It’s not what they say, it’s the way they say it

Some people choose books by their covers; I often choose talking books by their narrators.

A bad narrator can ruin even a good book, and if you are unlucky enough to get a poor performer and a mediocre work, it’s excruciating.  Particularly if sex scenes are involved.

Good narrators bring the book to life with their faultless timing and great characterisations.  No easy task and I speak from bitter experience, having narrated a few Books for the Blind in my youth.  I remember one attempt at a German accent which still makes me wince when I think of it.  For a talking book, narration is a skill quite as important as writing, and arguably more difficult to find.

What makes a duff narrator?  Well, since I listen while driving, I especially dislike the sleep-inducing effect of monotonous voices.  Fake accents, nasty nasal or whiny voices, mispronunciation, overacting, underacting and bad timing also bring about road rage.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I prefer male narrators for most books, simply because they do a better job of female voices than female narrators do when impersonating males.  I suspect it’s something to do with the vocal cords, but for every male narrator who makes his females sound like drag queens, I find half a dozen females whose attempts to sound masculine are forced or ludicrous.  I gave up on one historical novel, not only because Henry VIII had an American accent, but because the narrator made him sound uncannily like Yogi Bear.

Cover of "A king's speech"But there are some great narrators too, including:

  • Alex Jennings, who can read a Dickens or Dostoyevsky with a cast of thousands and yet give every character their own voice.
  • Tim Curry reads the Lemony Snicket books with great verve.
  • Jonathan Cecil does a great upper-class twit Bertie and omniscient Jeeves in the P. G. Wodehouse books.
  • Simon Slater – some people found Wolf Hall  difficult because they couldn’t work out who was speaking – you won’t have that trouble with this audio version.
  • Juliet Stevenson – a fine and versatile narrator.

One thing I love about the OverDrive downloadable audio books is being able to listen to an excerpt and find out in advance if the narrator’s voice is as annoying as a child asking for ice-cream in a supermarket queue.

Who are your audio stars? And do you agree with my preference for male narrators?

3 thoughts on “It’s not what they say, it’s the way they say it

  1. Marion 20 February 2012 / 10:38 am

    Saw an interesting variant on this on the news this morning. A NZ team are creating soundtracks for e-books. Will we love the book because of the cool soundtrack?

  2. Robyn 20 February 2012 / 10:51 am

    Timothy West is my all-time favourite narrator – his reading of Trollope’s Barchester books is sublime. Eleanor Bron is great but I do guiltily prefer men. Wolf Hall showed how it should be done. Biggest disappointment? Bill Bryson reading his own work. Not so sure about soundtracks; how would it work?

  3. Vanessaccl 20 February 2012 / 11:31 am

    I don’t often listen to talking books, but I made an exception for Harry Potter and really enjoyed Stephen Fry’s narration.

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