When the Eye Is Better Than the Ear

To paraphrase legendary jazzman Sy Oliver: "It ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it." Nobody knows this better than audiobook listeners and publishers. They understand that how you say it is often more important than what you say.

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning," says Maya Angelou, who, along with Barbara Kingsolver, is among the few authors whose narrator voices matches their literary ones.

The right reader enhances the audio experience. But, "The wrong reader can do a lot of damage," says veteran audiobook director Linda Korn. The following is about the damage.

The secret to success with audiobook narrators -- as in life -- is casting. If the material is solid, every producer/director knows finding the marriage between content and delivery is core.

Ask talent buyers what they're listening for in readers and you'll hear words like "warm," "accessible," "authoritative." But what they'll really mean is, "I know it when I hear it."

Voice casting for audiobooks is particularly tricky with fiction. In addition to the many different characters a reader has to deliver, the most important voice to capture is the writer's literary voice -- assuming there is one.

Listeners know when they hear the right match -- like Grover Gardner doing Star Wars, Jim Dale with Harry Potter, Nancy Linari reading Lisa Unger's books or Barbara Rosenblat voicing Elizabeth Peters novels.

It's dicey trying to identify missteps in casting because it's so very subjective, isn't it? With that caveat out of the way, let's name names.

The most egregious narrators are found in a bucket marked "right writer, wrong voice." These voices generally belong to those authors who believe their vocal performance is equal to their literary skills. That would be writers like Jack Handy who narrates his "hilarious" and "brilliant" Stench of Honolulu with all the energy and nuance of a 9-year-old reading out loud about what I did on summer vacation. Or there's author Colson Whitehead whose sing-song, rote rendition of his own Noble Hustle works better than a sleeping pill.

Then there's the bucket labeled simply "wrong voice." Actress Jeannie Berlin is a talented film actress who's been working steadily since 1969 in movies like The Heartbreak Kid, Portnoy's Complaint and most recently, a supporting role in the 2011 drama Margaret starring Matt Damon. However, Berlin's adenoidal narration turns Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Bleeding Edge into The Whining Edge.

Not uncommon with audiobooks are first-rate narrators who sometimes need firm direction in the booth. Example: Harlan Coben's latest Six Years, read by the ubiquitous Scott Brick whose over-ripe narration drives this innocuous story into melodramatic soap opera land.

Good narrators disappear into the words, letting characters, story and the author speak for themselves. While that's true for audiobooks, David Leshan, Retired Chair of the English Department, Germantown Academy -- the oldest nonsectarian day school in the United States -- says he would rather rely on his own sense of the author's intention -- meaning that the very best voice for any novel is not to be heard from a narrator. It's the voice that each of us hears in our own heads as we read the printed page -- which is why the eye is sometimes better than the ear. Amen to that.