Once squarely aimed at the visually impaired, audiobooks continue to rise in popularity with a whole range of readers who want to enjoy books without holding a physical object or using their eyes to constantly scan screen or page. Audiobooks can be used while doing a whole range of other activities—driving/commuting, cleaning and gardening, exercising and walking, sitting in a chair relaxing, and so on. This enables those with busy lifestyles to devour more books, and are used by people from all walks of life. For many, it is not the primary (or, indeed, only) method for consuming books.
In some ways, this is storytelling coming full circle. Storytelling has always been an important social activity, and before the written word, before ‘reading’ was a thing, stories were told and devoured orally. Story-telling was used by religious leaders as a way of explaining their ideas. Ancient philosophy was told via story. Even now, when reading and writing are so commonplace, verbally telling stories is important. Parents and teachers read to children. People share stories when they meet up, sharing tales from their lives or sharing those they’ve heard from others. And there’s a long tradition of reciting ghost stories around a campfire.
Stories are meant to be shared, and this can occur through reading or speaking/listening (and through other means, but I won’t go into that here). But there are differences in how stories are shared, differences between the page and the voice.
It’s often said that a good writer has a distinctive voice, but so do narrators. With audiobooks, a poor narrator can kill a story, and a great narrator can make a good book even better. Sometimes, the success of a book is due, in part, to the success of the narrator, such as The Martian. It gained a following as Andy Weir shared it over his website, and sold well when he first published it, but it’s popularity really soared with the narration by R C Bray, leading to more sales of the book, and then a film deal (which is a whole other way of telling a story).
One way narrators can impact a story so much is in the nuances of voice they bring to a project. Some use different accents to distinguish characters’ dialogue, but there is so much more to ‘telling a good story’. The words on the page are only a starting point.
Think of the classic ‘punctuation is important’ sentences, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’, and it’s less cannibalistic alternative with an added comma, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ Say those two examples out loud, and listen to the way your voice changes. In the second version, you’ll probably find that you pause at the comma. But listen closer, and you’ll notice how your pitch varies too. It’s likely that, in the first version, your voice rises on the first syllable of ‘Grandma’, but you’ll speak the second with different patterns of pitch.
You can also use voice to give differing emotions to the same sentence. Try it for yourself—imagine the second version said by a child eager to tuck into a family meal, and then by a bored teenager who wants their elderly relative to stop their reminiscences so that they can enjoy their food. Stress the first word, and the sentence becomes a plea to finally have food. Stress the word ‘eat’, and eating becomes the chosen activity from an undisclosed list. Stress ‘Grandma’, and we have another alternative, one where the speaker is maybe questioning the reality of the relationship.
To bring out all these meanings, the writer would need to use further sentences, or structure surrounding material in a way that made the nuanced meanings clear in context. But the narrator can paint these emotional pictures with three simple words.
So narration can give meaning in ways that text cannot (at least, not as succinctly). But there are things in text that a narrator cannot easily convey. Think of spacing in poetry, especially in shape poems such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘A Mouse’s Tail’ from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.
Then there’s the textual syntax of things like text-message conversations, or the way Iain M Banks’ ships communicate in his Culture books. In my Shadows series, I use italics and <> symbols to denote tech-aided mind-to-mind communication (as opposed to the usual speech marks enclosing vocal communication), and I have no idea how a narrator would make an audible distinction between these.
There are other ways the appearance of text can aid meaning. Newspaper reports can be displayed in ways that look like old paper. Some books use maps, and others use diagrams or symbols—in Terry Pratchett’s Nation, a couple of characters communicate through drawing, and the different interpretations of these drawings are important to the story. A narrator would have to describe these drawings, which would very probably become cumbersome, and these parts of the book would struggle to work.
So text-based storytelling and vocal storytelling have their own pros and cons. But at the moment, audiobooks are almost always a straight reading of the text. The emotional nuances a narrator adds are often also ‘written’ into the text, and so the audiobook listener gets the same information twice.
In some ways, this makes me think of the early days of film and television, when productions were basically filmed plays. But as cameras became easier to manipulate, and editing techniques developed, film-makers understood how they could use this technology to tell stories in different ways to static, dialogue-heavy stage performances.
Maybe audiobooks should develop into their own form of storytelling. Maybe writers should produce two version of their stories, one for reading from the page, and another for narration. But writing and narration are different skills, just as producing a stage play and a film are very different processes, so maybe audiobooks will become close collaborations between writer and narrator, either stripping down the original text or working up from a ‘bare bones’ version of the story. Then, the audiobook will become not a repetition of the text, but a complement to it, a way of telling the story the writer created but utilised to capitalise on the audio environment. If a narrator can impart meaning through their performance that would take a couple of sentences of text to impart, then the audiobook can become leaner and more focused, allowing the story to take advantages of all the medium can offer.
After all, if so many people are increasingly opting to devour stories through their ears, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with the best experiences possible?