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Listening to Fiction

JK Evanczuk / Thursday, January 28, 2010 Comments Off

on the radioI have a “like/apathetic” relationship with books on tape, short story podcasts, etc (my feelings about them aren’t quite strong enough to reach the “love/hate” stage). I’m fond of listening to short stories read by their authors, or those accompanying an interesting discussion/analysis. I’m not fond of listening to short stories read by people who mumble, or by people who so overact that you end up paying more attention to the acting and less to the actual words.

But even if the book on tape/podcast/etc is perfectly put together, and even if I can get myself to focus enough so as to keep up with the story, for me, the aural short story just can’t compete with the physical and cognitive experience of holding a book in your hands and seeing the words on paper.

The fact that I (and I’m guessing, many other people as well) tend to prefer reading text than listening to it is somewhat ironic, seeing as it’s the oral tradition that came first. Then again, the stories told thousands of years ago are pretty different from today’s stories, aren’t they? Compared to the epic tales of yesteryear told by master storytellers, many of today’s short stories are big on prose and nuance, which I don’t think translate quite as well to the oral form.

Which is not to say today’s stories are not worth listening to. Always on my iPod are The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast. I’m also a fan of The Classic Tales with B. J. Harrison, which seems to be the work of a single guy reading public-domain stories in the style of old-fashioned radio dramatization. I wouldn’t choose to solely experience a book through Harrison’s podcast, but I don’t think that he was going for–rather than a straight read-through, “The Classic Tales” presents a pretty neat and certainly different way to listen to the classics.

I’ve also just discovered Story Time from Wieden+Kennedy Entertainment via HTMLGIANT, and I’m just excited about it as they are. “Story Time” offers recordings of authors reading their own work (the PRI and The New Yorker podcasts offer this only rarely, and “The Classic Tales” never offers this, seeing as all the original authors are, well, long dead). But what’s especially interesting about this audio series is that the stories are set to unique soundscapes. Trinnie Dalton’s short story “Frog Hole ’08″ opens to sounds of wildlife, and Kevin Sampsell’s “Gloves” opens with the patter of rain and the playful tinkling of a piano. The series consists of only those two episodes so far, but based on what I’ve heard so far, I’m definitely looking forward to more.

What are your feelings about oral fiction–are you a fan, or do you think today’s literature is best experienced visually? If you listen to recordings of short stories: what do you listen to? I’m always interested in recommendations.

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More: Books / Radio
  • http://www.scarabmag.com Ian Terrell

    If you have an iPhone or an iPod touch, try Scarab! We built it because there is a third option: you can listen to a work and read it at the same time.

    We hope you like it!

    Publisher, Scarab
    In the app store: http://itunes.com/apps/scarab

  • http://gertrudesflat.blogspot.com Derek Osborne

    I’m with you on this. I think it’s more prevalent now because the tech and distribution is available to anyone. If production values were all like PRI that would be one thing, but like so much of the actual writing these days, it would never make the cut if passed through the filter of profit taking or maintaining grants. Still, it fosters participation and creates community where there has been too little for decades, that alone is worth the attempt. Nice article.

  • Arna Bontemps

    I disagree. It’s not really that one has to love audiobooks, as much as it is that I think this post misunderstands them. The primary dynamic occurring in someone physically reading a physical book is that of necessary imagination (one must arrange what one is reading into an imagined reality before them). There’s obviously nothing at all wrong with this. But I think it’s worth noting that the audiobook changes the dynamic of reading, making it more experiential. One can listen to audiobooks while one showers, drives, does the dishes or undertakes any of the other many mindless tasks daily required of anyone in the modern age. While listening to an audiobook, in terms of cognition and retention, isn’t really that different from reading a physical book, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the one thing it does really change, which is that it gets rid of the meta-awareness involved in reading a book, ranging from the more foreground thoughts (how many pages I’ve finished, what effect choosing to sit and read has on my hourly schedule) to the more background ones (the implications about my character that I am reading THIS book, the self-awareness of my valuation of the act of reading in an otherwise hectic lifestyle, etc). This maybe isn’t such a big deal, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about David Foster Wallace and particularly the way his texts struggle so much with (escaping) self-awareness. The audiobook seems, at least to me, a real act towards getting away from the meta implications of reading in this day and age, a real (if small) way to at least begin to get back to the basic communication fiction was meant for, and to sort of bypass the intrusive self of the reader. Though I hate how graduate-student-ish that all sounds. Personally, what I like best about audiobooks is their ability to transform otherwise wasted time (brushing my teeth, taking out the trash, commuting), and the way they bring fiction out into the living world.

  • Danielle

    I’ve a long commute each day. Audio books have proved to be by far the best way to make the journey pass by quickly. I’m getting a great selection from my local library and am probably trying genre I wouldn’t normally to great effect. I get the impression much of what you listen to is short, maybe if you got “stuck in” to an unabridged novel, you’d be gripped!

  • http://www.litdrift.com JK Evanczuk

    You raise some interesting points.

    I’m interested in this idea of the audiobook allowing you to essentially escape yourself so as to become fully absorbed in the story–though I think this can be somewhat of a detriment as well as an advantage. It’s possible I’m off-base, but I don’t think self-awareness is always a bad thing. One of the reasons I so enjoy reading fiction is the opportunity to interact with the work–re-reading a sentence or a paragraph, putting the book down, and spending time thinking about the work. You can achieve this with an audiobook–just pause/rewind the tape–but it’s not quite the same experience. It’s difficult to interact with a text when your own awareness is, more or less, eliminated.

    And yes, I absolutely agree with the fact that audiobooks are a huge asset during the work commute, and how, as you nicely put it, it “transforms otherwise wasted time.”

  • http://www.miettecast.com miette

    I don’t know if I can add a bit or two without too much self-promotional gaggery, but I’ll try. I started making audiobooks (primarily of short fiction) because I found that reading a text aloud (and, later, listening to it) helped me to understand the under-the-hood mechanics of a piece of fiction. It’s by no means a substitute for on-the-page (or -screen) text, but when delivered clearly, an audio rendering does provide structural insight that you don’t always get from the words on the page.

    And yes, absolutely, it’s an experience that’s entirely ruined when readers try to be too performative in their delivery.

    As for readings by authors, I don’t know. I’ve heard authors butcher their own text– and many authors I’ve talked with like hearing their works interpreted by different sets of eyes & vocal cords. They, too, learn a lot about how others respond to their work.

    I don’t think I can contribute much to “love/hate” questions of feeling, other than to think it has to do with modes of learning. Some of us simply respond more deeply to the printed word; others are auditory learners, visual learners, ad naus. Still, others, I’ve been told, can’t retain a thing unless it’s delivered as a bulleted Powerpoint presentation. Those are the people to fear.

    – Mtte.

  • http://entomologyofabookworm.blogspot.com ofabookworm

    I read an interesting article the other day in which author Katherine Patterson reminded us that when Plato and Socrates discussed the possibility of a fully literate society, they feared it would mean the demise of an oral tradition. Clearly, they were both right and wrong… reading on the page is much more prevalent, but even so, the mere existence of audiobooks proves that there is still an oral tradition, however changed it may be.

    I’m personally listening to my first-ever audiobook (Pride and Prejudice, actually), and feel much like you do. It is well-read, all by one woman who changes her voice slightly for each character without over-acting to the point of distraction. But would I switch to audiobooks to replace physical books? No, I don’t think so. I’ve found that I enjoy Pride & Prejudice and/or story podcasts when I’m doing things that require my hands and eyes (dishes, driving, walking). It’s more entertaining than bad television, to me, and allows me to maximize time spent “reading” (ie consuming fiction in some way). But after I finish whatever else it is I’m doing, I’ll curl up with my print book of choice.

    Ok, enough of a ramble… thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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