Audiobooks: To Act Or Not To Act

I listen to a lot of audio books.  Partly this is because the time I happen to be in my car is usually peak advertising time for regular radio stations (and that annoys me) and partly it’s because I have limited time to read and I get in a lot more stories this way.  Some people insist that this isn’t “reading” (my husband is one of these).  Some people insist it’s the same as reading.  For me, it’s very much not the same as reading.  As a writer, I notice completely different things when I read a book as opposed to listening to one.  I process things entirely differently.

But one debate that I’ve heard out there about audiobooks is whether the readers of those books–the narrators–ought to act.  Should they put on accents, change voices depending on which character is speaking?  Some listeners argue no because they’re interpreting the books in their own way and that somehow interferes with the listeners’ enjoyment.  I’m on the fence about this.  I’ve listened to many audiobooks where the readers did actually act and change voices for characters.  When it’s done well, it’s a real pleasure.  I love listening to Barbara Rosenblatt, particularly all the Elizabeth Peters books she’s narrated.  I feel like having someone who does this well can be a real asset to an audiobook because it holds attention better and makes it almost like listening to a radio program or something  rather than zoning out at a monotone reader who sounds like somebody from a high school lit class.

On the flipside, when it’s done poorly it can ruin a book.  There have been books I’ve been incapable of listening to all the way through because of a voice or accent the reader adopted for one of the characters.  The guy that narrated Nora’s Blood Brothers adopted a weird, supposedly Philadelphia accent for Layla that set my teeth on edge.  Beyond that it made no sense to me, as Quinn is also supposed to be from Pennsylvania and SHE didn’t have a funky accent.  Thankfully someone different narrated The Hollow.  I’m presently listening to Karen Marie Moning’s Bloodfever and having a hard time getting through it.  The narrator has adopted a sugary, surupy southern accent for Mac (who’s from small town Georgia) that’s also annoyingme.  Now I do actually know some folks from small town Georgia who talk in a similar manner, but the drawl is so exaggerated it makes it almost hard to read.  I’ve noticed it’s accents that tend to get me rather than how they “act”.  If the accent is annoying or wrong or overexaggerated, it’s a real turnoff.  There are some books I have to read in print rather than listening to because I can’t tolerate the narrator.

So what about you, ladies and gents?  What’s your take on audiobooks?  Do you prefer them to be just “read” or do you appreciated when they’re acted?  Or do you simply not like them at all?

2 thoughts on “Audiobooks: To Act Or Not To Act

  1. You know, but for anyone else reading the comments, I’m one of those readers who hears all the words in my head as I read. It’s a little faster than actually reading aloud, but not by much. So for me, listening to someone else read a book is pretty much exactly like listening to myself read a book. My husband, who reads like a “normal” person, doesn’t get this and also doesn’t consider it reading.

    When reading dialogue, I do hear different tones of voice that I give the different characters, and I absolutely prefer a performer who changes how s/he reads different characters. A man doesn’t have to actually sounds like a woman when he reads a woman, but part of acting is being able to settle you in and make you believe that you’re hearing that character speaking, even if, while listening more objectively, the speaker could be easily identified as a man. And vice versa, of course. So yes, I think readers should be actors, but also that they shouldn’t overact and allow what they bring to the characters to overshadow the work itself, such as when they bring in an overdone or just plain wrong accent or something like that.

    As I’m somewhat easily led and lulled by fiction, there’s not a whole lot I can’t adjust to. The reader I’m listening to today started out reading everyone with what seemed like a lot of urgency, underscored by the fact that he was taking sharp, audible breaths before every line. If he’s still doing that, I no longer notice. I’m often good at filtering out what I don’t want to hear once the story gets going.

    If I had to listen to a completely flat reading, I think I’d have a difficult time keeping up with who was speaking because I wouldn’t have the visual cues of new paragraphs and quotation marks to keep track.

  2. I love audiobooks. I listen to them for the same reason you do – I can do that at times when I have other things on my hands.

    I think to me the overall voice and reading quality of the reader matters much more than acting ability. The reading has to be smooth, for example I have a copy of A Princess of Mars by a reader – I’d have to check for the name – who basically stops after every sentence. He’s doing an OK job otherwise, but those pauses make it very hard to listen to. Another problem occurs in librivox audiobooks, where a book will be read by multiple readers. Now, I know that the aim of librivox is to simply provide audiobooks because some people are not able to read even when they have the time and the desire; and so such an audiobook is “better than nothing”, but for me it is a total showstopper.

    I I think in general I do prefer if the readers attempt to vary their voices for different characters. Just gives the whole thing a bit more variation. And in some cases it makes it easier to follow the dialogue. Even when this is done “badly”, it works for me, because I KNOW that it’s all the same guy anyway and I can suspend my disbelief enough. I think it helps bring the reading closer to storytelling, where IMO such simplified acting is normal, that a simple “clinical” reading of a prefabricated book.

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