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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Man Booker Prize for (Audio) Fiction

The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It is a clever, moving and deeply imaginative book and a worthy winner. But if the judges had read the shortlisted books by ear rather than by eye it would not have won. 

This year I listened to all 6 shortlisted books and chose my own winner based on what I heard. I was using the same literary-merit criteria as the judges, but I added another element that sight-focused readers couldn't take into account: how the audio version of the book contributed to the reading experience. 

Audio books used to be the preserve of bind people. When I was a child, they were a rare and precious thing. Now they are mainstream. Publishers routinely produce downloadable audio books alongside kindle and paper versions and a lot of (sighted) people prefer them; audible is a thriving amazon company and public libraries are finally making audio books available to download via apps like overdrive and Libby. And with popularity come production values. The audio books of my youth were little more than a voice on tape. Now publishers go to great lengths to create a memorable reading experience. They carefully choose a narrator (or narrators) whose voice matches the feel of the story. Sometimes they even add music. Yet despite the popularity of audio books, they are still not taken seriously by 'serious' (aka sighted) readers. When I tell my literature students and colleagues that I read books by ear they are skeptical. 'Audio books send me to sleep,' they say. 'How do you remember what you read?' they ask. This cynicism is insulting because it implies that blind people cannot engage with literature to the same extent as sighted people. More worryingly, it misses one of the points of prose. All the writers shortlisted for the Man Booker care deeply about how their prose sounds. The content of their book is important, but so is its form. They are all writer-poets who crafted their words for rhythm and rhyme as well as sense. Their audio books are the perfect place to experience the beauty of this prose. Yet they are still seen as less 'authemtic', less 'proper' than the printed 'original'. 

Lincoln in the Bardo would not have won an audio Booker because it was almost impossible to follow by ear. Apparently the printed format of the book is 'disconcerting': this is even more the case for the audio version. So much so that I gave up listening twice before I finally got through it. According to audible, the book's 'dazzling chorus of voices' was captured by a '166-person full cast featuring award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders' family, friends, and members of his publishing team'. This may sound impressive in a press-release but it leads to a wholly unfeasible listening experience. Even if I were endowed with the mythical super-hearing erroneously attributed to blind people, I would not be able to recognize and attribute 166 different voices. When I listened I only got the vaguest sense of who was speaking, and I learnt more about the story from audible's synopsis than from what I actually heard. This audio book probably works brilliantly as an accompaniment to or adaptation of the printed novel. But if audio is your own way of accessing this text, then you will be frustrated and alienated by it. 

The other 5 shortlisted books all make the much more sensible decision to stick with just one audio narrator. Of these, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Elmet by Fiona Mozley are first-person narratives told by adolescents and both are read by audio-narrators whose voices have the age, gender and accent of their book's narrator: a young North American woman (Caitlin Thornburn) for Wolves and a young Northern English man (Gareth Bennett-Ryan) for Elmet. The fit between fictional and audio voices creates a close bond between listener and storyteller because both audio-narrators do an excellent job of capturing the tone of their protagonists. I am sure that my listening experience of these two novels was more captivating and immersive than that of my sight-reliant peers.

Ali Smith's Autumn is written in the third person, but much of the story is told from the perspective of the novel's protagonist, 32-year-old Elisabeth Demand, using free indirect style. The audio-narrator, Melody Grove, sounds close to Elisabeth in age and provenance, but she also manages to capture other key characters such as 8-year-old Elisabeth, Daniel, and Elisabeth's mother using changes in tone and inflection. Autumn works as an audio book because it has several underlying thematic threads which hold it together; it felt like the audio-narrator understands this and cleverly emphasizes them in her reading.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is also written in the third person but it is less successful than Autumn because it has not one but two protagonists: Nadia and Saeed. The presence of two characters of different genders makes the choice of audio-narrator difficult. If a male narrator is chosen, there is a risk that the listener feels closer to Saeed's story, whereas a female narrator will create a bond which favours Nadia's perspective. In the end, anglo-Indian actor Ashley Kumar was probably cast as audio-narrator because his voice resonates with both the novel's context and the author's persona. Despite the captivating and timely story, and the characters' powerful portrayals, I felt a distance between audio narrator and listener in this book which I did not experience in Autumn.

At 37 hours long, Paul Auster's 4321 takes about as long to listen to as the other 5 put together, and what a delight it was. 4321 is the only shortlisted book entirely narrated by its author. (Apparently George Saunders is one of Lincoln's 166 voices but I couldn't tell which one). When it is done well, as it is here, author-narration works brilliantly. No-one understands how a book should sound better than its author. I was seduced by Auster's narration of Ferguson's lives from very early on in the narrative. Not only did his voice match the main character's personas, his intimate knowledge of the text added a dimension of fluency and connection which brought another layer of emotion and understanding to the reading experience. For this reason, 4321 would be my audio Booker winner, with History of Wolves, Elmet and Autumn close behind.

As more and more people choose audio books over print versions, it seems crucial to include an audio reader among the Man Booker judges. I would happily volunteer.

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