I really like audiobooks. This probably shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does: after all, I work on performance and I am an inveterate listener of podcasts. The word as it is spoke out loud forms a big part of my life. My walk to work in the morning is often lulled by the bickerings of Slate’s sports show, and my weekly commute takes place to the accompaniment of Kermode and Mayo’s film diatribes. But it took me a while to get into audiobooks, I suspect largely because they’re usually monologues. The back and forth of radio discussion, or the verbal exchanges of a play seem to leave space for my own (silent) participation in ways which a single voice speaking at me doesn’t. Maybe I’m doing books wrong (always a definite possibility), but I find it harder to listen to a single voice with an unbroken narrative for the same amount of time.
Still, having acquired an Audible account (other sources of digital voicenoise are available), I’ve been surprised again by the authors whose writing “works” on audiobook. Obviously the rhythms of listening to an audiobook are different from those involved in reading from the page. The pace is even: every syllable takes about the same amount of time. I hadn’t realized how my eyes treat different kinds of text differently – scanning through descriptions, say, or speeding up in the passages which are clearly wrapping up a scene after the main action has taken place – until I was forced to experience Every. Single. Word. Read. At. A. Uniform. Pace. Obviously there are all sorts of things a reader can do that the text doesn’t, but they also flatten the rhythms of your own silent reading. This seems to happen on a macro level as well: I’ve been frustrated to switching-off point by introductory chapters in which non-fiction writers bang on about their own lives and their emotional journeys, which I suspect I would have skimmed airily until I reached the meat of the argument. If nothing else, this has given me a much stronger appreciation of the complexities of reading alone: having someone else doing it for you makes you notice all the moves you’re used to making without noticing it.
It’s also given me an unexpected new appreciation of certain writers. Or perhaps, of certain aspects of writers I already appreciated. I would have laid money that Anthony Trollope would be poison for a listener. Too big, too diffuse, too wordy, too waffly. Love the guy, Ich bin ein Barchesterburgher and all that, but he cannot stick to the point if you bet him a bishopric, and I figured an audiobook is going to need a strong through-line to keep it together. To my delight, the reverse was true. Being made to sit through every foxhunt, every cabal, every lawyer’s quibble really brought out Trollope’s best points. I suppose it’s because he writes vignettes so well (without becoming picaresque) – he commits to each scene and lets the minor characters speak enough to make them the centre of the action for as long as they have our attention. Or maybe it’s the interplay between that narratorial voice which Henry James hated so much, and the voices of the protagonists. I admit that I sometimes want Trollope to get out of the way and let me see the story, but it is less of an issue on recordings.
Anthony Powell was another rank outsider who came up on the rails: the Dance to the Music of Time definitely shouldn’t work when read aloud. Allusive, looping, sometimes jumping time and starting new narratives without any explanation, the great English Proustian sequence should fall flat on its face. However, I was spellbound by the Dance, and now have more of the sequence on audio than on paper. It’s not always a comfortable experience: the effect I mentioned above means that you feel far more in Powell’s control, and I’ve always found him slightly cold. He doesn’t offer much consolation in all the tragicomedy, and his skill in delineating people can make you wriggle a bit if you share any traits with the character being summed up so coolly. The format means you can’t skip away at your own pace when these passages arrive, but the dream-like aspects of these novels are perfectly reproduced when spoken out loud. It suits the way memories shuttle back and forward across the sequence, and mimics Nick’s own mental processes. (It also cuts down the risk, which is stronger on paper, to respond to Nick’s pointing out of parallels between people and situations with a yell of “YES, I KNOW, I AM ACTUALLY READING THIS SODDING NOVEL, AS IT HAPPENS.”) I wonder whether the same would happen if someone recorded J.I.M. Stewart’s quintet A Staircase in Surrey, which consciously owes so much to the Dance. Worth a go, surely?
And Dorothy L. Sayers, of course. I won’t say audiobooks made Sayers rise in my estimation – as its unclear how that could be possible, apart from manuscripts turning up which prove she didn’t write certain parts of certain novels, or alternatively that she did write a series of The Climpson Chronicles… – but they certainly highlighted aspects of her work I hadn’t considered before. Turns out I increase my reading speed on quite a lot in Sayers: landscapes, throwaway exchanges with minor characters, the explanation of canal systems, the routine required to put together a newspaper advert, and so on. A very small proportion might be dismissed as “fine writing”, but with a novelist like Sayers it’s even worth pausing over that, and asking why on earth there’s that extended description of driving through the Scottish countryside in Five Red Herrings, and what it might mean. Bits that might be hurried through as “rhapsodies”, like the account of the bells being rung in The Nine Tailors really do repay the time spent listening to them, showing the different modes of writing being brought together within the book.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Sayers’ minor characters can affect our attitude to her major ones, so it’s fun to be slowed down in their presence and made to listen. It can also reveal how Sayers’ quietly satirises characters who are too eager to get the gist and move on, who don’t give “provincial” people the time they deserve or the hearing they are entitled to. The “background” also jumps out if every technical description is being enunciated word by word. Sayers is much more interested in “tech” than I’d thought in the past: how things fit together whether they’re a canal lock or a casserole, how people operate the world around them, and the craft that keeps things running. I suppose I had mentally filed a lot of this as the research of a working thriller writer, and detached it from the characteristic elements of Sayers’ work. Going through these passages more carefully, it is clear that Sayers’ work itself denies the possibility of that distinction, whether applied to itself or to other people’s lives. (Which seems to speak to her concern elsewhere with one’s “job” in an almost existential sense.)
Not everyone reveals hidden riches when proclaimed in a talking-type voice, alas. Jerome K. Jerome was a favourite who floundered. Maybe the episodes in Three Men In A Boat are not intensely written enough, but there are times when they become a bit like a series of pub stories with no particular point. Certainly the awful saccharine sentimentalism is impossible to avoid at speaking pace, and it ruins the flavour of the rest of the book. Susan Howatch’s novels become a bit slack and repetitive when rendered in a clear accent, and her technique of building whole books around key phrases gets near-unlistenably irritating. To sum up the others, H. Rider Haggard is more shapeless, George Orwell is more racist and misogynist, Betty Friedan is more reliant on other people’s words and Virginia Woolf is probably the same amount of annoying but it’s tricky to tell. If anyone else has found audiobooks altered their perception of an author, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.