Thursday, June 24, 2010

National Audiobook Month: Narrators

In honor of National Audiobook Month, Jen from Devourer of Books is hosting an Audiobook Week. Jen's had a slew of activities going on both on her blog and on Twitter. Be sure you stop by her blog to see all the fun...and prizes! As part of that week, I'm dedicating today's Audiobook Thursday to the topic of Narrators. I've also asked two of my dear friends and fellow bloggers to contribute today. Naomi and Michael are both fans of the audiobook, and between the three of us, we will be talking about what we look for in a good audiobook narrator.

When you listen to audiobook fans talk, you will inevitably hear the comment "a narrator can make or break a book." And this is very true, even more so with a book that is just so-so. Last week when I interviewed Jeff Woodman, he pointed out a saying in the industry, "A good book needs a good narration, but a bad book needs a great narration." And narration is so much more than reading, it's acting. The challenge a narrator has is to act without the use of body language or facial expressions. That's quite a feat in and of itself, but when the narrator is having to compensate for a weak story as well, he/she is truly handicapped.

So then ultimately, what are we listening for to say, "this is a great narrator?" What characteristics make us look forward to a specific narrator's work? Maybe even try a book we wouldn't normally read because we enjoy the narrator? Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint that definition, but Naomi, Michael and I have tried to articulate exactly what we look for in an audiobook narrator.


When Jen asks a favor, who can refuse? In recognition of Audio Book Month, she asked Michael and me to write about our favorite narrators or what we listen for in a narrator. One thing leads to another, because to talk about what I listen for in a narrator, I have to start with my favorite narrator, Mark Hammer.

Mark Hammer was my audio introduction to the world of Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcel, boudain, bayous, and New Iberia, all of which I already knew about from the wonderful books of James Lee Burke. The first time I heard Hammer's gravelly, whiskey-soaked tones, Burke's story and characters came to vivid life for me. When I listened to Hammer describe the evil deeds of the character named Legion (in Jole Blon's Bounce), I was in that world, facing that evil. So much so that whenever I listened in my car I became a danger on the interstates. Or, having by divine Providence made it safely to my destination, I would sit in the parking lot at work or the driveway at home, listening until the chapter ended. And sometimes longer. A lot longer.

I wish I could say that every audio book that I've listened to since has only extended that remarkable experience. Some have, but by no means all or even most. But every narrator, no matter how good at what he or she does, is not suited to read every novel. The right narrator is a wholly subjective choice, of course. Some listeners prefer Will Patton's readings of the Dave Robicheaux books. I prefer Hammer, and it's really for one simple reason: because Hammer's voice is the one I already heard in my head when I read the books. His voice conveyed both the years and the mileage on Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic and Vietnam veteran. His voice had a world-weary quality that could yet be genuinely shocked in the face of evil or still revel in the natural beauty of our planet.

The voice that develops in my head when I read a book is the result of what author Robert Crais talks about when he discusses why he won't sell Hollywood the film rights to his Elvis Cole series. He has said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that an author's book is a work of art that is not really complete until it is read by strangers. Those characters in a book are seen differently by every reader, and that is when the art becomes complete. Readers may have differing opinions on what Elvis Cole looks like or sounds like, but none of us are wrong because each of us completes the art in a different way. Putting those characters into film would force all of us to see that character one way, and one way only, and probably forever. In a sense, audio books do that, too. The reader is forced to accept one voice even though as he is listening, an altogether different voice may be developing in his head.

With a book, nothing comes between the author and me but a typesetter. With audio books, the narrator steps between the author and me. That narrator does not complete the work of art, but does forever alter my experience of it. In the case of Mark Hammer, he enriched my experience, brought it to life and and guided me through the world of Dave Robicheaux, the same way Scott Brick gave breath to the funny, obnoxious New York voice I heard in my head when I read Nelson DeMille's John Corey books.

Not all narrators have that wonderful effect on me. I hate to admit it but when it comes to a narrator, it takes little to put me off. A voice too high or too low or too nasal, a patently false accent, mispronunciations, a failure to convey the author's sense of humor, the inability to create distinct voices for the characters, dramatic pauses in the wrong places, any of those will have me reaching for the off button. Worst of all are the narrators who simply read, who have no feel for the characters, no ability to interpret the story. As the years have passed, producers have got better at choosing the right narrator for a book. But again, it's all subjective. The right narrator for me may have a voice that makes someone else want to scream.

What do I listen for in a narrator? I guess the short answer is that I listen for the echo of what I hear in my head when I read. Sounds impossible, right? That's why I'm amazed at how frequently I hear it.


This being Audio Book Month, my dear friend Jen asked if I could contribute a couple of paragraphs toward what I look for in a narrator, or in my favorite narrator. Right off the bat, I have to say it still comes down to the words the writer puts down on the page. The story is still king, in my world at least. As much as I love to listen to the audiobook narrations from the likes of George Guidall, William Roberts, or Robertson Dean (to name a few), I'm not going to invest the time (we're talking hours in unabridged form listening across a couple of days, here) on a recording as uninteresting as someone reading the equivalent of a phone directory. It's not going to happen, folks. However, for a genre or writer I truly enjoy, when the work reaches audio form, I'll be there happily (with phones in ear). It's an oft repeated axiom by audiobook fans, and it remains real enough, but a good narrator can make all of the difference. It means all of the reader's vocal and delivery skills (or lack of them) can either enhance or diminish the content in an audiobook. It is quite telling (figuratively and literally) to the publication at hand.

A reader can immerse me to the point that I feel like I'm sitting right there with the novel's characters... breathing the same air, in fact. Or, they'll have me tune out every so often without hitting the pause button on my iPod (which is not a good thing). While some see a parallel with readers and the film/theater actor craft, I see another more illustrative analogy for the importance and role of the narrator in an audiobook. believe it or not, it's that of a fashion model in relation to a designer's clothing line. [I'll wait till you stop laughing] Ahem... If you don't already know, the model's job is to display (promote) the clothing (the product). [Note: this is the exact opposite of what men expect from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazine edition, btw] In other words, the model (whether it's a woman or a man) is there to make the clothes look good. Of course, if the clothes are crap, it's just like putting lipstick on a pig. In print, the works of Ann Coulter would qualify, but I digress…

The same goes for the audiobook reader and the written material. Their role is to give voice to what the author has created--not themselves. The good ones make what is on the page alive in the minds of the listener through their prowess of voice, intonation, or dialect. Even knowing where the rhythm of the story demands a dramatic pause (by the reader) can't be overstated as a deftness for a skilled narrator. If the voice artist (or model) gets too histrionic or too dull, all they accomplish is drawing their audience to them, and away from the product or story. The reader cannot be purpose of an audiobook, only its distinction. The true ability of bringing the product to shining light, that which only the great professionals possess, is a rare commodity, in either field. This is a unique domain in which they operate. Both are really art forms themselves, one that is meant to draw people's eyes, ears, or minds to another form of art. That end result is a singular feat, IMO. It is one I continually search (and sometimes find) in the works of audiobooks. It is the place where pages and words are successfully melded into my head by the beautiful craftsmanship of an narrator. And, that is what I look for.

Jen (oh, right, that's me):

And now I have to follow THAT! Yee gads. Like Naomi, Mark Hammer IS Dave Robicheaux to me. When I read a Robicheaux novel, his voice is what I hear in my head. Likewise, I feel that way about George Guidall as Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire. As Michael pointed out, the quality has to start with the story. James Lee Burke and Craig Johnson have provided the quality stories and the narrators take over from there. I'm going to talk in terms of great story being a given, so on that even ground what qualities make me say, "this is one of my favorite narrators"?

Naomi made a vital point when she said no two readers read a character exactly the same way. And like Naomi, narrators I've judged as great are ones that come closest to interpreting the work the way I have; they give voice to what I have heard echoing in my head. They add dimension to my flat experience. And because of that interpretation factor, a narrator can do nothing essentially “wrong” and still not be the right fit in my mind.

Some items are not left up to interpretation, and this is where I tend to be most critical of a narrator. A big part of the narrator’s job is to know the author’s work. Walt Longmire is not 25 years old. He's nearing the end of his career and he's a tired man. That in turn influences the pacing and tone of Craig Johnson’s novels. That needs to be reflected in the narration. Dave Robicheaux has spent his life in the bayous of Louisiana. French words and accents aren't a new concept to him and they should roll off his tongue. Elvis Cole is sarcastic, hilariously so. O.k., maybe the "hilarious" part is interpretation, but the sarcasm should not be. A narrator who doesn't take the time to know the intimate details about the characters and overlooks the importance of those details, isn't doing his/her job.

Another factor I take into consideration is the vividness of emotion the narrator creates. A great example of this would be Jeff Woodman when he brings Samantha Starkey to life in Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak series. Samantha is perky and bubbly. Woodman’s tone and pace and energy bring that to life, and he doesn’t come across like a drag queen. I don’t envision Woodman in a studio reading, I see Samantha Starkey. I see the look on her face, the bounce in her step. Another prime example of this is Ralph Cosham narrating Louise Penny’s Three Pines series. Armand Gamache has a special affection for his detective Jean Guy Beauvouir. It is a deep, beautiful, compassionate relationship between two heterosexual males. Cosham brings the beauty and sometimes the pain of that relationship to life. The key here, and this is where many narrators fail for me, is to not go over the top. The emotion should come through naturally, not forced.

Finally, a great narrator makes you feel the experience of the audio book. If it’s a thriller, you may experience a shortness of breath. In a particularly emotional scene, you may feel an emptiness or loss. It could be joy for an accomplishment or relief that a monster is arrested or dead. In Michael Koryta’s SO COLD THE RIVER, Robert Petkoff sends chills up your spine with the eeriness of Campbell Bradford.

All of these narrators have been wonderfully matched with stories appropriate for their skills and talents. The characteristic that they all share? They each draw the reader’s attention to the story, not to themselves. Instead of using the story to show off their personal talents, they climb inside the work and use their talents to show off the story. The joy of a great audio book is the magical blending of the author’s great words with the narrator’s great voice and the reader’s imagination. The perfect triangle.

O.k., you've heard from us. Now it's your turn to share. What do you like in a narrator? What makes a particular narrator your favorite or what characteristics allow you to most easily enjoy a book on audio?

And don't forget to shoot over to Devourer of Books and find other great posts and discussions and contests about audiobooks as we continue to celebrate this story-telling art.

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Jen - Devourer of Books June 24, 2010 at 9:36 AM  

Wow, you guys were really, really thorough, I'm not sure what I can still add to that!

Beth F June 24, 2010 at 2:05 PM  

If you read my audiobook reviews you'll find I tend to comment on the same things over and over:

pacing: I want the narrator to covey the pacing of the plot, ease on up when we're on a drive through the country and ramp it up when we're running through the woods with the killer right behind us.

characterization: I want to easily tell who is talking when, but I'm not big into the overly dramatic (unless it's required as in the Flavia books). I don't need a hundred thousand unique and awesome voices, just some signals so I don't get lost.

Those are two big ones for me. Also pronunciation, dialects, adn teh avoidance of anything that draws me out of the story.

I don't ask for much, do I?

Michelle June 24, 2010 at 2:21 PM  

I'm not a big audiobook person, but I've given a few a go.

I remember listening to the Twilight books on audio (During my *brief* love affair with the series), and I was annoyed with the fact that the narrator couldn't pronounce simple words correctly. The pronunciation of "solder" (Which I think she said as sole-der) bugged me to no end.

Booksnyc June 24, 2010 at 6:58 PM  

great post! I agree -the narrator is key for me to the point where I am now noting narrators I enjoy and seeking them out. The overly dramatic ones drive me nuts!

le0pard13 June 24, 2010 at 8:31 PM  

This was great fun, Jen. Thanks very much for asking me to join you and Naomi in this. You are one very generous friend.

Jen Forbus June 24, 2010 at 8:46 PM  

Candace - you definitely don't ask too much! :-)

Michelle - mispronunciations can be an annoyance in audiobooks. I haven't run across that very often, and with my favorite narrators it's never happened. (Knock on wood.)

Booksync - I'm with you on the over dramatics. Ironically some of the narrators I've wrinkled my nose at for that exact thing have turned out to be really popular with a lot of other audiobook fans. Guess I'm just the odd ball!

Jen Forbus June 24, 2010 at 8:48 PM  

Michael, it is truly my honor to have you hanging out with me on this one.

For those that don't know Michael yet, I encourage you to check out his blog - the link is in this post. He's my guru when it comes to audiobooks. I know I wouldn't appreciate them half as much as I do without having Michael to talk with, ask questions, compare notes. He's the best!

pattinase (abbott) June 25, 2010 at 3:19 PM  

Oh, what a difference a good reader can make. Just read a book that was saved for me by the compelling voice, actually voices that read it. And another where a good book was sabotages by a reader who made all three voices sound alike.

Naomi Johnson June 26, 2010 at 9:48 AM  

Anyone ever listened to FALLING by Elizabeth Jane Howard? There are two readers, Janet Suzman and Robert Lindsay. It's a mainstream novel that has serious bleeding into the crime genre. That's an audiobook that made me never want to read the hardcopy, because the voices were so on target, the narration so perfect. I don't know if I've ever heard another audiobook that had quite that effect on me.

Thanks, Jen and Michael, for letting me (making me?) be a part of this.

pattinase (abbott) June 26, 2010 at 2:05 PM  

Yes, I would like to see two readers more often. I think it would really enhance a number of books where there are two primary characters.

le0pard13 June 28, 2010 at 9:23 AM  

Jen, you always have interesting content, and I enjoy reading your posts very much. So, I have awarded you with The Versatile Blogger award because you deserve it, and as a thank you.

Peter B. February 3, 2012 at 9:10 AM  

Fellow Audiobook fans, my favorite narrator would have to be Frank Muller who sadly passed away half way through the gunslinger series. Book 1-4 were narrated by him and are thoroughly emjoyable. Book 5-7 however are read by George Guidall and even though I noticed some people like his style it seems to me the man is about to burst into tears most of the time. Sadly I just finished "Chiefs" by Stuart Woods (again... for the third time or so...) and Mark Hammer is also way up there in my list of narrating superstars. A good narrator can make the phone directory seem like a good read (listen) Highly recommend "the Green Mile" and "Wizard and Glass" both of which I will have to listen to again unless my library has something decent on its shelves.

Anonymous August 7, 2012 at 10:04 PM  

Narrators can make or break an audio book. Having said this, a good narrator cannot make up for horrendous dialogue. I believe that every author, before submitting his/her manuscript for publication, should have the book read out loud and recorded and then reviewed by impartial parties. This will help "catch" repetitive phrases and awkward (or stilted) dialogue.

I cannot remember the book or author but if I heard a fanny pack referred to as a "belly bag" about 20 times in one track (not much of an exaggeration here) I thought I would scream. I did listen to the entire book but obviously the only memorable part was the annoying phrase.

Another suggestion is that a bit of research should be done by narrators to ensure that pronunciation of regional locales is correct. As much as I love Kate Reading's narration of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, it was annoying to hear her pronounce Henrico County as "Hen-ree-ko" instead of "Hen-righ-ko" -- minor detail but when you have lived in the area it is jarring (and if you are FROM the area -- Richmond Virginia) it would really turn folks off. The little details help to keep people engaged and seeking more.

Anonymous August 7, 2012 at 10:06 PM  

One of my all-time favorites is Mark Hammer's unabridged rendition of Forrest Gump -- It was a work of art.

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