Read Me a Story

You may have seen actor Robin Miles (pictured) on the TV shows Law & Order and Murder by Numbers, but her principal creative outlet is the approximately 500 books she’s narrated—many, many of which have won awards. Journalist Daniel Gross’s recent New Yorker article, “How a Great Audiobook Narrator Finds Her Voices,” centers on voice actor Miles.

When she began narrating books, Miles was shocked to find how pigeonholed narrators were. If you were Black, you read books by Black authors; if you were Jewish, the same. “When a little more diversity came in (to the pool of audio narrators), it was like, well, nobody can do anything outside of their yard. And now, I think we’re also beginning to hopefully, break through that again.” Certainly the talented Adam Lazare-Smith is equally convincing narrating the Black and white characters of SA Cosby’s thrillers, as is Sullivan Jones narrating a whole array of ethnicities in Joe Ide’s I.Q. books, set in East Los Angeles.

Generally, a narrator is chosen who shares some major trait (gender, race) with the story’s main character. So, what about all the other characters? People different in terms of gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, level of education, country of origin? The best audio narrators move between characters easily and make their voices simultaneously distinctive and authentic. As another skilled narrator, Adjoa Andoh, describes this challenge, “You are the entire world.”

Miles says that growing up in a town full of immigrants—Matawan, New Jersey—exposed her to accents from pretty much everywhere. Versatility, combined with creativity, serves voice actors well. In NK Jemisin’s fantasy books, a number of which Miles has narrated, the way characters sound must be created from scratch. They can’t sound like they came from Brooklyn or New Orleans or Maine.

I’ve been an Audible subscriber for more than twenty years. I’ve listened to hundreds of books. In 2004, I listened to all of Dickens, as well as Jane Smiley’s biography, Charles Dickens. Back then, audiobooks were a small part of the literary marketplace, but in 2008, Amazon paid about $300 million to buy Audible. They’ve done nothing but gain listeners in droves ever since. Today, audiobooks “are about as popular, in dollar terms, as e-books, and may soon generate more revenue than Broadway,” reports Gross.

Some authors decide to save the approximately $100 to $400 an hour it costs to hire a narrator/producer and read their book themselves. Having listened to so many terrific narrators, this seems risky and I’d never do it, but John le Carré did a great job reading his Agent Running in the Field. As in so many creative domains these days, AI is rearing its computer-generated head in the field of audio narration. When I think of the subtlety deployed by my favorite narrators, my instinct about this development is pure Luddite. As an example, Gross describes how Miles recognized a line was a bad joke and let her voice trail off as the character realized how unfunny she was. A manufactured voice might be able to read a textbook, but subtlety . . . I don’t know. How about sarcasm? Dawning uncertainty? As Gross says, “When publishers and producers inevitably try to sell us synthetic voices, it’ll be up to us to hear the difference.”

6 thoughts on “Read Me a Story

  1. You’re right, I good reader can make all the difference in the world. Two of the best I ever heard were the late actors, Burt Reynolds and Richard Crenna. Jonathan Rubenstein is fabulous doing Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. Michael Connelly’s Bosch/Ballard series has three different actors on the audio version of desert Star. I once read one of m y short stories for a charity anthology audio and found it exhausting work.

  2. An excellent piece on audible and audio books. Thank you for sharing Robin Miles story as well. I will definitely check her work out. I have fallen in love with audio books, but I am picky about the narrator. I want to enjoy the writers work, not be bored by a flat, monotone, or rushed high pitch speaker (among other narration faux pas). I fully believe narrators are the Bards of the the 21st century. The oral shamans of our age. As a writer I would love to be able to narrate my own work, but it is better I stay in my lane and just write! Should I ever publish my work and have the audio option, I will aspire to make sure the narrator fits my work.

  3. I’d like to put in a plug for Lauren Ezzo, the actress who narrates my Cat Groomer Mystery series for Kensington Books. I get such a kick out of listening to the audiobooks because she interprets the dialogue so well. Whether I meant a character to sound haughty and demanding, or frightened out of their wits, or angry, or moved almost to tears, she always nails it. Subtle class and regional differences, too. I can’t imagine a computer doing all that.

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