What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?

The case for doing less.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Vulture/Getty Images

During the first days of the 2019 impeachment hearings, the headline of an essay by the Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse floated the question “What does female authority sound like?” One of the earliest witnesses had been the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., a rather ordinary, if genial, middle-aged man. Afterward, Hesse noticed the name Walter Cronkite trending on Twitter. The following day, testimony from Taylor’s equally if not more impressive predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, prompted a standing ovation in the committee room. Yet, Hesse noted, no “adoring comparisons to any deceased icons” had followed. “Her voice, after all, did not sound like Walter Cronkite’s.”

The issue wasn’t how she sounded. It was how she sounded to us, a listening public without the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness, and power.

I have thought about that column and headline many times since the fall of 2019. I thought about it a lot when Joan Didion died late last year, and I thought about it even more trying to listen to a recording of Diane Keaton reading from Didion’s work around that time. Rereading Didion’s essays and reporting after her death, I had thought, That right there is what female authority sounds like — by which I meant the dry, detached, unsentimental, sly but muted, deadpan voice that characterizes not only Didion’s literary style but those of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Mary McCarthy before her as well as the voices of such contemporaries of Didion’s as Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm.

But listening to the five-minute Audible sample of Keaton reading from the first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I had to admit, “Whatever female authority sounds like, it isn’t that.”

I had gone online to see whether there were any decent recordings of Didion’s work. I like to keep tabs on this sort of thing, probably because I grew up listening to written-word recordings. As a child, I had trouble falling asleep after we moved to an apartment where I no longer shared a room with my sister, and letting me drift off listening to spoken-arts records was my mother’s solution. So from time to time, I check up on how some author or piece of writing has fared at the hands of the audiobook industry. I do it when a writer who has meant something to me dies. I do it when I run across prose that makes me want to hear it beautifully read. I do it when something I’m reading on the page moves me for reasons I can’t explain.

This happened to me once with a Jonathan Franzen novel. His narrative voice tends to be so mordant, so unforgiving toward his characters, that I couldn’t fathom how something toward the end of his novel Freedom had me sobbing. Flipping back to the beginning pages, I saw how the irony in Franzen’s description of his protagonist mingles caustic knowingness with compassion.

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.

I wanted to hear what that alchemy sounded like. But when I went to the recording, the actor to whom Macmillan had assigned the book kept telling me with his voice what I was supposed to feel. He seemed to have no understanding of how writing works. Every syllable was an opportunity for a new artistic choice, as though words exist in isolation and sentences have no relation to one another. He wasn’t reading the novel so much as making sure the listener knew it was being read by an Actor. It was impossible to follow the logic, let alone be affected by Franzen’s meticulously calibrated prose.

In Didion’s case, the situation on Audible wasn’t pretty. Most of her work had been recorded, but there was little I would have been willing to listen to or recommend. Best were Elizabeth Hess reading After Henry and Kimberly Farr reading Blue Nights, South and West, and Let Me Tell You What I Mean. These actors didn’t try to impersonate Didion or make her a character but were content to let her emerge as a sensibility, an intellectual presence, a mind with a gift for apprehending experience. Yet Didion’s major works — her novels, essays, and reporting — had mostly been assigned to actors who seemed burdened by either too much or too little knowledge of who Didion was. They showcased her style with mannered readings that made her sound precious and sententious, or else they tried to make everything seem exciting, like someone reading Nancy Drew to children.

Then there was Keaton, who might have been giving a master class in how not to read Didion aloud.

She had no concept of deadpan and seemed to think it her mandate to bring Didion’s prose to life. You can hear in this audio clip how she doesn’t trust the words to do their work; she thinks she has to enhance them, help them along. She dramatizes everything, reading an account of the weather on opening day of a trial as though she were reminiscing about prom night, endowing every random person Didion quotes en passant with a personality and a backstory. Like the actor reading Freedom, she lards her performance with arbitrary “acting choices” that eviscerate Didion’s prose and, with it, a whole literary style that generations of women intellectuals have used to make themselves heard and ensure they would be taken seriously.

Keaton isn’t the first talented actress to make a hash of reading literary prose aloud. In 1965, Julie Harris recorded Stuart Little, and from then on E.B. White saw to it that he himself recorded his own fiction.

It’s easy to hear why. Part of it is that tone of wide-eyed astonishment you hear, with all of its phony inflections. Part of it is the way Harris is always pulling focus to the wrong words. And part of it is just her unwillingness to read the thing straight. The words get swallowed up in her acting so that all you hear is what’s happening in the plot. The way the story is told just disappears. White’s writing becomes wholly unlike itself — becomes, in fact, generic. Harris is effectively editing E.B. White. Thanks to her revisions, he becomes a ghostwriter of his own work.

Read this passage to yourself and you’ll get it:

Every morning, before Stuart dressed, Mrs. Little went into his room and weighed him on a small scale which was really meant for weighing letters. At birth Stuart could have been sent by first class mail for three cents, but his parents preferred to keep him rather than send him away; and when, at the age of a month, he had gained only a third of an ounce, his mother was so worried she sent for the doctor.

The doctor was delighted with Stuart and said that it was very unusual for an American family to have a mouse …

It’s a form of deadpan. White is writing about strange or absurd things as though they were perfectly ordinary. But Harris reads the bit about how Stuart could have been sent by first-class mail in a tone that says to the listener, “Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine?” As for the joke about the doctor, we miss the word that makes it funny — American — in the wake of Harris’s tonguing her cheek on the word very.

A handful of things Keaton and Harris can be heard doing are not uncommon among American audiobook readers. Varying one’s pace on arbitrary words or phrases just to be interesting is something you run across. So is emphasizing random words and syllables. Then there’s the idea that one should try to act out the meanings of words. If the word languid appears, you read it slowly, for example. You read a word that denotes hostility in a way that sounds angry. (Here, Harris reads the word vigorous vigorously and tries to put the sort of effort into saying the word rip that it would take to rip up floorboards.)

It would be easy to attribute a discomfort with deadpan to American ideas about acting. Deadpan is about suppression; serious American acting has traditionally been about letting it all hang out. Small wonder, one might say, that Keaton gives a lyrical, nostalgic cast to that description of the weather at the start of the Audible sample (“January 11, 1965, was a bright warm day in Southern California, the kind of day when Catalina floats on the Pacific horizon and the air smells of orange blossoms …”) — even though describing the pleasant weather outside the courthouse where a trial is about to begin is practically formulaic, a convention of true-crime writing.

Something else you encounter a lot in American audiobooks is a tendency for narrators to telegraph how we’re supposed to think or feel — like that sample passage from Freedom posted on Audible. The actor is reading a list of the kinds of moral questions that absorb his protagonist and people of her ilk:

… like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? … How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be?

It’s part of a complex system of irony that lures a reader of my ilk into viewing Franzen’s characters with a bit of disdain, not yet knowing that I am reading about myself. But the mugging, the actor’s signaling to us that this is satire, makes ambiguity impossible, and anyway he doesn’t read the list as a list or even as reported speech but rather impersonates people actually considering these questions in real time. It doesn’t occur to him — just as it doesn’t occur to Keaton or Harris — that the only thing a narrator has to impersonate is someone with a story to tell.

Often, this kind of editorializing takes place in the context of something strange or miraculous happening in a narrative: The audiobook reader indicates vocally that we should regard that thing with awe or suspicion. (Harris is essentially doing this with the whole premise of Stuart Little.) There’s an extraordinary sequence at the beginning of the second chapter of The Witches, Stacy Schiff’s 2015 account of the Salem trials, in which Schiff uses a kind of reported speech to create a world where it’s impossible to judge what’s believable and what isn’t. She recounts the flight of two women over Salem village on a broomstick in something like their own words but using the third person omniscient, so the narrative voice is giving credibility to uncreditable events. As she moves on to the description of a daily life filled with things that might be unnatural events or might be delusions, we begin to get an inkling of how what happened in 1692 could have happened. But the actress who read the book for Hachette takes the mystery out of the passage, using her tone to let us know precisely which of the things Schiff reports strain credibility.

There’s a curious circumstance surrounding the recording of Stuart Little that suggests something about how powerless writers are and always have been — even writers as influential as White. In May 1970, he wrote to a family member:

Joe Berk, from Pathways of Sound, was here last week to talk about recording “Charlotte’s Web.” He had already got Julie Harris to read the book, unbeknownst to me, and he brought along the tape. I didn’t like it and said so …

The Joe Berk in question was the same Cambridge, Massachusetts–based record producer who had put Stuart Little on vinyl. On hearing that recording, back in 1965, White had written Berk a charming response full of nice things about Harris.

She does it beautifully and I feel greatly in her debt, and in yours for selecting her. I know that to read a book aloud is a grueling task, but Miss Harris never gave me any cause for worry. She is as perceptive as she is reliable, and she can read to me any time she wants to.

It’s a strange letter, full of equivocation if carefully read. To say someone has done something beautifully isn’t necessarily to say they have done it well. “Reliable” sounds like someone who can be counted on to be punctual. And she never gave him “any cause for worry”? What on earth does that mean? And who ever invoked the difficulty of a job who wasn’t trying to avoid saying how poorly it had been done?

Berk seems to have been baffled by White’s response to the new recording and to have left a bit stymied that day, for there is a second letter from White that begins, “If we are in a quandary, it is because we differ on the way a story should be read.”

There’s nothing in my letter to you of October 1965 that isn’t true. Julie Harris did read “Stuart Little” beautifully. I did feel in her debt and in yours. But that letter did not ramble on, as it might have, into my deeper convictions about the business of reading a book.

At issue in White’s mind were opposing views about how to read books into a microphone and who should be asked to do so.

You tend to throw the job to someone in the theater — Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris … They dramatize a book … I think a book is better read the way my father used to read books to me — without drama. He just read the words, beginning with the seductive phrase “Chapter One,” and I supplied my own dramatization.

What I find curious about this sequence of events is that in 1965 White was easily as important and famous in his own milieu as Harris was in hers. And this was his milieu, the world of publishing and books and words. He had written what was probably the first global best-selling children’s book of the modern era, yet faced with a version of an earlier work that robbed his writing of everything that made it his, White felt he just had to suck it up. Five years later, placed in the same embarrassing, no-win situation, he put his foot down. In both cases, the recording had already been made. I remember coming across a review of a children’s biography of White that had him “changing his mind” about the Harris recording. I’m not sure that’s accurate. I think he always felt the way he felt. Maybe by 1970 White just had no more fucks to give.

Ever gracious, White assured Berk that whichever approach to reading aloud one favors is a matter of personal taste, and to a large extent it is. Berk was no mountebank or philistine. He was one of a breed of small-scale impresarios who — like Bill Grauer of Riverside Records, the jazz label that commissioned Alec Wilder’s Alice in Wonderland Suite for a recording of the Alice books read by Cyril Ritchard—were trying to combat the Disney-fication of American childhood. But there’s a point at which any writer whose work has been rendered unrecognizable or incoherent becomes little more than a ghostwriter.

There’s no one right way to read a piece of prose, any more than there can be one definitive performance of a role in a play. And there are plenty of wonderful American audiobook readers out there: Julia Whelan, January LaVoy, Dennis Boutsikaris, Bahni Turpin, Kirsten Potter, Kate Reading, Edoardo Ballerini, Gabra Zackman, and Joe Morton, to name just a few. Here is Boutsikaris navigating a passage from the beginning of The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s 2003 account of the fall of Enron, describing the suicide and funeral of a man the reader is poised to hate because of his role in a scam that ruined people’s lives. You can hear how the actor never tells the listener what to think about any of the facts he’s relating, though his voice sometimes teeters on the knife-edge of judgment. Note how he doesn’t make anything of the fact that this man used to “decompress” on a yacht (the presence of the yacht speaks for itself) as well as the dry, uninflected treatment given to the state and contents of the car where the death occurred and the deadpan recital of the shallow lyrics to the man’s favorite song. At times, it’s almost as though Boutsikaris were thinking about something else as he reads — that’s how light a vocal touch he has. It’s moving without being manipulative.

There are passages in Keaton’s recording of Slouching Towards Bethlehem that she reads far better than the sample posted, better in the sense that she’s not playing up the writing or trying to upstage it; she’s just reading the words in front of her and thinking about what they’re saying. At those times, when her voice is just a conduit for Didion’s writing, it’s possible to forget that she isn’t herself the author; it’s then that her voice and Didion’s can seem to become one. “With nonfiction,” writes Robert Blumenfeld in Acting With the Voice: The Art of Recording Books, “you are reading as if you were the author of the book, and in that sense only you are playing a part.” I believe that to be true. But I don’t think it means you try to become Joan Didion or try to sound like her or how you imagine she would sound. It’s just that in the act of reading her words aloud, her story should become your story, and her voice should become yours, rather than the other way around.

What Makes a Great, or Terrible, Audiobook Performance?