Audiobooks are a different art form

There’s been a metric ton of electronic ink spilled in the past few months about audiobooks, their merits, and whether listening to one is the same thing as reading a book.

If you’re keeping a running tally of online persons willing to express an opinion on any of this, put me down for: audiobooks have great merit; and, call it reading if you want to, I legitimately don’t care.

At this very moment, I don’t use audiobooks for my reading, and the reason I’m couching that so carefully within a moment in time is that I imagine I will in the future. I say that for two reasons.

  1. audiobooks are the biggest boom market in the publishing industry right now, so the trend is definitely towards more
  2. having the internet read to users is also a boom market right now, thanks to products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home

The trend, in other words, is toward the ears and away from the eyes.

This is why I don’t care if you call it reading or not, because one way or another if I as an author don’t provide my fans with a means to enjoy my books with their ears, any argument I put forward that “audiobooks aren’t books” is going to sound as stupid as the “ebooks aren’t books” dissertations that are still making the rounds. More to the point, both arguments have no meaning: consumers are going to consume art in their preferred medium, and no amount of Luddite consternation is going to change that.

I would still like to make a point today, though. Audiobook consumption may or may not be reading—and again, who cares?—but the audiobook itself, is not strictly a book. It’s another art form.

I was a playwright before I was a novelist. This was probably an accidental decision triggered by a combination of love for the theater and my high school offering a playwriting course but no fiction writing courses.

Unless they did, and I just didn’t like who was teaching the fiction course. Honestly, I can’t remember.

Anyway, I loved playwriting enough to take it again in college, and I was pretty good at it. I learned a lot about writing in general, like how to create a character when all you have is dialogue, and the profound importance of the rhythm of the words and the size of the sentences and the pace of the dialogue. Most important, perhaps, I learned to care about the distinction between how something sounds and how it reads.

What I also learned was that a play (be it for the stage or the screen) is an incomplete work of art.

We don’t treat most plays this way. We read Shakespeare in English classes, and those classes don’t typically discuss the staging of what’s being read, and that can sometimes lead to different places than perhaps it should.

For example, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy can certainly be parsed as a meditation on the meaning of life. On stage, though, he’s speaking it while two characters are hiding in the room behind a curtain. There is tension, because the audience knows they’re there, but doesn’t know if Hamlet is aware he’s not alone. When he speaks, the real question is whether or not he will inadvertently reveal he’s only pretending to be insane.

The point is, a play isn’t really a fully realized play without a stage, and actors, and a director, and an audience. Likewise, a screenplay is an incomplete art form until it’s made into a movie.

It’s more than that, though. Those actors and directors aren’t interchangeable pieces. They’re artists too, and as artists, they bring their own artistic expression to the completed product, which is why every performance of Hamlet is different. (I think it was Peter Brook who pointed out that even if the production is the same from night to night, the audience is different, and so the end-product is as well.)

Plays are blueprints for a completed work of art. They require additional work in order to become fully realized.

Novels aren’t the same thing as plays. The fully realized artistic statement being made by the creator of a novel is the novel itself. He or she just needs a reader.

(Aside: if you would like to argue that a finished novel that has never been read by anyone is still a work of art, go ahead. I think art is a form of communication, and it’s hard to communicate with someone who doesn’t exist, but your opinion may differ.)

An audiobook needs more, though. It needs a narrator, and that very fact means it’s the product of two artistic sensibilities instead of one.

That, by its very nature, means the audiobook edition of anything is a separate and distinct work of art from the non-audio editions. It also means there are additional dependencies to consider, and not just things like the style and approach of the narrator, although there’s certainly that. (Gender, age, and accent are all factors there, as are whether the narrator chooses to straight-read a book or act it out, and a whole lot more.) There’s also the question of the style of the author, and how well that style translates into audio form.

What I’m getting at is, suddenly the skills that made me a better playwright have become important again: rhythm, word-choice, sentence size, the sound of words, and the effective use of dialogue. These are all things I learned to care about when I was writing stage plays, and I subsumed them when I started writing fiction. Now, twenty-five years after my last play, they’re being put to use in a medium that has historically been a publishing afterthought.

I’m not necessarily advocating anything I write in this space as a potential teachable moment, so I’m not 100% sure I have a larger point to make. If you’re reading this and you are an author, you probably aren’t going to be fundamentally altering your writing style into something that sounds particularly good out loud, so for goodness sake I’m not saying that.

But maybe there’s another point, and maybe that point is this: respect the fact that the audiobook is a different work of art than the novel you wrote. This means understanding that the narrator isn’t just a necessary but otherwise interchangeable piece. They’re someone who brings a different artistic sensibility to the project, and that is just as important in this context as who the director hires to deliver that Hamlet soliloquy.

Listening to an audiobook may or may not be the same thing as reading a book, but an audiobook is decidedly not the same thing as a novel.

Not better, or worse: just different.

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  1. Jean Cross on October 24, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for that. I really enjoyed reading it. I am currently considering wheather or not to venture into the audio book arena with my own book. There is much to consider and you have helped to clarify some of the more artistic aspects of presenting a book in this manner. I leave your page with insight.

    I also loved reading about how you consider rhythm, sentence size and the choice and sound of words. I do this too. Isn’t it great to be able to get so much from words?

  2. Michael W. Perry on October 25, 2016 at 10:38 am

    I fully agree that how an audiobooks is done adds to (or distracts from) its value as an art form. I saw that most vividly when I listened to Librivox’s seventh version of Anne of Green Gables, a dramatic reading done with different people taking different roles:

    The reading was wonderfully enhanced by the person reading for Anne. Although she’s an adult, her voice was that a young girl with a highly active imagination—precisely like the Anne of the tale. Here’s her webpage:

    That match between the voice and the character can make a marvelous difference and isn’t something that print can do.

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