AUDIOBOOKS AND ACCENTS
Do a narrator’s accent and voice necessarily enhance the audiobook experience, even if they differ from the author’s? Clearly some audiobook producers think so. But would the author agree? The reader/listener?
I pondered audiobooks and accents in last month’s blog (The Narrator’s Accent). It turned out that I wasn’t the only one with strong opinions on the subject.
Most people who responded turned out to be fans of accented audiobooks. In this month’s blog, I share some of their responses.
The Audiobook Experience
Is a regional accent helpful in creating atmosphere? Or does it restrict a listener’s imagination? Does it pull you out of the story because you are struggling to understand the words? Or does it bring a story to life?
And what about the narrator’s voice, especially if that voice is gendered? If a book is written by a woman, or a woman’s story, does a male narrator change the reading experience?
It seemed obvious to me that accent and voice shape a book’s tone and make listening more engaging and fun. But in my experience, certain accents and voices were annoying, incomprehensible, or inauthentic, distracting me from the narrative.
Audiobooks and Accents: Readers Respond
Most people I surveyed disagreed with me about audiobooks and accents: overall they liked listening to accents, as long as they were clear and understandable. Hearing a book read in dialect, many said, enhances the listening/reading experience and make stories more absorbing. It doesn’t matter if the narrator differs in accent–even in gender–from the author.
Margaret Maschel, for example, said she feels accents relating to a story’s region enhance the reading experience. However, the accent “needs to be clear and easy to follow so not a very strong accent.” Gender did not matter to her.
Susan Miller’s view of audiobooks and accents depends on how the dialogue is written. “If it depends on the reader seeing the punctuation to know that the speaker has changed, it’s very helpful if the voice changes.” She says she always prefers when audiobooks the author’s voice.
After authenticity, she adds that “the most important thing is that I can understand the words and the voice is not distracting.”
An Authentic Voice
More than anything, most respondents said they wanted to listen to “an authentic voice.” (Although, as Tony Muslin noted, “in general, the reader sounds a lot smarter if they have a posh English accent” This is also true with robotic assistants, I’ve observed.)
Perhaps the best way to ensure an authentic voice (and accent), of course, is to have authors read their own books. (This assumes the author is a good reader. As I noted last month, is by no means always the case.)
“I love local accents and I feel that it authenticates the story,” said Maribel Cabrera Ibrahim. “Right now, I’m ‘reading’ Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. While hers is a New York/New England accent, it adds to the story and as she retells incidents from her childhood and adulthood, since she is reading the story to me, she can provide the intonation and emphasis that she intended. When she quotes responses and conversations in her family, it’s believable because the dialogue is spot on and spoken in the native accent.”
When the narrator is not the author, however, both the narrator’s accent and voice, particularly gender, can undermine authenticity, at least for some listeners.
“I often think about gender when the narrator changes his or her voice to reflect a character that is the opposite,” said Gail Joseph. “And, of course, if the main character is not the gender of the narrator, that can be a big chunk of the book.”
She adds: “As far as accents go, I think I just prefer that the narrator use his/her own regular speech. Again, I get caught up wondering if they are doing it well, or if I am understanding what they are saying, rather than enjoying the book.”
Accenting First-Person Novels
I guess views of audiobooks and accents come down to your personal standards of distractibility, comprehensibility, and authenticity. And too many audiobooks violate mine, it seems.
Still, I must admit that I’m enjoying the narrator’s accent in my current audiobook, Deb Spera’s Call Your Daughter Home. Or, rather, the 3 narrators’ accents. This novel is told by 3 different women, all in the first person. So hearing the different voices of each character seems natural. And it greatly enhances the story.
When it comes to every audiobook, though, I’m still not convinced conspicuous accents and dialect enhance the reading experience. But obviously I’m in the minority here.
TERRA ZIPORYN is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and science writer whose numerous popular health and medical publications include The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health, Nameless Diseases, and Alternative Medicine for Dummies. Her novels include Do Not Go Gentle, The Bliss of Solitude, and Time’s Fool, which in 2008 was awarded first prize for historical fiction by the Maryland Writers Association. Terra has participated in both the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Old Chatham Writers Conference and for many years was a member of Theatre Building Chicago’s Writers Workshop (New Tuners). A former associate editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), she has a PhD in the history of science and medicine from the University of Chicago and a BA in both history and biology from Yale University, where she also studied playwriting with Ted Tally. Her latest novel, Permanent Makeup, is available in paperback and as a Kindle Select Book.
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