For many, the audiobook is a source of pleasure and distraction, a way to get through the To Read Pile while washing dishes or commuting. Audiobooks have a stealthy way of rendering invisible the labor of creating this aural experience: the writer, the narrator, the producer, the technology…here at Sounding Out! we want to render that labor visible and, moreover, think of the sound as a focus of analysis in itself.
Over the next few weeks, we will host several authors who will make all of us think differently about the audiobook selections on our phone, in our car, and in our radios. Last week we listened to a book that listens to Dublin, in a post by Shantam Goyal. Today we have seven narrators telling us the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley. What will the audiobook whisper to us that the book cannot speak?
—Managing Editor Liana Silva
Reviews of A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’ 686-page rendering of the echoes of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, almost invariably invoke the concept of polyphony to name its adroit use of multiple narrators. In The New York Times, Zachary Lazar maintained that the “polyphony and scope” of the 2014 novel made it much more than a saga of drug and gang violence stretching from 1970s Kingston to 1990s New York. And the Booker Prize, which James was the first Jamaican to win, similarly praised it as a “rich, polyphonic study,” with chief judge Michael Wood calling attention to the impressive “range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation.” It was thus not only the sheer number of voices in a preliminary three-page “Cast of Characters” that critics so unanimously admired but also the variety and nuance evident within them. Norwegian publisher Mime Books even took these polyphonic features a step further by hiring not one but twelve translators in a casting process that auditioned prominent novelists, playwrights, and performers.
James recalls realizing early on that this novel would be one “driven only by voice” (687), which might make such enthusiastic responses to its plurality of perspectives seem unsurprising. But what happens when such polyphony leaves the page behind and actual material voices drive its delivery? If the audiobook is a format of the novel (and here I follow Jonathan Sterne’s definition of format in MP3: The Meaning of a Format as “a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium” ), what lessons can listeners learn that print cannot provide? As I argue, the 26-hour-long audiobook version of A Brief History, which Highbridge Audio produced with seven actors (Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, Thom Rivera), allows us to engage with multivocality rather than polyphony, which is to say the multiple vocal performances of a single individual rather than the presence of many narrators within a print work. And just as this novel’s polyphonic structure destabilizes any attempt at a definitive account of the events it portrays, the multifaceted performances of its audio format work to untrain ears that have been conditioned to hear necessary ties between voices and bodies.
Of course, this effect is not one that most listeners consciously seek, as reviews of the audiobook articulating various reasons for turning to this format as well as diverging responses to it readily attest. Gayle, on Audible, began with the print version: “but as soon as I got to the first chapter that was written in Jamaican patois I knew that I was not able to do that in my head and I was going to miss a lot.” Sound here conveys sense more swiftly than the page, the ear apparently better suited than the eye to encounter difference. (Woodsy, another reviewer, even felt emboldened to ventriloquize in text that sonically distinctive speech: “I found that listening to the Audible version was helpful. Now all me need do is stop thinking in Jamaican.”) Yet it was Andre who offered by far the most memorable characterization of the audiobook and its affordances. As he explained, in James’ novel “the language is a thick, tropical forest of words. Audiobook is the machete that slices through this forest of words so I can enjoy the treasures inside.” The violence of this metaphor matches that of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, yet what is most striking is the way it reiterates once more how reviewers found it easier to access the work aurally rather than visually.
These reviews, and other similarly favorable appraisals, rarely consider the audiobook on its own terms, insisting instead on comparisons with the text. Negative ones, however, often note distinctively sonic features, with some reviewers echoing one of the Booker judges—who reportedly consulted a Jamaican poet about the accuracy of James’ ear for dialogue—by questioning the veracity of the Jamaican accents in a novel that also features American, Colombian, and Cuban ones. Tending to readily identify themselves as Jamaican, these writers and listeners rarely acknowledge that at least some of the actors were born on the island when asserting that the accents are off. In any case, such efforts to link sound and authenticity, as Liana Silva has argued with respect to the audiobook, wrongly suggest that those who belong to a group must conform to a single sound. James, too, distrusts discourses of the authentic, as characters repeatedly cast suspicion and scorn on anyone uttering the phrase “real Jamaica.”
If the polyphony in James’ novel prevents any one perspective from becoming either representative or definitive, the audiobook pushes this process even further by demonstrating how a single performer’s voice can possess such range that it seems to contain multiple ones. Each performer is responsible for all the voices within the sections narrated by their primary characters, which means that the same character can occasionally be voiced by different actors. In one section, a performer does the voices of a tough-talking Chicago-born hitman and the jittery Colombians he speaks with in Miami; in others, that same performer is both a white Rolling Stone journalist from Minnesota who’s attuned to racial difference and the black Jamaicans he converses with in Kingston. Continuity or strict one-to-one correspondences between performer and character ultimately matter less than the displays of vocal difference that allow the audiobook to contest essentialized notions of voice.
As a result, the audiobook articulates just how constructed vocal divisions based on race, gender, and class are by having its performers constantly cross them. It amplifies the very arbitrariness of such divisions and thereby reveals how, if the page is the space of polyphony, then what the audiobook stages is multivocality. Although they might seem like synonyms, these two terms can actually help us appreciate crucial differences and, in doing so, highlight the specificity of the audio format. On the one hand, –phony or phōnē, as Shane Butler reminds us in The Ancient Phonograph, ambiguously refers to both voice and the human capacity for speech (36), whereas –vocality centers the voice. On the other, the shift from the Greek poly- to the Latin multi- signals a contrast in what gets counted: while polyphony names the quantity of perspectives contributing to a narrative (when introducing it in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized that polyphony consisted of “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” ), multivocality instead specifies how the number of voices can exceed the number of performers. In this way, the concept of multivocality outlined here with respect to the audiobook resonates with its use in another context by Katherine Meizel, who mobilizes it with reference to singing and the borders of identity. In both cases, voice names a multiplicity of practices rather than an immutable or inevitable expression, which in turn aligns with Nina Sun Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound about the voice being not singular but collective and not innate but cultural (9).
We can therefore say that where print-based polyphony works on the eye by placing various perspectives on a page without necessarily challenging visual perceptions of difference, multivocality in the audiobook can retrain an ear’s culturally ingrained ideas about voice. James himself has experience with these seemingly inescapable meanings assigned to vocal sounds. In a moving essay for The New York Times Magazine, he recounts how, even at the age of 28, “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.” That was already long after high school, when, as he remembered in a New Yorker profile, he had begun “tape-recording his efforts to sound masculine, repeating words like ‘bredren’ and ‘boss.’” He was well aware of the links that listeners created between voice and identity and that could, as he suggests, prove risky in a place with overt homophobia like Jamaica. Writing, however, offered him a space to take on any voice and, at the same time, not be concerned with the sound of his own.
Yet if the page allowed James to effortlessly shift among narrative voices, the audiobook format exhibits voices that ostensibly shift without any effort. Perhaps the most compelling example emerges in the work of Cherise Boothe, whose performance of the novel’s sole female primary character presents the voices of other figures as well. Toward the end of the novel, this character, Dorcas Palmer, is a caretaker for a much older and wealthier white man with amnesia in New York. Boothe not only captures the changes as Palmer often eliminates her Jamaican accent and occasionally lets it loose but also registers the man’s moments of lucidity and confusion. Even if, as listeners, we understand that Boothe is the voice behind both of these characters, the two vocal performances are so distinct that they effectively erode the basis for any beliefs about how a certain body should sound.
Adopting different voices is certainly not unique to the audiobook, but it does provide one of the few forms of extended exposure to this practice. Yet it is worth noting that A Brief History markedly differs from the model of a more extensive cast like the one comprised of 166 voices that recorded George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. By assigning a performer to every character, such productions ultimately emphasize vocal uniqueness in roughly the same way that Adriana Cavarero conceives it, namely as an index of individuality. But there the voice remains something singular or somehow essential, for there is no opportunity to perform the plurality that appears across A Brief History. At the same time, the use of seven actors also offers a contrast with the opposite extreme: a single performer responsible for all the roles, which demonstrates multivocality but does so on such a small scale that it feels exceptional instead of ordinary. The middle ground, which is to say the model found in A Brief History, allows us to hear multiple instances of how the voice is entrained rather than essential, possibility rather than inevitability.
When briefly addressing audiobooks in an interview, James remarked that this format possesses a distinct advantage: “even something that is not necessarily plain can be translated because of tone and symbol and voice.” In other words, a voice can register its changing surroundings; conveying these subtle transformations on the page, however, is often far more difficult. This shortcoming is one that Edward Kamau Brathwaithe once memorably described when explaining why he insisted on using a tape recorder in a lecture on language in the Caribbean: “I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.” The idiomatic familiarity of the first half, which clashes so sharply with the awkwardness of the second, suggests that the multivocality of an audiobook can open ears by accentuating how the voice is not fixed but in constant formation.
Featured Image: “Audiobook” by Flickr user ActuaLitte, CC-BY-SA-2.0
Sam Carter is a PhD Candidate in Romance Studies at Cornell University. His work on literature and sound in the Southern Cone has appeared in Latin American Textualities: History, Materiality, and Digital Media and is forthcoming in the Revista Hispánica Moderna.
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Last month, T.M. Luhrmann compared the experience of reading a written book versus listening to books in the New York Times article “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.” Lurhmann points out how audiobook sales jumped 20% in 2012, whereas total industry book sales went down 1%. From the looks of it, books have benefited from audiobook sales, but in literary studies, print remains the primary vehicle for analysis. Might listening to an audiobook actually change how we critically read a text?
As I listened to Junot Díaz narrate This Is How You Lose Her (2012), the first book Díaz has read as an audiobook and the first book of short stories the author has published since 1996’s Drown, I wondered how his reading influenced how I interpreted the text. Díaz’s reading sounds less like regular speech and more like a performance, with its own cadence and rhythm:
This post approaches the audiobook as a text in itself, coming from a sound studies perspective. I attempt to conceptualize the idea of “close listening” as a methodology akin to “close reading” in literary studies. I listen for how Diaz reads the text but more specifically how the reading itself becomes a way of authoring the text. Ultimately, I argue that Díaz’s reading becomes a re-authoring the text—re-writing the text sonically. On a broader level, I hope to add to the conversation of what it means to read an audiobook, as Birgitte Stougaard Pederson and Ibsen Have brought up in “Conceptualising the Audiobook Experience.” Using This Is How You Lose Her, I show that reading an audiobook means engaging with the text from the angle of the ear, and that close listening can become an aural reading practice that relies not so much on the visual texts, but on aural cues from the narrator.
This Is How You Lose Her revolves around Yunior, a young Dominican immigrant who grows up in New Jersey and who ends up as a professor in Boston, and the many loves he has had or that he has encountered growing up. The stories trace his progress from a young, recently arrived Yunior, to a tenured, mature Yunior, showcasing certain relationships that influence how he relates to women—in sum, illustrating how he loses the women he loves. Throughout the short story collection, Díaz also calls attention to other relationships that may influence Yunior’s perspective, for example, his brother’s attachments with women, especially toward the end of his young life as he battled cancer, and his father’s relationship with his mistress, a Dominican woman who lived in New Jersey. At the end, Díaz illuminates how a mujeriego (womanizer) like Yunior comes to be; the short stories indicate that Yunior is as much a product of his environment as he is a seller of the merchandise.
Díaz is not a professional audiobook narrator. Although Díaz has done live readings, reading the full-length version of a book one has written is a different exercise. The Penguin Audio version of the collection is based on the actual short story collection (in other words, unabridged), so it does not contain additional stories or behind the scenes interviews. Technically, it is no different than the print version.
Listening to authors read their own work has value beyond the pleasure of hearing them read their text. Scholarly writing on audiobooks has emphasized the experience of listening to an audiobook for pleasure (like Deborah Phillips’ “Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audiobook” and James Shokoff’s “What Is An Audiobook?”), but it wasn’t until the 2011 edited collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies that audiobooks were considered on their own instead of as extensions of the literature they were based on. The allure of doing this scholarly exercise with the audiobook version of This Is How You Lose Her is that Díaz’s delivery of the text is uncommon at the least.
Talking about Junot Díaz’s readerly voice requires to tune into conversations about his writerly voice. In many reviews of Díaz’s books, writers discuss how Díaz deftly conveys a writer’s voice in his text, indicating that his success is that his characters have a very clear voice—or at least Yunior does. Michiko Kakutani, for example, points out how “Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.” Although this quotation is in reference to Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it describes Díaz’s writing in terms of his voice instead of, for instance, in terms of his use of metaphors or choice of subject.
Richard Wolinsky, in his Guernica interview with Díaz, sees an overlap between Yunior and Díaz: “He’s [Yunior] got a very distinct voice, and it’s a voice that’s informed by [Diaz’s] own reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy.” Although Díaz has pointed out that Yunior is loosely based on events that have happened to him, Wolinsky “hears” Díaz in his main character. The tone and the language Yunior uses is read as a reflection of Díaz.
Conversations about the voice of the writer point to a sensibility about sound, but are often limited to a written text. Anna Barnet, in an interview with Junot Díaz, states “His two principal linguistic registers (‘this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music’ and ‘this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular’) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing.” Barnet reminds readers that Díaz’s writing style is based in spoken language—particularly Díaz’s spoken language. This language of “voice” to describe a writer’s style (or, specifically, a writer’s ability to convey a clear sense of who the character is and/or their views) is commonplace but gives the impression that there is a sonic aspect to an author’s work, when in reality it is but a metaphor for something that occurs at the level of text.
A critical reading of a text that includes the audiobook rendition allows critics to add substance to those references to “voice.” In Junot Díaz’s case, it is possible that readers encounter him first through written text, and so have an expectation of what Díaz (or Yunior) would sound like live. In my textual analysis of eight audiobook reviews (and one book review that included a mention of the narration in the audiobook) most listeners showed some sort of discomfort with Díaz’s narration. One reviewer, for example, had issue with the “smoothness” of Díaz’s narration: “At times the reading was a little shaky and uneven”. Another reviewer stated “at times his cadence is choppy, with odd pauses and emphasis on strange words that detract from the overall experience.” Reviewers also had an issue with Díaz’s pace, which is characterized by pauses in places that many not seem normal in casual American speech. These statements hint at a “weird” quality in Díaz’s speech, something that does not come through when Díaz has a casual conversation. (Listen to this podcast episode of NPR’s Alt. Latino guest-starring Díaz and compare with this video of him reading part of This Is How You Lose Her.) Although one blogger pointed out that Díaz sounded “professorial” in the reading, others used the words “native,” “authenticity,” “Dominican” and even “Jersey accent” to describe how Díaz sounded. It is unclear how these reviewers define “native” or “authentic.”
Connecting sound to authenticity implies that Dominicans can only sound a certain way, or that the audio narration is lacking when it does not represent a “typical” Dominican voice. To the extent that Díaz is Dominican, his voice is of a Dominican male who has grown up in the Northeastern United States. His uneven audio narration creates a feeling of sonic unintelligibility in the listener, similar to the effect of including Spanish words in the written text. Díaz-as-narrator can make a listener uncomfortable, and by extension forces that reader to listen.
The sonic unintelligibility also relies on the text, on how Díaz plays with language by switching back and forth from English to Spanish. Díaz mentions in an interview with Marva Hinton that some readers are not happy with his choice of Spanglish in his writing: “There [are] folks who hear one Spanish word, and they’re convinced this is some sort of immigrant conspiracy” Farther down, in the same article, Díaz refers to his mix of Spanish and English (and a particular kind of Spanish and English at that, since he moves among Standard American English, African American Vernacular English, and Dominican Spanish) as “opaque language.” There’s a connection between the kind of “opaqueness” that Spanish gives and the unintelligible effect of Díaz read his work.
An example of how sonic unintelligibility operates in the audiobook is the first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” This opener, told in first person, revolves about one of Yunior’s break-ups; Yunior and his girlfriend Magdalena, on whom he cheated, go to the Dominican Republic on a trip they had planned before she found out about the affair. It frames the book as being an in-depth analysis of loves lost, from the man who keeps losing them. It also sets the tone sonically for the audiobook reading: after the introduction of the book, a snippet of bachata music comes on, and then makes way for Díaz, who reads the title of the story. This is the pattern of the book: slices of bachata, followed by Díaz’s narration.
His voice is characterized by a slight sing-song cadence that is reminiscent of Dominican Spanish accent. If this were in Spanish, it might be easier to lose track of the cadence, but in English it sounds like a disembodied accent. I showcase the swing in Díaz’s narration by alternating capital letters and lower-case letters: “Her FAther, who usually would treat me like his HIjo, CALLS me an ASShole on the PHONE, SOUNDS like he’s STRANgling himself with the cord.” The voice seems to float for a while until Díaz arrives to the end of a paragraph or a series of sentences, and then it sinks. Moreover, this pattern does not change when Díaz switches characters: it’s hard to tell Yunior apart from Magdalena unless the reader pays close attention to when the narrator is switching characters and/or when the narrator uses a pronoun. The same effect comes from the odd pauses in the author’s narration: “Oh God, she wailed. Oh. My God.”
The choppiness and the emphasis in the reading are a way to dislocate the listener, in a similar way that Spanish phrases or lack of quotation marks in the text dislocate a reader who does not understand Spanish or who depends on the quotation marks to make sense of the prose. Also, this story focuses on Magdalena withdrawing from Yunior and not communicating with him. The tone, cadence, and sound of Díaz’s voice can be read to mirror the relationship between Yunior and Magdalena (and the other women in the text): the sonic unintelligibility is manifest at the level of plot through Yunior’s relationships.
Although many audiobook reviewers may consider the plot in their reviews, part of what makes an audiobook stand out is the performance of the text. I take my cues from audiobook reviewers and consider critically my listening experience of This Is How You Lose Her and how this can become the basis for a critical interpretation of the text. My analysis underscores that having an author read a text can provide a different way into analyzing the text and prompts readers to pay attention to sound. If, like Shokoff asserts, most audiobook readers listen to an audiobook while doing something else, Díaz shows that listening closely to the audio text can be as rewarding as reading a book.
Featured Image: “Junot Diaz” by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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