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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

In the Telling

The voices in our heads

Emily Urquhart

There is a bend in Galt, Ontario, that I think of as Olive Kitteridge Corner. As I turn the wheel of my car, I’m always reminded of the moment in Elizabeth Strout’s novel when Olive steals a shoe from her miserable daughter-in-law’s closet, knowing that the search for the misplaced loafer will drive the woman mad. Along this same route, about three kilometres south, another stretch of road along the Grand River is forever riveted in my memory to the first line in Carrianne Leung’s linked story collection, That Time I Loved You, which opens during “the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.”

Leung’s book is set in the new suburbs of Scarborough, in 1979, while Strout’s plays out in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine — both vastly different settings from Galt, which is a turn-of-the-century factory town. What connected these disparate landscapes was my ­commute in early 2020. Once a week, I would drive between my home and Wilfrid Laurier’s Brantford campus, where I was teaching that semester. I used to stop midway to buy a coffee at a little café that operated out of an old warehouse. It was here, just as I was about to pull into the parking lot one day, that the striking beginning of Leung’s collection arrived through my speakers.

It’s not an easy line. Like many of the stories, “Grass” is told from the perspective of eleven-year-old June. If it were delivered with melodrama, or in an ironic tone, the listener could miss June’s earnest curiosity, her simple acceptance of this string of tragedies. Nancy von Euw, the voice actor I am hearing, does not misstep. She keeps on an even keel. She is reading, not dramatizing; yet, at the same time, it is necessary for her to speak in June’s voice and, in this way, to embody her character.

Olive, on the other hand, can be prickly, and if handled too harshly, she might tip into unlovable territory or, possibly worse, become unrelatable. If the reader, Kimberly Farr, had taken a wicked tone, it might have lent a malicious edge to the curmudgeonly protagonist. I could have seen the theft of the loafer as mean-spirited, overlooking the triumph of this act as well as the humour. Instead, as I believe the author intended, this scene cemented my deep and abiding love for Olive, which led me to seek out a number of other titles by Strout, some of which are also voiced by Farr.

A look behind the microphone.

Claus Grünstäudl; Unsplash

Audiobooks make for a complex dance. They are an interpretation, a “species of translation,” as the Washington Post book critic Katherine A. Powers has put it. Done well, they can be transcendent. Done poorly, they can render even a brilliant work of literature unbearable.

I rarely make that drive through Galt these days. As with everything else in March last year, the campus emptied and the school term disintegrated. Everyone went home and stayed there. The little warehouse coffee shop I used to stop at shuttered permanently. Many industries were hit by the lockdowns. Audiobook publishing, however, has never been better.

Platforms like Amazon’s Audible continue to report higher numbers of listeners and new members, as does Libro.fm, which gives a portion of the audiobook purchase price to an independent bookstore of your choice. Even before the pandemic, 2019 was the eighth consecutive year that audiobook sales had grown by double digits in the United States. Here at home, sales have risen by a third since 2018, according to a 2020 BookNet Canada report. And in Europe this rise is predicted to continue, with the audiobook market set to increase by $1.23 billion (U.S.) over the next four years. The growth is largely driven by the proliferation of smart devices and applications. In other words, audiobooks are easy to access and easy to consume.

I can attest to this. I’ve been a devoted listener for the past decade, since motherhood and its attending domestic chores interrupted my voracious reading habit. It is not an exaggeration to say that when I discovered I could cook, clean, and fold laundry while reading, it changed my life. Audiobooks have also altered how I understand literature, particularly its accessibility.

Many people comprehend audio better than text, whether because of dyslexia, ADHD, or the print disabilities that affect one in ten Canadians. For my ten-year-old daughter, who is legally blind, most of her literature is audio. She sources her reading material via the Centre for Equitable Library Access, which has an immense catalogue, with many of its titles voiced by brilliant volunteers.

Some argue that listening to stories is a form of cheating, believing reading to be superior. It’s a bizarre stance, considering that oral storytelling is as old as humankind and that our earliest written texts were meant to be read out loud. “A book of poetry or artistic prose was not simply a text in the modern sense,” the British scholar E. J. Kenney wrote in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, “but something like a score for public or private performance.” Reading quietly in your head was once seen as a kind of abhorrent, backwards act. In 385, Saint Augustine stumbled across Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, silently studying a document, and found the act worthy of comment. “We saw him reading to himself, and never otherwise,” he wrote in his Confessions. In a way, today’s text purists are much like Augustine, as they fret over this strange new way of reading.

As audiobook converts have grown in number, they have become more discerning. Misplaced pauses or questionable accents can elicit a string of angry comments. Take, for instance, the Reddit user who complained that Roy Dotrice’s “slobbery wet-mouthed lip-sucking droning voice” put them off George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

Critical perspectives, on the other hand, are difficult to come by. Finding reviews in magazines or newspapers can be challenging, as audio versions often appear months or even years after the printed work — and most editors are, after all, in the business of selling news. Even when the audiobook is to be published in tandem, it often must be produced quickly, once the final printed book pages are made — so there isn’t time for audio reviewers to hear an advance copy for a pre-publication assessment, the way print reviewers can judge a book from an early proof. However, as publishers like Penguin Random House have seen more demand in recent years for advance listening files, such reviews may become more common.

The largest audiobook review venue, AudioFile magazine, only occasionally covers Canadian releases and hardly ever includes those from smaller houses. This isn’t because the indie presses aren’t issuing the content. Last year, ECW released more audio than print — which included its own titles and works from other presses published through its Bespeak Audio Editions imprint.

Similarly, House of Anansi saw audio sales rise 40 percent from 2019 to 2020, and this expansion looks set to continue. While the revenue for this format has yet to be substantial, the publisher says it is “playing the long game.” But sales aren’t the only reason to produce audiobooks. “It’s important to a lot of authors to have their work published in this way, and that’s our job,” Anansi’s vice president of publishing ­operations told me recently.

Another issue with audiobooks is public access. Audible does not share with libraries its exclusive titles, such as Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, or more recent works like Leung’s That Time I Loved You. This means you will not find these recordings available to borrow through the free lending platforms Overdrive and Hoopla. And while the larger publishing houses do sell audiobooks to libraries, their costs are often prohibitive. It’s an ongoing tussle, but for their part, publishers argue that audiobooks are truly expensive to create — there’s a narrator to pay and a producer, as well as studio time.

In the early days of the pandemic, publishers and libraries came to a temporary truce, during which hugely popular audiobooks like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were made available, with no holds or wait‑lists. Sensing that this would be a short-lived opportunity (and it was, at least at my local library) I delved into Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, all narrated by Hillary Huber, whose voice I could now pick out of a crowd. I listened to these books over spring and into early summer. By that point, I’d been stuck at home with my two children for several months (little did I know how much longer this would continue). Without a room of my own to disappear into, I discovered that my headphones could separate me from my family, in the same way they might help you fend off a talkative stranger on a long-haul flight. Every afternoon, for about an hour, I would don my headphones and check out. If my children tried to speak to me, I’d shake my head emphatically. “Mommy is in Naples,” I would tell them.

One morning, my daughter asked, somewhat sarcastically, if I would be heading to Naples that afternoon. “No,” I told her. “I’ll be in Jamaica today.” Then I paused, because this wasn’t entirely accurate. I was listening to Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain, and while the opening story is partially set on the Caribbean island, the book takes place mostly in Little Jamaica, in Toronto.

Voiced by Ordena Stephens-Thompson, the stories follow Kara Davis from childhood to young adulthood as she navigates her various identities: a Canadian yearning to be a “true” Jamaican, a young Black woman living in a mostly white society. In one scene, Kara attempts to speak in patois to her teenage peers, one of whom has recently immigrated, but she’s not able to pull it off. As I listened, I wondered how much involvement the author had in choosing the narrator. In what is still largely a white-dominated profession, who vetted the patois?

Reid-Benta didn’t pick the narrator, she told me, but she felt that Anansi had taken care to find the right person. Stephens-Thompson, who is Jamaican Canadian, reached out to Reid-Benta to ask her about certain pronunciations. “She wanted to know how authentic I wanted the voice to be. Particularly since there are a few words in my book that aren’t spelled correctly, because over the years readers of different backgrounds kept tripping over them.” Reid-Benta told Stephens-Thompson to say the words the way they sounded, not how they were written. The author also wanted the grandmother character’s accent to be very strong. After speaking with Reid-Benta, I wondered if it was possible that, as a reader with little knowledge of Jamaican patois, I was able to more accurately conjure these characters and their conversations by listening than if I were reading the physical book.

Recently, I have started switching between the print and audio versions of titles. I’m not alone. Audible’s Whispersync for Voice will synchronize your ebook and audiobook, to keep your place as you hop back and forth — though I usually swap between my phone and the physical copy. I’m often too exhausted to make it through more than a few pages before bed, but by listening, I can catch up while preparing the endless snacks that online school seems to require. After several months of using this method, I discovered that it was affecting what I heard in my head when I read.

I noticed this with How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by the British author Cherie Jones. It is vividly narrated by Danielle Vitalis, whose low, rhythmic tone and Caribbean cadence came to replace my usual internal monologue. Earlier, I had listened to and read Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, voiced by Stephanie Roberts. Similarly, I would unconsciously summon the narrator’s characterizations, in particular that of Fat Bev, whose exasperation and warmth Roberts captures with singular expression, all in a New England accent.

Some of the best portrayals I’ve encountered are in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife, a collection of stories that follows the lives of Laotian immigrants, narrated alternately by Kulap Vilaysack and James Tang. You wouldn’t get this from the jacket copy, but there is a warm humour that runs throughout the text. In “Mani Pedi,” Tang’s depiction of Raymond’s sister (whose name we never learn) reveals the character’s depth and her ongoing irritation with her brother, as well as the nuances of her profound love for him. Vilaysack’s narration in “Ewwrrrkk” tenderly and amusingly conveys the relationship between a child and her great-grandmother, without any treacle. When the young girl observes her great-grandmother’s bare breasts, she thinks that they look like eggplants — and not the ripe, firm kind at the store, Vilaysack relays, deadpan and pitch perfect. The line bursts with humour, but if the narrator had leaned into it too hard, it could have become slapstick.

I was curious if others had a similar feeling about how the narration had shone a new light on Thammavongsa’s stories. I looked for reviews, but I found only one short write‑up in AudioFile, which culminated in a generic line: “Sensitive and expressive, Tang and Vilaysack’s performances showcase these unobtrusive yet powerful stories.” The writer also touched briefly on the range and versatility of the voices, but there’s a limit to what can be covered in a ­hundred words.

Listening has increased for a variety of reasons this past year or so: loneliness, more time at home, television-streaming fatigue, and, of course, the urge to escape domestic chores and child care. This growth might have happened regardless, but the types of works that are being produced are new. For a while now, Audible has been releasing a hybrid style of podcasts, in offerings that are episodic and incorporate outside interviews and scripted readings that sound nothing like traditional books. The platform has also been experimenting with country-specific content, such as the crime series True North Heists, voiced by Colm Feore.

Traditional publishers are also innovating in the audio world. In Hachette’s audio guides, experts lead sessions on skills like baking, gardening, or meditating. These run short, around ninety minutes; a typical novel takes around eight hours. At the same time, we’re seeing longer listening ventures: for instance, Punchlines, Audible’s compilation of live gigs and comedy specials.

I’ll probably never listen to a how‑to guide or nine hours of stand‑up or a podcast-book hybrid. It’s just not what I’m looking for. I’m seeking plot, narrative, and character delivered through carefully constructed language. I want an escape that lifts me beyond the mound of laundry and beyond yet another 11 a.m. lunch prep. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be browsing for something that will carry me through the routine commute between my home and work. My need is simple and timeless: I want someone to read me a story.

Emily Urquhart wrote The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me.

Related Letters and Responses

Luke Shwart Vancouver

@peacockpressinc via Twitter

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