Here is the first section of SFFAudio’s Guide to A…

SFFaudio Commentary

Here is the first section of SFFAudio’s Guide to Audiobooks. We’ll post each one as we write them, then collect them on the site.

Single Narrator – Unabridged

Jesse:

Let me tell you why Single Narrator Unabridged audiobooks are the best thing since sliced bread. I love audiobooks, but abridged ones usually make me feel like I’m missing out. I even like an audio dramatization now and then. But if I was forced to choose only one kind of audiobook – to take to a desert island say – I’d choose a single narrator unabridged. There is just something about a solitary narrative voice telling a story in its entirety.

Performing a story aloud is a very primal form of communication. The ancient rhapsodies and medieval bards made their livings by telling tales to rapt audiences. Today we prefer prose novels to epic poetry and lyric ballads and typically listening to an audiobook isn’t a communal affair. But the core of the experience remains the same. A single narrator who can, using voice changes, play all the characters of a story, like a one-man (or woman) play – it almost can’t be beat for raw storytelling. And when the story they are reading is a good one it sends chills down my spine.

It’s hard to pick just one exemplar of this, but there are few novels of recent years that had as much audio impact upon me as the unabridged reading of Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award winning American Gods. George Guidall, the reader, commands your attention, his distinctive voices, of men, women, and gods make it completely clear who is speaking, even when the text may make you wait for the attribution – as I told Scott recently, the man has just has gravitas. He also happens to have one of the best voices in audiobooks. Guidall’s patented gravelly reading of American Gods cemented him as my favorite narrator. Soon after hearing it I found myself tracking down other novels he had performed – not caring what it was he was reading. And this led me to another discovery. A terrific narrator is not enough without good material from which to read. I had selected a Guidall reading of a Lillian Jackson Braun cat mystery from my local library. I instantly regretted it. Not even Guidall’s masterful voice can command me to suffer through another.

Another nice thing about the Single Narrator – Unabridged format is that it is a common type of audiobook, especially these days. In just the last couple of years unabridged length audiobooks have become more popular with publishers like HarperAudio. Not five years ago, unabridged was almost exclusively the domain of Books On Tape, Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio. Even more recently, retail editions of some selections from these companies are being packaged and sold in bookstores. Most notably, Border’s bookstores are now releasing selected Recorded Books titles with jointly labeled packages.

The future of single voiced narration truly never sounded so good!

Scott:

I’m in agreement with everything Jesse said there. The “Single Narrator – Unabridged” style of recording works so well that I often wonder why some companies keep messing with it. Without doubt, this style of audiobook requires a good narrator, but if you have that good narrator, there is no need to embellish the story with sound effects or music underlying the narration, which some publishers think is important. It’s not. In fact, it’s more likely to be maddening than entertaining. Luckily, producers rarely “embellish” unabridged novels in this way – that treatment is normally reserved for abridgements. A good narrator reading good material needs no music to create mood, and that’s why this style works so well.

Listening to a good unabridged novel is a personal experience. I not only connect with the author, but also with the narrator. An average audio novel runs 8-10 hours, and a long one can run 30 hours or more. So a listener spends a great deal of time listening to that narrator’s voice. I often find myself as eager to hear the narrator’s next work as I am the author’s next novel. I also enjoy listening to new narrators grow in skill from book to book.

One thing that has me baffled is the existence of computer programs that read text to you. How incredibly boring. The emotion of the narrator is vital! Listening to a monotone computer recite words with nothing behind them is nigh unlistenable – it takes great effort. I know that many people who have never heard an audiobook think that that’s really what they are like – dry recitation of prose. But they are not. Through performance, a good narrator adds a whole other dimension to the author’s story. If this wasn’t the case, they’d be very dull indeed.

Like Jesse, I also think George Guidall is tops, and am enthused that he’s reading so much lately. Since Jesse already mentioned American Gods (also a personal favorite), I’ll mention another fabulous Guidall performance: Dune by Frank Herbert from Recorded Books. Jim Dale’s performance of all five Harry Potter novels (Listening Library) is another excellent example of the heights Single Narrator Unabridged Audiobooks can reach.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

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Scott D.

Reviews Editor, SFFaudio

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