Aunt Mary emailed yesterday, in a snit, her missive huffing incredulity, “Well, Paul, just received a reprehensibly unflattering response to my demo from a publisher I’ll name but you won’t. I quote, ‘Dear Aunt Mary, if you’re not sure why everything you narrate sounds the same, please listen to the following narrator. She is your competition.’
“So I listen. That’s my compeTITION? All her zillion-plus Audies, Earphones, even a Grammy. Gag me with a U-87! Flash! Every book sounded the same! Same tone, same male/female voices. You think I couldn’t recognize her from one book to the other. T-H-E S-A-M-E! So, I call Robin Whitten who, hello!!! – understands AM. I play Robin me and the, ha! Audie winner. I says, Robin, I sound like me, and she sounds like her. So what’s the diff between us? Robin said, and I quote, politely, ‘I know this storyteller, Aunt Mary. I’ve heard her. And I’ve heard you. And believe me, she’s no Aunt Mary!’
“So, really, Paul, when someone says my samples all sound the same, I ask you, what narrator doesn’t always sound the same?”
As I reached to delete her missive, recoiling more from AM’s grammar than her acrimony, I felt pinged by an injustice chord, correctly articulated by none other than herself. I thought, poor AM. Her ego has been caned by a variation of a commonly invoked performance pejorative (always the same) that glibly characterizes an actor who, at the end of the day, can’t act. The publisher simply particularized the epithet to suit the audio book narrator: every book you record sounds the same.
I wondered how any narrator subject to this criticism might feel if they were privy to it? While they might not regard ‘sounds the same’ as their worst nightmare, I am certain that this barb would stick in their head like an ice pick, howling, ‘I suck. Why would anyone hire me?’ It occurred to me that ‘sounds the same’ is particularly discouraging, existentially so, because it seems to attack the performer as well as the performance.
Worst nightmares aside, something disconcerting about that phrase needled me. It doesn’t accurately describe a narrator’s real problem, including AM’s. It’s also misleading. If interrogated, I thought, what might this put-down reveal about its accuracy and a narrator’s actual challenges.
(Given that it’s meaningful for me to try and discover practical - that is, actable – performance portholes through which storytelling’s demands can be engaged, it’s worth examining ‘sounds the same’ through that practicality lens, along with trying to determine whether this phrase actually represents what we think it does).
To begin with, I’d argue that all narrators do sound the same, always. If you’re a narrator, try this test (sorry AM, professionals only): listen to all your past work. Recognize your voice? Listen to multiple samples of other narrators’ work. Sound the same? Yes, of course. So, strictly speaking, ‘sound the same’ is a misnomer. Worse, this misleading critique implies that sounding different is a solution.
‘Sounds the same’ literally means identical vocal sound, as if that alone should condemn the actor, justify his disparagement for life. Given it’s impossible to speak definitively for others, I’m guessing that what people may actually mean when they cringe, Ugh! Every book sounds the same is: Every time I hear that voice I feel, well, nothing. I’m reminded of what I heard the last time; same-old boring same-old. I’m not moved and I don’t believe what I’m hearing, anyway. I’m disconnected not from the words, but rather, the narrator speaking them.
If, from a performance vantage, ‘sounds the same’ isn’t relevant, dissuades us from seeing the point, then can actors who fret over becoming the object of this nasty accusation stop fretting? Depends maybe on how neurotic they are, but I think ‘sounds the same’ shouldn’t frettin’ them!
In terms of assessing performance quality, ‘sounds the same’ is illogical syntax. For example, imagine the opposite: If sounding different had anything to do with good acting then Sounding Different 101& 102, Advanced and Master Class Sounding Different would be de rigueur in every drama school curriculum. The plethora of Sounding Different books would all be downloadable from Audible.
Ironically, I think narrators who attack the text by trying to sound different (that is, by imposing vocal variety) risk the very criticism they’re trying to avoid. Why? Because the text isn’t actable. All you can do with the words you see is vocally mismanage them, disingenuously. The actor can emphasize, modulate, accentuate the words ad nauseam, but he will still sound the same. The text (the author’s intellectual property) is merely syntax, that is, ordered black signifiers (letters, words, sentences, etc.) that, in turn, signify thought and emotion. Syntax isn’t actable, though it seduces the narrator, sneakily…c’mon, make me interesting!
The sweet (authentic) fruit oscillates beneath the words, and in the white spaces between punctuation. It hangs there, daring the artist to pluck. When the actor - using his same voice, book after book - reaches for that fruit (i.e., plays the subtext) he reminds the listener that, no, it’s not my voice that matters to you, it’s me. If I connect emotionally with you, guaranteed you won’t be thinking about my voice. In fact, you won’t be thinking at all. You’ll be feeling. And since this book is different than the last one I recorded, you’ll be feeling something different. So there. All better.
I wish storytelling had as many moving parts as brain surgery (audio book narration doesn’t really measure up to medicine, does it. I mean, Tom Friedman will never write a book about America’s losing the storytelling race.) Still, an authentic storyteller (as opposed to a reader) reaches out to the human experience differently than an authentic brain surgeon (presumably one who didn’t receive his MD online).
If it were possible for a storyteller, one whose living finds him occupying a creative landscape, to momentarily extricate himself from the scourge of comparison, what might he conjure while experiencing that liberated space? How might he regard his work’s nature? He might say: When I’m on - immersed in, not separated from the subtext – I am emotionally connected to the listener. I, too, operate on the brain, on a location I may not comprehend medically, but can nevertheless feel.
Having been on vacation the past three weeks, I’m looking forward to working with two of my favorite narrators on upcoming books: Oliver Wyman and Yelena Schmulenson.