil War, knew the accents of his multiracial cast of characters, who include freed slaves, would be a challenge. “You can go down a very precarious road with how they sound,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it myself.” His publisher presented him with an audition recording by William DeMeritt. “They told me they could go in all sorts of different directions if that’s what I wanted,” Harris said. “But he just nailed it.”
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Some narrators say they now turn down jobs when they feel unsure about voicing major characters. Cassandra Campbell—narrator of, among other things, Delia Owens’ bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel featuring several Black supporting characters—recalled narrating the first two in a series of books, which made her the automatic choice for the third. But when she discovered that the third book was told from the point of view of a young Burmese boy, Campbell, who is white, bowed out. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with it,” she said.
A multitude of minor characters can turn an audio book into a minefield for its narrator. Edoardo Ballerini, who was profiled in the New York Times Magazine last year as “a go-to voice for intelligent, subtle but gripping narrations of books,” says he’s now most often asked to narrate books requiring European accents. (His father is an Italian poet, and he was raised in New York.) Still, challenges do arise. “Take a James Patterson book,” he explained. “Let’s say it’s set in New York City and the detective is hard-boiled, an Italian-American. I can do that. His partner is a feisty woman and I think I can handle that.” But then the minor characters start showing up, sometimes slotted into uncomfortably stereotypical roles: “They get in a cab and there’s the cabbie, or they run into a perp who happens to be Black, or whatever it is. You have to voice them as well. And there’s really no way for anyone to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to do this book because there are a handful of lines by an Indian cabbie.’ ”
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A character’s accent can be an evocation of her origins and identity, but it can also be—as was the case with Apu, the Indian-born convenience-store clerk on The Simpsons, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria—a mocking caricature. (Azaria recently announced that he would no longer voice Apu and expressed a desire to “go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize.”) “Actors love to do accents!” Campbell told me. “It’s fun to do vocal gymnastics, but we have had a moment of recognizing that there are certain accents where you’re appropriating someone’s culture.”
The one motto that nearly every audiobook professional I interviewed repeated to me when I asked about their strategies for dealing with accents is “less is more.” Kevin R. Free—a Black theater actor who began narrating audiobooks 20 years ago and has become the voice of both a soap opera–addicted cyborg in Martha Wells’ Murderbot series and of Eric Carle’s iconic picture books (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc.)—laughingly recalled reporting for his very first recording session armed with a set of theatrically bold character voices, only to be told by his director: “I don’t want you to think of doing this book as doing a solo show. … There’s no reason for you to go all the way there.”* That holds especially true for cross-cultural accents. If Ballerini feels that “maybe I’m not the right person to give a voice to this particular character, let me just do it as plainly and as simply as I can. I think that’s a general trend that’s happening in the industry.”
Link to the rest at Slate