What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?

From Vulture:

During the first days of the 2019 impeachment hearings, the headline of an essay by the Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse floated the question “What does female authority sound like?” One of the earliest witnesses had been the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., a rather ordinary, if genial, middle-aged man. Afterward, Hesse noticed the name Walter Cronkite trending on Twitter. The following day, testimony from Taylor’s equally if not more impressive predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, prompted a standing ovation in the committee room. Yet, Hesse noted, no “adoring comparisons to any deceased icons” had followed. “Her voice, after all, did not sound like Walter Cronkite’s.”

The issue wasn’t how she sounded. It was how she sounded to us, a listening public without the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness, and power.

I have thought about that column and headline many times since the fall of 2019. I thought about it a lot when Joan Didion died late last year, and I thought about it even more trying to listen to a recording of Diane Keaton reading from Didion’s work around that time. Rereading Didion’s essays and reporting after her death, I had thought, That right there is what female authority sounds like — by which I meant the dry, detached, unsentimental, sly but muted, deadpan voice that characterizes not only Didion’s literary style but those of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Mary McCarthy before her as well as the voices of such contemporaries of Didion’s as Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm.

But listening to the five-minute Audible sample of Keaton reading from the first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I had to admit, “Whatever female authority sounds like, it isn’t that.”

. . . .

I had gone online to see whether there were any decent recordings of Didion’s work. I like to keep tabs on this sort of thing, probably because I grew up listening to written-word recordings. As a child, I had trouble falling asleep after we moved to an apartment where I no longer shared a room with my sister, and letting me drift off listening to spoken-arts records was my mother’s solution. So from time to time, I check up on how some author or piece of writing has fared at the hands of the audiobook industry. I do it when a writer who has meant something to me dies. I do it when I run across prose that makes me want to hear it beautifully read. I do it when something I’m reading on the page moves me for reasons I can’t explain.

This happened to me once with a Jonathan Franzen novel. His narrative voice tends to be so mordant, so unforgiving toward his characters, that I couldn’t fathom how something toward the end of his novel Freedom had me sobbing. Flipping back to the beginning pages, I saw how the irony in Franzen’s description of his protagonist mingles caustic knowingness with compassion.

. . . .

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

I wanted to hear what that alchemy sounded like. But when I went to the recording, the actor to whom Macmillan had assigned the book kept telling me with his voice what I was supposed to feel. He seemed to have no understanding of how writing works. Every syllable was an opportunity for a new artistic choice, as though words exist in isolation and sentences have no relation to one another. He wasn’t reading the novel so much as making sure the listener knew it was being read by an Actor. It was impossible to follow the logic, let alone be affected by Franzen’s meticulously calibrated prose.

Link to the rest at Vulture

PG doesn’t believe that he has ever revealed his undergraduate major on TPV.

So here’s the big reveal:

Oral Interpretation

or, if you want more detail,

The Oral Interpretation of Literature.

He understands that many will look at that major and think, “Thank goodness he went to law school. Otherwise, he would have starved to death.”

PG will restrain himself from explaining why Oral Interpretation makes more sense than immediately comes to the mind of an above-average rational person.

The point of this shocking disclosure is to provide some authority to PG’s point related to the OP:

Some people have good speaking voices and habits and others have terrible speaking voices and habits.

It is wonderful if someone has a good speaking voice in her/his genetic makeup, but, absent that blessing, it is possible for anyone to develop a better speaking voice if they feel theirs is not up to snuff.

Motion picture studios hire voice coaches to help actors improve various aspects of their voices.

One of the most common changes to improve the sound of your speaking voice is to lower it a bit.

If you lower it a lot, you’ll sound stupid, but most people have developed a habitual speaking voice that is higher-pitched than is optimum for their physical pipes (a technical term Oral Interpreters learn in their classes). Men or women, just lower your voice just a bit and you’ll sound better.

Ingrid Bergman had one of the great voices for an actress during the middle of the Twentieth Century. Note that it is lower than the voices of many women.

Here’s another clip of a young Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, each with a very good voice.

Here is a collection of very good female voices:

8 thoughts on “What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?”

  1. PG-

    Thank goodness you went to law school. Otherwise, you would have starved to death.

    Yes, I couldn’t help myself, someone had to say it

  2. Yes, well… My reward for being a female tenor is not to be thought of as an “authoritative female” but as a male. Sigh…

    If I had a nickel for everyone who ever called me “Sir” on the phone, I’d have retired long, long ago.

  3. Cadence is right. Most narrators use a mic that picks up everything and an interface where they can adjust the gain. So, they can speak in that low voice. Since so many people listen at faster speeds, narrators can also read more slowly than they used to and use better enunciation. Nobody does this better than Scott Brick. He reads like he has a glass of merlot and is savoring every word.

    Simply hiring an actor, even an A-list actor, doesn’t always cut it because it’s a different art form. I also caution authors from assuming they should read themselves. Few do this well. I do voiceover and anyone can listen to my demos, but I take my own advice and hire others for my books. I don’t do the long form well. I specialize in short, Texas twang VO. I let professional editors edit and professional narrators narrate.

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