Reading out loud

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review, a set of reviews of audiobooks, including one by by Kathryn Harrison of Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow as read by Patti Smith. Harrison sees a mismatch between the novel’s protagonist Olav as she understands him and Olav in Smith’s speech style (which Harrison refers to as diction).

… as read by Patti Smith, the audiobook of “Blood on Snow” invisibly revises the portrait of Olav that Nesbo renders on the page. This particular pairing of writer and reader makes it clear that the casting and direction of an audiobook potentially transform the text. Smith’s gravelly, androgynous voice and flat tone are immediately recognizable. She’s a practiced narrator, having provided the voice-over for a documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe. Her tone and pace are consistent; she calibrates emotion deftly, conveying authorial intent. But is her voice, rather than that of an anonymous reader, the right one for Nesbo’s book? Pronunciation changes words, and in this case the diction slips are not only discordant; when they occur, they both halt the reader and erode his or her trust in the narrator.

… What would it be like to hear Tom Waits read “To the Lighthouse”? What if we could summon Janis Joplin back from the dead to contribute her voice to “Eat, Pray, Love”? The endless possibilities of mismatches — Peter Lorre lulling the children to sleep with “Goodnight Moon”? — are amusing. They also underscore how words spoken aloud can transform and potentially undermine what a writer puts on the page.

“Blood on Snow” ends with a grace that Smith’s pronunciation doesn’t compromise. Unfortunately, from a few sentences back, “yella” for “yellow” and “pleece” for “police” still echo.

The problem, of course, is that people reading fiction out loud have the task not only of reading the text, but also of animating the characters in the fiction. Harrison thinks that Smith’s speech style is just too recognizable for this task, but Harrison’s actual complaints are about the details of Smith’s style and would carry over to any reader (anonymous or not) with Smith’s sociolinguistic profile (“yella” and “pleece” are not idiosyncratic speech mannerisms). As for Waits, Joplin, and Lorre, who would have thought to hire any of them (with their idiosyncratic styles) to read an audiobook? (Admittedly, the idea is entertaining, especially for Waits, who would seem bizarre even if you’d never heard him sing. If you’d never heard Joplin sing or talk, she’d probably just sound working-class Southern, and really enthusiastic, to you, and if you hadn’t heard Lorre act, what you’d hear would just be a man with a fairly heavy German/Hungarian accent.)

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