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Narrative Voice

The phone rang. "Hi, Uncle Yuri!"

It was my callow niece, Jejune, an aspiring actress. Recently she’d sent me an Ann Pilaf novel, which she’d narrated for Simpson & Shoestore. I had refrained from volunteering my opinion, preferring silence to either insincerity or hurtful honesty. But she wasn’t going to let me get away with it.

"Well?" she asked.

"Well what?" I replied, feigning ignorance.

"Whatta you think? About my book, I mean. You listened to it, didn’t you?"

"Y-yes," I admitted reluctantly. I laid the reluctance on thick so that she would get the hint not to pursue the topic further.

"How’d I do?" she pursued relentlessly.

"I make radio plays, not recorded books, so my opinion probably won’t--"

"Dinosaur dung, Uncle Yuri!" She’s ruthless, my niece.

"You have a versatile larynx and a fine ear for dialect," I fished. "You do a great job of voicing the characters. Each one is distinct." I paused.

"But...?"

"It would have been nice if you’d paid some attention to their inner lives, as well as their surface detail. Their dialogue contains subtext, intent, hidden agendas. All sorts of resonance. They’re more than people with high voices, low voices, Brooklyn accents and lisps. They are literary characters, not cartoon characters.

"For instance, when the vampire says, ‘I don’t drink wine’, she’s not simply responding to an offer from her host. She’s making an evasive excuse for refusing the vintage. Why? The sense of the line is ‘It isn’t wine that I drink.’ Deliver it that way, and you might get a chuckle, which I think you’re supposed to get with that line. On the other hand, you do her Romanian accent very convincingly."

"And you say I miss the nuances with all the characters?"

"With one exception."

"You mean I handled one character well?"

"I mean that you left one character out entirely."

"Who?" she demanded.

"The author."

"What author?"

"The main character."

"You’re nuts, Uncle Yuri." An observation I can’t gainsay. "There’s not one single writer in the whole 32-hour unabridged audio."

"You’re forgetting Ann Pilaf."

"She’s not a character. She wrote the thing."

"Exactly."

"What the @#$%& are you talking about?" Jejune has picked up some of her uncle’s favorite expressions.

"Every writer has a literary personality that you have to play. Those words between the dialogue? Remember them?"

"The narrative?"

"What else? You have to ask yourself who is speaking. What is that person like? What is his or her attitude about the actions and objects being described? What is the person’s intent in telling you all this? These are the same questions you ask about the characters. The narrator, whether an actual character in the book or some all-knowing third-person presence, is always the main character. As a performer you can’t ignore the narrative voice of the author. After all, it’s through the narrator’s eyes that we see the fictive world, isn’t it?"

"We aren’t seeing a darned thing on audiocassette!"

Ignoring that erroneous perception, I continued. "If you read Henry James’s narrative without his patrician sensibility and attention to nuance, you miss the point of Henry James. If, as I’ve heard once or twice, you read Dickens’s narrative with heavy sarcasm, you lose his humanity. Can you read Judith Krantz the same way you read Erma Bombeck or Edith Wharton? Are they writing about the same things with the same perspective?

"The success of your endeavor as a narrator depends upon the depth of your understanding of the author’s intent, personality and methods. For instance, you could read Scott Fitzgerald as he hears himself; that is, as a somewhat romantic, worldly-wise observer of the human comedy. Now, I think you could also read him as a petulant, adolescent and solipsist affecting a maturity he does not, in fact, possess. But try reading Tender Is the Night as if Art Buchwald or Virginia Woolf wrote it."

"That might actually be interesting," she snapped. Jejune was obviously sore at me for not praising her to the skies. The need for adulation runs in the family. I ignored the edge in her voice.

"True," I said, "but it isn’t what Simpson & Shoestore require of you, is it? Did they ask for a deconstructionist interpretation of Ann Pilaf?"

"No, they just said to get all the words right and get it done quick and cheap."

"And did you?"

"Yep."

"Are they satisfied?"

"Yep."

"So what do you need me for? You’re doing fine. Keep up the good work."

And I hung up.


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