The Five Books Interviews are coming to be a must-visit for me. The website is organized around interviews of experts in various areas talking about about the five best books on their particular topic. Even if you’re familiar with the subject matter generally, the five selections always include several you’ve never heard of before.
This instance is no different. The winner of the 2020 Audie is a book I would not have picked up without a push as I was there for 9/11 and felt no need for a return visit. But the oral history is riveting. Similarly, who would have thought we could use another version of “Charlotte’s Web.” But Michelle Obama’s book and audiobook justifiably received a great deal of attention from before publication as did Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale” — altho not the audiobook format. A good read.
The 2020 Audie Awards: Audiobook of the Year
recommended by Mary Burkey & Robin Whitten
Every year, the Audie Awards celebrate the best audiobooks published over the previous year. Veteran audiobook reviewer Robin Whitten of AudioFile Magazine and Mary Burkey, who has served on multiple audiobook judging panels, explain what makes a good audiobook and talk us through the brilliant books that were finalists in the 2020 ‘Audiobook of the Year’ category.
Interview by Sophie Roell
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001
by Garrett Graff
Before we get to the books that were finalists for the 2020 Audie Awards, a general question: how do you set about choosing what makes a good audiobook, compared to the underlying book it’s narrated from?
Mary: The difference between evaluating an audiobook and a print book is that you are evaluating what comes in through your ears and how the literary elements of a work are developed and broadened by the audiobook format. For example, the literary element of character: how does an audiobook let you hear the age and gender of the character? How does the audiobook let you hear the character development over the span of the audiobook? Can you hear the character change? Can you tell the character’s cultural background?
Also, can you tell the time period? If it’s a classic work of literature, the cadence and pacing have to have a more formal feel. You can hear setting by, maybe, the introduction of music. If it’s a book set in the 1920s, maybe a little clip of jazzy music puts you in the mood. You can also get a sense of the arc of the plot. When it’s a cozy mystery you can get a cozy feel, but if it’s a suspenseful thriller you can hear that it’s intense and driving.
Robin: The narrator also brings emotional tone to a sentence that was written by the author. When we read it with our eyes, we think, ‘Oh, this person is mad.’ But when you hear the sentence read by a narrator, you can feel that anger, if they do a good job. Now, it can be over the top. Or it can be too flat. Or it can be just right. There’s a whole range. But that’s a big part of what a narrator brings to a performance, the emotion quotient.
You’ve both been reviewing audiobooks for a long time. Are audiobooks becoming increasingly sophisticated with more resources thrown at them compared to, say, 10 years ago?
Robin: Yes. The whole industry has developed and it’s booming. Audiobooks are the darling of publishing at the moment. There have been a lot of changes in the way recordings are done. On the other hand, some things never change. We’re going to talk in a minute about how so many multicast and multi-voice titles are really getting attention, but if you look at the tradition of BBC audio drama—maybe things have changed a little, but maybe not.
I read a lot of print books, but I’m also a big consumer of audiobooks. I’ve been astonished, recently, how now almost every new book has an audio version. Is that your sense as well, that publishers are publishing everything as an audiobook simultaneously?
Mary: Not everything. One of the things that’s important is whether a title lends itself to the audiobook format. Some titles just don’t. Other titles you almost wish that the audiobook was the only format because it’s so far superior to the print format. So there’s that push and pull between ‘is it suited to audio?’ and the rush to get out every title as a simultaneous release with the print.
“When we read it with our eyes, we think, ‘Oh, this person is mad.’ But when you hear the sentence read by a narrator, you can feel that anger, if they do a good job”
But yes, there has been a huge increase in production. You’re finding so many more titles and a great increase in titles for young people, which used to be a smaller slice of the audiobook field. There’s also been a great increase in nonfiction audiobooks, which brings in a whole other audience of listeners. So there are different genres and categories that are booming even more than audiobooks in general.
What do you think about accents? Does an American listener like a British accent when they’re listening to Jane Austen?
Mary: I’m a librarian and I’ve worked with children and teens most of my career. Something that applies in the whole world of publishing, but particularly so in teen and youth audiobooks, is that idea of ‘own voices’, of having someone from a group actually represent that group—whether it’s the author of the book or the narrator of the book.
That is something that audiobook publishers are really, really getting behind. They are finding narrators who are from that group so that when those words are voiced the cadence, the mood, the emotion Robin was talking about comes from the real, lived experience of that particular group. It might be an elderly person, or a person from a particular cultural group, or even someone who is able to pronounce the foreign terminology in the book correctly. That whole idea of own voices is huge. As an example, I won’t use Jane Austen, but instead the book Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. That audiobook is narrated by Cathleen McCarron, who is from that part of Scotland. It makes you feel as if you are right there. Accents are super important.
Quite a few books are now narrated by their author. Do you feel authors are under pressure to narrate their own books?
Robin: I don’t think they are under pressure, because they’re leading that process. Often they think that they should narrate their own book. But if you hear from authors—and we have certainly interviewed authors who have done it—they say it was hard. I think that oftentimes authors don’t realize how hard it might be to narrate their own work. We’re not really talking memoirs, here; that’s a whole different deal.
Mary: Some audiobook producers I’ve talked to say that oftentimes an author who has written a book has to audition to be the narrator for their book—and they may not get chosen, because it is a hard job. There are professional narrators, a subset of actors who specialize in doing this very hard task of bringing a book to life.
One funny thing that I’ve heard authors say is that when they’re reading their book, they find it very hard not to change things, because it feels like part of the editing process for them. It’s frustrating for them to narrate their own book because it is set in stone on the page and an audiobook represents what’s on that page. That impulse to edit can remove them emotionally from the arc of the story.
At this point I can’t resist asking about celebrity narrators. Robin, I saw you have a ‘golden voice’ section at AudioFile Magazine where you profile the best professional audiobook narrators. How do you feel about famous actors coming in—do you think they do as good a job?
Robin: Well-known actors usually have very beautiful voices and are very well trained in many levels of acting. But every type of acting—whether it’s stage, TV or film or narrating an audiobook—is different. It takes a different type of skill and some of them are not trained for this.
One good example is that actors are not trained to have all the parts—because in pretty much every other type of theatrical production, they get to be one character. In an audiobook, you’ve got to be them all, and I think that is harder than it looks. Actors are storytellers in different ways and this includes very well-known actors. They may be incredibly good at dialogue, for example, but don’t really do character voices.
But there’s lots of ways to approach it and I think that celebrity actors have been intrigued with doing an occasional audiobook. Among the Audie Awards finalists this year, we’ve got Meryl Streep reading part of Charlotte’s Web, and Tom Hanks reading The Dutch House. They are great audiobooks. They both did a great job. But they don’t have a career in audiobook narration and probably they’d just as soon make a movie.
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Mary: One of the important ingredients of a narrator recording an audiobook is the preparation. They don’t just come in, sit down behind a mic, and read a book. Many narrators call the print book their ‘script’. They go through the book, they highlight the different characters, they make notes of how they’re going to voice it. They determine the pronunciation of the difficult words. There’s a whole bunch of frontend work that needs to be done that many celebrity narrators may not actually have the time to do because they are so in demand.
Sometimes the preparation may not be as in-depth with a celebrity narrator because they haven’t made the mistakes yet. For example, nearly every professional narrator will tell you a story about how once they didn’t prepare enough, and got to page 400 of a 412 page book, when the main character was suddenly revealed to be Scottish. Meanwhile, they’d narrated the whole book without a Scottish accent. So that idea of preparation is pretty key.
What’s your view on nonfiction audiobooks, in terms of the quality?
Robin: In nonfiction there are a couple things that come into play. One thing is what Mary talked about earlier, that not all nonfiction lends itself terribly well to long-form narration.
Also, if you look at what is published in nonfiction in print versus what is published as audiobooks, nonfiction may lag behind. There is proportionately more fiction that is being recorded than nonfiction. I don’t have the numbers to back that up, but at AudioFile Magazine we’re always trying to find audiobooks in specific categories that we can assign to our reviewers. So, for example, I find that there are just not enough of what I would consider a frontlist biography coming out in audio. Every memoir that ever was published is being recorded, but not so in serious biography.
Mary: You have to think about the different types of nonfiction. There’s the genre of narrative nonfiction, where you feel it’s a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The book has that story arc and there is emotion. Those kinds of nonfiction books really lend themselves to audio. For example, in this year’s Audie Awards, the book that was Audiobook of the Year was a nonfiction title about 9/11.
“Memoirs are very attractive as audiobooks because you feel like you’re hearing somebody’s personal story told to you over a cup of coffee”
Books with charts and graphs are problematic for the format, but some audiobook publishers append a PDF file with some of those charts and graphs that you can download along with the book. One interesting example was the Audie Awards’ Audiobook of the Year Hamilton: The Revolution in 2017. That audiobook has the entire text of the libretto that Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about in the audiobook, but then you can get the PDF with the actual text. So that’s one way to jump over that barrier in nonfiction audiobooks. Read
Let’s turn to the individual audiobooks that were celebrated in the 2020 Audie Awards’ Audiobook of the Year category. You’ve already mentioned the winning audiobook, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
Mary: So this is a nonfiction title about 9/11. It’s snips of memoirs: just like Robin said, memoirs are very attractive as audiobooks because you feel like you’re hearing somebody’s personal story told to you over a cup of coffee. The Only Plane in the Sky is an amazing work that takes a nonfiction book and makes it even more immediate, and brings in that emotion.
Robin: This book is incredibly powerful and important in many ways. The author calls it an oral history but, to me, it doesn’t become a real oral history until it’s an aural history. When I looked at the book in print I thought, ‘I can’t figure out how to get through this.’ It’s one sentence by one person and then another sentence by another person. They’re all identified and they’re talking about a particular time in the day, but I just couldn’t imagine reading it all with my eyes.
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Did you have that impression Mary?
Mary: Absolutely. The other thing is that The Only Plane in the Sky has clips of the actual transcripts, the actual sounds from that moment in time. So it’s not only an oral history, as it’s subtitled, it’s also a documentary. It’s a social history that we can hear with our ears, in the way that it actually happened and in the way that the people in the book meant for it to be heard, those little individual snippets.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this Audiobook of the Year from the Audie Awards with Lincoln in the Bardo, which was the Audie Awards Audiobook of the Year in 2018. I tried to read Lincoln in the Bardo and it’s the same sort of thing, little snippets that are identified with footnotes. I couldn’t get through it reading it in print, but the audiobook is astounding. That’s another one where I don’t think the print book should exist anymore, only the audiobook.
It’s also quite exciting that here is an audiobook that’s made a big contribution to the social history of an important event. It’s not just a little bit of fun to listen to while you’re in the car.
Mary: It’s a punch to the stomach listening to it.
Robin: It’s very important and incredibly powerful and lasting. It’s a documentary that I think will be cherished as a record of an extraordinary time with actual comments from the real people that were involved. Read
Let’s talk about the other books that were finalists for the 2020 Audie Awards Audiobook of the Year. What can you tell me about Angels in America?
Mary: This book points to the lasting influence, throughout the whole history of audiobooks, of drama as audio. Like the recordings BBC Radio release of theatrical works, this type of performance has been there from the get-go, as Robin noted.
Angels in America builds on that tradition of how audiobooks can bring stage plays into your home through the audio experience. Angels in America was a landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, and having it available on audio for everyone to experience in a different way—but in the out loud fashion that it was written for—is really important. We all know it’s different to read Shakespeare than to see Shakespeare, here you’re adding in hearing Shakespeare as a whole other level. That’s what you get with Angels in America, in my opinion.
Robin: And we should add that while Angels in America was a finalist for Audiobook of the Year, it won in the Audie Awards 2020 Audio Drama category. Read
Let’s move on to Becoming, written and narrated by Michelle Obama. This book has been a huge bestseller. Tell me about how it works as an audiobook.
Robin: Becoming was a finalist for Audiobook of the Year and won in the Audie Awards 2020 Autobiography and Memoir category. This is a case where you have to hear Michelle Obama read her story. She puts her whole emotional self into it.
When we spoke earlier about whether an author should read their own book, you said memoir was different from other categories. Did you mean that memoir is one genre where you really do want the narrator and author to be one and the same?
Robin: If they have the ability to stay with the emotional content, yes. But that’s not always easy, because a lot of the memoirs have some very tough parts to them. The author may have written a memoir and put it down on paper, but that’s not the same as being isolated in a booth and reliving it all again.
Yes, and Michelle Obama reveals some painful things she went through in the book, even though she tries to keep the tone light. It might have been hard to do.
Robin: Years ago, I interviewed Katharine Graham, who was the publisher of the Washington Post, about her memoir. She had done loads of interviews about her memoir, including TV interviews. She told me that the hardest part of any of that was recording some of the painful passages and chapters for the audiobook. It was as if she had to live it again. In a way, once she had put it down on paper, it was done, but narrating the audiobook brought it all back. Read
On a lighter note, the next of the finalists for the Audie Awards 2020 Audiobook of the Year is the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Tell me about this audiobook production.
Mary: One thing that’s great—even in these times where lots of audiobooks are coming out as simultaneous releases with new titles—is that publishers are also going back and revisiting classics that that are loved and cherished, like Charlotte’s Web. They’ve taken a book that many people treasure and know almost by heart and brought in not only a celebrity narrator like Meryl Streep, but also some of the very best audiobook narrators out there. This full cast production of Charlotte’s Web honours that cherished title with the very best of the best voices.
It was also very nice having a title for younger children recognized as a truly stellar audiobook. Sometimes people think that audiobooks are to help kids learn to read, and not for them to fall in love with literature. But that’s what the audiobook recording of Charlotte’s Web does. It lets young kids and their parents revisit a beautiful title and fall in love with the book. Read
Let’s move on to The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, narrated by Tom Hanks.
Robin: Tom Hanks has a great voice. He did a great job.
Mary: He really did. For me, personally, I have to say it’s not often that a celebrity narrator truly disappears into the book. It’s not a good thing when you hear a celebrity narrator like Tom Hanks, and the whole time all you can picture is Tom Hanks behind the mic, because then you don’t enter into the life of those characters. But when a celebrity narrator can disappear into the book, that’s when it belongs on that small shelf of truly amazing celebrity narrators. And that’s what Tom Hanks does in The Dutch House.
What happens if you’ve already read the print book of The Dutch House and then listen to the audiobook as well?
Mary: I read an advanced reader copy of The Dutch House and I had my own voice in my head, because that’s what happens when you read it yourself. And then I thought, ‘I guess I should listen to Tom Hanks narrating it, because it’s been nominated for Audiobook of the Year.’ I sat down and listened and it was a whole other experience. There’s your personal voice in your head and then there’s how an audiobook brings a whole new way to experience a title. It’s a great book. Even if you’ve read it, go listen to it. Read
Finally we have Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is another title quite a few people will have read. How does The Testaments work as an audiobook?
Robin: Obviously the book is totally fascinating as a print book. What happened with the audiobook is that because of the Hulu adaptation, a lot of the actors who were in the Hulu program were used for the audiobook production. That puts The Testaments in a different category, in that it will probably attract people who might not have thought of trying the audiobook. They see the actors that they know from the Hulu series and think, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting. How would that be?’ So I think the audiobook of The Testaments really opened the door to new listeners with this production.
Mary: Yes, and this brings to light one of the criteria for this category. When you have awards, you have to have criteria to help the judges pick out points of quality in audiobooks. The criteria for Audiobook of the Year are that it’s a title that not only will be a benchmark for excellence in production, but will also bring new listeners into the format. The idea of a celebrity narrator, or having the actors from the TV show that listeners can picture in their head as they listen, might make that first-time audiobook listener more comfortable with the format and hook them for life.
Interview by Sophie Roell
March 25, 2020