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The Good, the Bad and the Peeyoo!

Classifying Narrators

Most people play their audiobooks while driving. My preferred listening place is bed. However, as a reviewer, I like to listen in a variety of environments and on a variety of players headset, my super-duper professional gear, my mediocre car system, my office boom box. With my own productions, I found long ago that talk audio needs to sound equally good in the worst and the best circumstances, a difficult trick. What the studio speakers make spectacular may turn pretty limp when turned loose in the real world.

Even so, I listen most often in my office, while doing other work on the computer. I work on a quiet street. Until a nearby school lets out, there are few competing noises. Further, working alone most days, Iım grateful for the company the tapes provide me and am, therefore, usually in a receptive mood. Thus ensconced, Iım learning something important about narrators and the production of audiobooks.

For, with my attention divided between the PC and the cassette-player, Iım finding that my ear fare is dividing itself into groups: the Insistents, the Friendlies, the Bores, the Dull and the Unlistenable.

The Unlistenables are that team of irritating, fatuous, incompetent, idiotic, confusing and/or technically garbled programs that cause headaches, ringing in the ears and a general dulling of the senses. Fortunately, I encounter few brain-death-provoking audiocassettes. Maybe itıs because I asked my editor to give the biggest bestsellers to other reviewers. Generally, there seems to be an inverse ratio between the quality of a cassette and the sales revenue expected from it; people will buy an audio version of a big bestseller no matter how bad it is.  In any event, listening as self-torture isnıt my bag, so I give the Unlistenables short shrift.

The Insistents make it impossible for me to concentrate on my other work. Engrossed in what Iım hearing, the world around me disappears, and I come to only at the end of a side. The Friendlies talk to me unobtrusively. I have no trouble working and listening simultaneously.
Like the Insistents, the Bores make me stop work. But only because if I donıt, my mind turns the volume off. Thereıs nothing on the tape to keep it from sliding down to zero decibels. Likewise, the Dull demands full attention, but even more so. Even when I stop everything else and throw my ears on high, the sound blurs like an image from a faulty projector. I must continually adjust the lens to keep focus.

The content often has little to do with the division. An Insistent may concern a subject in which I have little interest or even an antipathy, such as self-help. Iıve been beyond help for years, enjoy my low karma, and take pride in my want of virtue. On the other hand, a Dull may deal with things ideally suited to my tastes.  I have a weakness for a kind of adolescent, iconoclastic humor, but donıt often hear it done well on recording tape. The all-important factor is the narrator. 

And these, Iım discovering, are also grouping themselves. In ascending order, there are those with no technique and no insight; those with technique who fake their way through the text without knowing what theyıre reading; those who just skim the surface; those who read a line or two at a time with no sense of a tomeıs architecture; those who have done their homework and who read with skill and insight; those who possess not only talent and insight but imagination. 

Ultimately, however, there are only two types of narrator for the listener busy at his PC -- the ones who make you listen and the ones who canıt. The former possess what Hollywood calls "star quality" and Broadway calls "stage presence," that indefinable mixture of personal ingredients that fascinate observers.  Like sex appeal, star quality may have nothing to do with skill or depth, or even attractive body parts. NYPD Blueıs scenery-chewing Dennis Franz, for instance, possesses none of those qualities, in my opinion, but viewers and colleagues still heap attention and Emmys on him.

With narrators, I think, star quality consists of a combination of mechanical and personality elements. By mechanical I mean something in the vocal equipment, the "instrument," in theater parlance. A musical analogy leaps to mind -­ Enrico Caruso. We who have never seen him perform will never know what he was like on stage, but he had the good fortune to possess a voice that pierced through the primitive recording technology of his time, so moderns can hear his greatness as a recording artist. Some narrators have voices that just grab listeners and wonıt let them go. 

You either have a personality that comes out in the voice or you donıt. You canıt put it there by an act of will or by some acting method. Back in 1982 when I worked with Richard Dreyfuss, he possessed this gift to such a degree that I was able to write a script that fit him like a tailored suit after listening to just one interview on Larry Kingıs radio show. John Mahoney, who plays Frasierıs dad on TV, is an excellent actor with a strong personality and distinctive voice, but his voice alone is flatter than a pancake. His skill lies in combining physical and vocal gesture for optimal effect. I imagine he would have to work very hard were he to take up audiobook narration.

From now on I'm saving my Earphones nominations for narrators with the star quality or, better, "personal genius," to cause my PC to disappear from my eyes.


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