By Robin Whitten
Author readings are among the most popular bookstore events. It's hard to beat the experience of hearing an author read live, often in the intimate setting of a bookstore. But, reading from the book for 10 - 15 minutes and reading the entire book for an audiobook recording are totally different.
Many authors enjoy reading for an audience from their works, or, at least, find it a way to get through the demands of a book tour. Readers and booksellers often extend their enthusiasm for author readings when looking for audiobooks. Some believe that the author is the only suitable narrator for an audiobook. Some authors agree. Others determinedly let the professional narrators and actors handle the audiobook reading. Critically, the author-read results can vary from "stunning" to "aside from the author's distracting lisp...."
What do authors think about reading their own audiobooks? Fannie Flagg, who reads the abridged version of Standing in the Rainbow (Random House), likes to do her own audios. "I know where the laughs are!" she says. Carol Higgins Clark, the daughter of Mary Higgins Clark, has read some of her mother's audiobooks as well as her own. She just completed Jinxed (Simon & Schuster). "I'm aware that there are at least 25 different ways to say the same sentence, and I know, in this case, exactly what the author intended." Both these authors have dramatic training, and they might be better prepared than most to take on the arduous task of recording.
Stephen King's experience narrating his own audiobooks includes at least a dozen titles, some more than 16 hours long. "Authors know what the temperature gradient of the emotion is supposed to be [in their own works]," King says. King has not recorded all his titles, however, and admires what gifted narrators like Frank Muller can bring to the audio experience of the book. Author Chris Bohjalian has never recorded his own audiobooks and says he's glad to leave it to the pros: "I'm flattered that these actors do such terrific jobs interpreting so many different characters, and I'm flattered that they're doing it with my work."
What about the archival value of the authors' voices? In the 50 years audiobook recordings have existed, the voices of some literary icons have been captured as sound recordings. Recordings of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway have been remastered and released recently from the Caedmon archive by HarperAudio. While many of these older recordings are short excerpts, Harper continues to record and preserve the voices of contemporary authors reading their own works: Richard Ford (A Multitude of Sins), Donna Tartt (The Secret History), and Sandra Cisneros (Caramelo). Toni Morrison's readings in such Random House audiobooks as Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Paradise, Song of Solomon, and Sula are a significant part of her literary expression.
Short story collections and essays are more likely to feature the authors reading. The Best American series from Houghton Mifflin has numerous author-readers including John Updike, Paul Theroux, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as authors reading works by other authors. Frances Mayes, editor for the recent The Best American Travel Writing, reads selected essays by Isabella Tree and André Aciman.
In the realm of nonfiction, memoirs are commonly recorded by their authors. The emotional connection that authors make to their personal histories is often heard in their voices. Who but Maya Angelou could offer her autobiographical A Song Flung Up to Heaven or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Rick Bragg brought an unexpected emotional quotient to Ava's Man and All Over But the Shoutin'. Whether the author-read recordings are the most compelling performances of the literature is beside the point, these readings become part of our literary heritage.
The celebrity memoirs are sometimes unexpected critical successes when the author plays the role of himself or herself. Would either the recording of Christopher Reeve's new Nothing Is Impossible or his 1998 title, Still Me, be the same experience if it were narrated by another actor? The vivid audiobook of Sidney Poitier's The Measure of a Man makes the printed pages dull and detached. Rosie O'Donnell's reading of Find Me prompts one review to note, "There are moments of stunning insight."
Yet, authors can disappoint. The audiobook of Ragtime narrated by E.L. Doctorow promises so much, but as critic Yuri Rasovsky notes, "Doctorow hasn't the comic touch as a performer to match his comic touch as a writer." I've never been able to get used to Frances Mayes' luscious descriptions of Tuscan food and countryside presented with her honeyed Southern accent. Michael J. Fox agreed to record the abridged version of his memoir, Lucky Man, and while listeners glean the author's involvement in his own work, at times he seems to be reading just another script.
Many authors simply don't have the dramatic gifts necessary for a sustained audio performance. The best result may be when the narrator, whether author or actor, is fully convincing to the listener. The abridged version of Pat Conroy's My Losing Season is brilliantly read by Jay O. Sanders with a voice most listeners will be sure is Conroy's. The afterword by Conroy dispels the illusion, but the author's literary voice remains vivid.
Recommended Author Readings:
Ava's Man, Rick Bragg (Random House)
David Sedaris Box Set, David Sedaris (Time Warner)
Jinxed, Carol Higgins Clark (Simon & Schuster)
A Song Flung Up From Heaven, Maya Angelou (Random House)
Summerland, Michael Chabon (HighBridge)
The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier (Harper)
Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom (Brilliance Audio)
Vernon Can Read! Vernon Jordan (PublicAffairs Audio)
Robin Whitten is editor and founder of AudioFile: The Audiobook Review. Bimonthly issues cover audiobook news, features, and reviews. Check it out at www.audiofilemagazine.com. Comments and questions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.