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Literary Tact

The Boss recently passed on to me the following query from reviewer Ted Hipple:

I'm currently reviewing Thomas Hardy's Town on the Tower. . . . [A]s all Hardy fans know, he occasionally talks directly to those who are using (note my dexterity here) his books. In this narration the text went, about a minor character, something like this: "the last person to enter the room was Hamus, whom READERS already are slightly acquainted with." At least that's how I think it went, Hardy having written before the advent of audiobooks. But the narrator substituted LISTENERS for "readers." Interesting, I thought. Are there, do you know, company policies about these kinds of audioetic (new coinage, that) license?

Dear Ted

No industry-wide policy obtains regarding such matters. I checked. That this burning issue has heretofore escaped general notice only reinforces the need for perceptive watchdogs such as ourselves. Let us therefore see if we can here establish some rule of thumb and thus earn the eternal gratitude of those whom AudioFile serves and protects.

A number of authors address the reader directly. "Dear Reader - You may wonder why . . ." It establishes intimacy between author and audience. That explains why "reader" almost always appears in the singular. People read silently alone, besides which not much intimacy can result from a passage such as "You guys may remember that on page 13 . . ."

Bertoldt Brecht found this a very powerful device in the theater. For instance, in The Threepenny Opera, a character sings to the audience, "I used to believe in the days I was pure - and I was pure like YOU used to be . . ." She thus forces the house to confront a shared fall from grace, exemplifying what the playwright called his "alienation effect." Even more powerful is the moment when the entire cast turns to the audience to make it acknowledge: "Grub first! Then morals!"

As you have encountered, adapting asides for "the reader" to asides for "the listener" crops up now and then in audiobooks. I've heard it mostly in ephemera narrated by the author, who, like Whoopie Goldberg in her memoirs, improvises while recording as seems appropriate. The author messes with his or her own text, which is unlikely to live forever as great literature anyway.

But Hardy? Austin? Stern? Dickens? James? Give 'em a break, publishers! They're dead and can't fight back. If you're passing the recording off as Hardy's, shouldn't every word be the author's, even phrases like "dear reader" or "these printed pages?" Otherwise, you need to label the tape "adaptation," "paraphrase" or "bastardization," as the case may be. After all, abridgements are so identified.

Buyer beware! Publishers do not scruple about truth in advertising. (Speaking of abridgements, consumers often see the boxes marked "This abridgement has been approved by the author." One would think this indicates that the author has gone over every excision with a jeweler's glass. Actually, it often means only that the author has said, "Yeah, go ahead and cut the thing. I don't care as long as my check arrives on time.")

The issue at hand comes down to "literary tact," the largely intuitive sense of what produces the desired effect in a tasteful way in a particular context. Literary tact comes into play whenever words are arrayed for more or less artistic purposes, whether those words are written, spoken or sung. In the instance you cite of the Hardy book, the literarily tactful producer may reason as follows:

"Ah, here the author reminds the reader of something that occurred earlier in the book. Will the passage work the same magic in the audio version? After all, we're listening not reading. All I have to do is change one word 'reader' -  Though, if I do, I create a jarring anachronism, a nineteenth century author seemingly writing for a twentieth century technology. Further, it's sound as if I were trying to be cute. That's worse than if I let the line stand. Maybe I could find another alternative phrasing, something unobtrusive. Or I could cut the sentence entirely, hoping that the listener does not need Hardy's reminder of earlier events. No! Any change will diminish the text. It isn't as if the listener doesn't know s/he's listening to something meant to be set in type."

On the other hand, I could decide to put out an audiobook line called Classics for Listening. The whole idea of it would be to ADAPT literature to spoken word recording. In this case, I'd not only feel free to change "reader" to listener," but to make numerous other redactions. I'd get rid of a lot of adverbs. Why have the narrator recite, "'I confess,' she said hoarsely," when he can intone "'I confess,' she said" in a hoarse voice? To opine "'I confess,' she said hoarsely" hoarsely is redundant, isn't it?

But that still wouldn't work in all instances. What about Tom Swift books, in which the adverbial phrases are distinctive elements of authorial style? Remember when Tom Swifties were popular jokes? "'I'm in a rush,' said Tom swiftly." My Classic for Listening versions would therefore retain the adverbs. Literary -- or rather, audioetic -- tact.

All things considered, were I to recommend a universal rule of thumb it would be, "Leave the line alone and blame the author."


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