Nearly everything I’ve published has been recorded. I’ve spent thirty years as an English Language Teaching (ELT) author and video scriptwriter, and the texts and dialogues in ELT books are invariably on audio. This gives me a viewpoint on audio books of novels because not only has my work been recorded, but I’ve been there in the studio while it was being done. Before I ever had a book published, I ran a small studio at the group of schools where I worked, and because the schools used their own materials, I produced recording sessions at least once a week. ELT teaching has always been a popular profession for resting actors, and the recordings from back then are good enough for me to hear without squirming.
When I started writing ELT books it was normal practice for authors to attend all recording sessions. It was interesting, sociable, and you got free coffee and biscuits as well as the chance to meet the entire cast of The Archers. The tradition of BBC Radio Four means that there is a pool (some might say a mafia) of experienced audio actors, and it is a specialized skill. I was amazed when fellow authors told me they declined invitations to attend recording sessions, and had never listened to the audio version of their work. I would have felt it remiss to have been absent for anything.
Gospel Birds: Garrison Keillor 2 x 90 minute cassettes
How many novelists and biographers have listened through the audios of their books? How many have attended recording sessions? “Audios” is a clumsy word, but it conveniently embraces cassette, CD and download. Some authors are exceptional readers or actors and perform their own work. Bill Bryson is the natural person to read Bill Bryson, Alan Bennett to read Alan Bennett. Garrison Keillor has his own sub-section in large American bookstores: General fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, biography, Garrison Keillor, devotional, crime, cookery, self-help, inspirational, history, political memoirs. I used to keep a couple of Garrison Keillor in the car at all times. If I ran into a bad traffic jam, I put him on, relaxed and watched everyone else get uptight. Most of the ones I have are on cassette, and there’s no cassette player in the car nowadays. I have the facility to put them on CD, but it can only be done in “real time” and without CD indents, CD is a nightmare compared to cassette (which stays where it was when you remove it from the machine). There is now a cassette to MP3 converter and stories in iTunes are supposed to stay where they were when you go back to them. And quite often they do. But not always.
Julie Walters reading her autobiography is one of the best audio-recordings I’ve heard. I found a battered EP record last year of Enid Blyton herself reading Noddy. Few writers have the talent to do so. Actually, I’m not sure that Enid did.
Noddy’s Car: 7″ EP record William’s Treasure Trove, CD set
Mostly writers have to trust the reader and producer. I’d be interested in any audio book that has Martin Jarvis reading it. His Just William series captivated parents and kids alike in the BBC shortened adaptations, and are even better in the more recent unabridged versions. The pleasure of Richmal Crompton lies so much in the language that it’s a shame to truncate her stories. Sean Barrett, who recorded several of my ELT stories, reads anything from end to end faultlessly. Chris Barrie’s readings of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s Red Dwarf novels are brilliantly performed.
I once wrote a pastiche Sherlock Holmes ELT story. The story was about a village cricket team, whose members were being murdered one by one, when cricket balls hit them on the forehead during matches. It transpires that the batsmen were being hypnotized by the umpire. I had read it aloud onto tape myself to check timing, at about forty-five minutes. The producer booked a two hour session, and engaged the 1960s radio Doctor Watson, then elderly, to read it. I was introduced and I asked if he had any questions. He pointed to his script and said, ‘fore-head or forrid?’ I pointed out that the listeners were lower-intermediate learners of English and that I’d prefer fore-head. He smiled, ‘Whichever you want. I only ask because Doctor Watson would most certainly have said forrid.’ I determined at once to record ‘forrid’ and put a note in the book’s glossary. He sat down for the session, signalled for a pause to clear his throat twenty minutes later, and completed the full reading in forty-six minutes flat. It was perfect.
Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. 12 CD Audio book version
Sometimes you can book the best film or stage actor and it doesn’t work. I bought the 12 CD audiobook of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare The Biography, delighted that it was read by Simon Callow who I’ve seen and admired on stage and screen. It’s read too fast (or has been digitally speeded up to fit; I suspect both are true), and his continual downward inflections drop below the volume level for listening in a car. You hear ‘SHAKESPEARE WAS BORN in Strafd –n-av.’ After puzzling our way through three CDs, I rejected it as unlistenable. From long experience of recording sessions I can hear that the actor was not given enough studio time. He sounds hurried and some sentences seem to betray sight-reading for the first time.
From ELT recording experience in both British and American English, American actors demonstrate a lack of a spoken voice (Radio Four) acting tradition. For years we had so much trouble with punctuation on American recordings that we started writing the recording scripts separately to the book text. We found American actors continually read commas as full stops. If the dialogue was, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’ the reading was. ‘Alright. (one, two). I’ll do it.’ Worse, if the text was ‘OK, she said, I’ll …’ the reading would be, ‘OK. (one two) She said (period). I’ll …’ This may be the fault of having the editors attend sessions instead of authors. While my publishers always encouraged me to attend British sessions and paid my travel expenses, and bought me a sandwich for lunch, their American division declined to pay for me to attend American ones in New York. On ELT sessions, common advice is to read at the slower end of natural speech, but to find pauses to allow the foreign learner thinking time, or ‘catch-up’ time. This advice in Britain gives you natural sounding pauses with the odd mm, er, or ah, as filler. I suspect in New York the advice got simplified to ‘Leave long pauses.’ Paradoxically, I found that teachers who had used both British and American versions in East Asia or Latin America said their students preferred the less natural speed of the American versions.
The BBC dramatisation of The Lord of The Rings, 13 cassette boxed set
BBC radio plays are well-renowned, but they have some serious pitfalls as audio books. The award winning dramatisation of The Lord of The Rings was designed by someone with the word ‘wireless’ still in their vocabulary. They had envisaged people sitting down quietly at home to listen to it. I have rarely listened to an audio book at home. When I have, it was because I was either ill in bed, or because I wanted to hear the last ten minutes of a story I’d started in the car. I’d guess the primary uses of audio books are when travelling, either on car audio systems, or on personal stereos and MP3 players on trains, buses or planes. This dictates the way you record. A wide dynamic range between soft and loud passages is unacceptable, because over engine, tyre and wind noise, a driver will constantly be adjusting volume level. The BBC Lord of The Rings is too irritating on car systems, even very good ones. You’re constantly adjusting volume.
The Day of The Triffids, 3 CD audio book
Another major error is the over-use of sound effects. A John Wyndham BBC radio adaptation, The Day of The Triffids, nearly caused an accident. First came a sudden police siren and later a spectacularly real car crash effect that made me jerk the steering wheel in anticipation. Never put police sirens, car horns, screaming tyres or car crash effects on material for in car listening.
Radio plays present the story as dialogue intespersed with internal monologue and / or a narrator to fill in the gaps. Most stories and novels are best read by a single narrator. Some Enid Blyton audiobooks used a man and a woman, playing the appropriate parts, but such gender differentiation is not necessary with a good reader. The best multiple-reader recording I’ve heard is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, with six readers, including Martin Jarvis. This suits the book’s multiple narrators and temporal shifts. The same system is used on her next book, The Swan Thieves, another superb recording.
Though a single reader is the normal way of doing audio books, it hits problems. David Nicholls’ One Day comes in a 15 CD unabridged version, read by Anna Bentinck. She brings the characters to life admirably, and in sections about Emma alone or Dexter alone, the reading is excellent. When Emma and Dexter have dialogue, you run into a volume problem, because she naturally does the male voice by lowering her pitch and also her volume. In a car this is annoying, and especially so on chapter one, with a lot of interaction. One has to point out that a careful producer / engineer could have changed the levels and improved clarity, so blame the person twiddling the controls rather than the actor. In language laboratories (now fallen out of use) it was generally found that a female voice was clearer for listening in a foreign language, because the higher pitch cut through the background better. The same is true in your own language in the in-car situation, which is why Sat Navs with audio default to a female voice, though it’s also said that drivers switch into child-mother roles and get less angry with a female voice. I don’t believe it. Any voice stridently instructing me to turn right past what are clear NO ENTRY signs gets on my nerves and I keep it switched off. But given a neutral story, a female voice is often preferable, but when doing male lines, the choice of low and husky impairs audibility.
My Family & Other Animals and The Fellowship of The Ring
In general, the unabridged version of a story is preferable. Over the years with our children on journeys, we worked through the eight cassette unabridged My Family and Other Animals, read by Nigel Davenport, three times, and everything else by Gerald Durell too. We went right through the unabridged 38-cassette Lord of The Rings, read by Rob Inglis, twice. The second time we fast-forwarded over every song. Tolkien was a truly dire songwriter.
The Lost Symbol & Flashman
Abridging a story is an art form in itself, and is a specialist task. I’m not convinced that the original writer is capable of wielding the scissors on their own text. If they’d envisaged it shorter, they would have written it shorter. This may also be a reason against novelists attending recording sessions, as it’s nearly always an abridged version. To me, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code works better as a story on the abridged audio (6 CDs) than it does in either the book or film. The plot is paramount, and audio books strip the story to its plot. The original book is too long. The film’s too short. I deliberately chose the abridged audio of The Lost Symbol in preference to the book or the unabridged version, thoroughly enjoyed it and felt no lack. They could do a search on “He stared in surprise” though and try to rephrase it sometimes. I’ve heard the audiobook of The Historian twice, and the abridged version feels just right in length.
Audiobooks can have more impact. We had both read The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, and the story of the central characters burns in a car crash is horrific. But even more so in the audio book, We realized that we’d speeded up our reading on some of the really nasty sections but listening to the audio book in the car you can’t do that.
Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies was better as an unabridged audio book than even the book, the stage play or the TV series because you could focus on her exquisite use of words and detail. Mal Peet’s Tamar is interesting because in reading it, we’d both read faster in the “London 1990s” bits than in the “Holland 1944” bits, finding the latter more interesting. Not so with the unabridged audio book, where every paragraph had impact in both storylines. Here they used a male voice for the 1944 narrative (Anton Lesser) and a female voice for the granddaughter’s tale “now” (Anna Maxwell Martin) and both are exemplary.
I’m a great admirer of everything George Macdonald Fraser ever wrote, and eagerly bought several of the the Flashman audio CDs. It’s just the sort of action-packed narrative that works well, but I found the audios mildly disappointing, because like Richmal Crompton, it’s the language that also appeals, and the many humorous asides inevitably get cut. There is an older unabridged cassette version, read by Timothy West, but it’s long out of print unfortunately. My sons, who put them on iPods for long journeys had never read the books, so loved the audios.
War & Peace 1: Talking Classics, 2 CDs
The two CD versions of classics sold as a magazine partwork, Talking Books (Orbis), a few years ago took abridging to extremes, like that ancient joke about the person who took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in an hour. (It’s about Russia.) The version of Great Gatsby is not bad on two CDs. With Middlemarch and Tom Jones, they were pushing their luck. They actually did War and Peace (aka Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace to distinguish it from all the other ones) too, but over two issues on four CDs.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo CD set
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest are the sort of audio books where you find yourself sitting in the car for ten minutes after you’ve parked to finish the next bit. They throw up two major audiobook issues. Because they’re abridged, the plot is compacted. Larsson has the Scandinavian habit of frequently referring to characters by only their family names. Not consistently though, just sometimes. With the major characters, you eventually pick up that Lisbeth is also Salander; Mikael is also both Blumqvist and Kaller; and Erika is also plain Berger. In English, you don’t normally refer to female love interest by their surnames as ‘Berger’. Then when it extends to references to five or six police officers who you’ve encountered just once, you can’t possibly tie the family name to the given name. You can’t grasp the gender either. With most books, even if you can’t remember that the character ‘Anna’ was also called ‘Smith’, the female given name eliminates half the possibilities. It doesn’t happen so badly in the books because you see the names in print as well. Martin Wenner does a fine reading, and should be proud of his ability to render Swedish names with accurate pronunciation. Unfortunately it exacerbates the problem, because it’s harder to hear the words and they blend into a vaguely Swedish noise. I noticed that the translator avoided all those Swedish vowels, and Anglicized the spellings. The reader put all those O’s with diagonal lines across them back. With ELT recordings we had to be aware that our listeners might be in Japan, Mexico and Turkey, and so we never went overboard on pronouncing foreign words as a native speaker would. So Osaka is read with the English speaker’s stress pattern, not the very different Japanese one. Paris is read in the English way. Only American sailors in 1950s musicals talk about visiting Paree (before breaking into a dance routine with mops, brooms or umbrellas).
Audio recording has been affected by technology, and mainly this has been a negative. Years ago, the producer would listen to a reading before recording, and because it was so fiddly to edit the tape, it was easier to re-record any mistakes than play around with scissors, or rather a razor blade and cutting block. The result was that even on a short six-line ELT dialogue, the actors would read it five or six times before producer, engineer and author (notice which one comes last) were agreed that it was a good take. By the time they’d read it six times, the actors had more or less memorized the script. Nowadays, the recording begins immediately on the first reading, and if there’s a problem on a word, the actor can just say the word again and in seconds the engineer will have clipped it in. This will happen with all fluffs and throat noises and sibillants, so that mainly what you get will be a first reading. In contrast, thirty years ago I spent most of an afternoon watching two actors record a pastiche ‘Yes / No contest’ many many times. It was perfect to me by around the fifth reading, but we went on to do a dozen more. I asked the producer why. The first line in the dialogue said, ‘You’ve got thirty seconds …’ and we kept going until the actors timed the game at exactly thirty seconds. I protested that no one would be counting, but was told that wasn’t the point. Nowadays that couldn’t happen. If it was thirty-four seconds or twenty-seven seconds, the engineer would digitally tweak the running speed and clip pauses until it was thirty seconds. A CD has a technical maximum length of eighty minutes and if the reading were to come to eighty-two minutes, the engineer would simply speed the recording up enough to eliminate two minutes. As a listener, you wouldn’t notice. No one is going to produce a six CD audio book with ten minutes on the sixth CD. They would speed up and manipulate pauses until it fitted on five.
When twenty-four frames per second feature films were shown on TV at twenty-five frames a second (PAL) no one ever noticed that they were slightly faster. (On American NTSC it’s thirty frames a second, and some frames are doubled randomly to process twenty-four frame a second movies … it’s less speeded up, but not as smooth). So no one will notice three or four minutes taken from an eighty-four minute recording by increasing the speed. But they will notice ten minutes taken from a ninety minute recording, and this ‘gabble’ factor can be present on audiobooks. An author attending the recording session will make no difference to this. The dirty deed will be done later.
The need to slice audio books into eighty-minute chunks has been eliminated by downloads. Even where the carrier medium is an old-fashioned CD, it’s possible to put the signal on at reduced MP3 quality. With a recent ELT book of mine, full bandwidth recording required five CDs. At MP3 quality, which is perfectly good for spoken voice, they fitted onto one CD. However, most audio books are sold in stores as conventional CD sets. If only someone would perfect a six CD box that didn’t come unhinged propelling its contents all over the car.
What can an author offer at an audio-recording session? In ELT, the author can advise on pronunciation, accents, pausing and pace. We always tried to record when illustrations had been completed because they so often helped the actor’s interpretation. The same is true of children’s books. More importantly, if the recording is made before a book goes to press, text corrections can be made after the recording session. It might be that punctuation will change to match what the actor has said. It might be that you prefer a fortuitous slip by the actor to what you had written. Your presence gives the actors and producer more leeway. We’d written an ELT dialogue about a boy going off to university, and his younger sister was trying to scrounge items from his room; posters, CDs, plants etc. At one point he says ‘What about these magazines?’ and she replies, ‘No, thanks. Not those magazines.’
When the actor read the part, she wrinkled her nose and said, ‘Ergh! No, thanks! Not those magazines!’ and everyone fell about laughing in the studio. The producer laughed too, but said, ‘You’d better read it straight.’ Because I was there, I could intervene and say, ‘No, she’s improved it. It was dull before. Now it’s funny. Keep it.’ Allowing actors to improve your work may appall most writers. Scriptwriters are used to it. Just smile and take the credit.
The situation with the magazines. Illustration from Grapevine One, Unit 28