Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not For Librarians Only: How to review an audio book

How often do we reflexively interrupt someone as they expose their traumatized soul over an especially vexing circumstance with: ‘Well, if it were me, here’s what I’d do…’ As if we had the slightest interest and were even listening in the first place. Pleading guilty to being among those who’ve redirected someone’s agony to my unsolicited remedy, I at least try to censor that reflex if I can catch it in time.
     All to say - as a sort of rationalized, apologetic prelude to this post and the following one – when I read audio book reviews, from newspapers to library to other book related trade publications, my initial response is to note that the reviewer’s lack of performance vocabulary disables their ability to critique the narrator they’re reviewing. Finishing a typical review, I long for a critique that possesses the language to unpack performance (the ‘audio’), rather than the text (the ‘book’) so that the listener is accurately advised about what they’re in for. Halfway through I imagine myself whispering in the reviewer’s ear: ‘You know, if I were you, here’s how I’d review it…’

If it’s fair to suggest that many audio book reviewers appear ill-equipped to actually review what distinguishes the ‘audio’ from the ‘book,’ it may be useful to propose an audio book reviewer’s template that provides a road map for performance critique.
      Given the chutzpah it requires to presume (a) reviewers have a problem and (b) I have the fix, it’s important for me to devote this initial post to the following: What precipitated this desire to advance a ‘how to critique performance’ methodology?  What qualifies me to proffer it?
     (Again, I’ll devote the following post to the specifics: how to evaluate performance; what listeners should expect from narrators, along with the performance language to verbalize that expectation, etc.)

Last month I responded to an interview request from Mary Burkey for her “Voices in My Head” column that will appear in January’s Booklist magazine (the issue that is provided free to all attendees of the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference.)
     While corresponding via email with Mary, we briefly discussed audio book narrators in general (what distinguishes great performances from mediocre ones) and what critique (or characterization) tools librarians in particular employ to rate performance.
     As we sought to identify so-called performance markers that might be useful in evaluating the narrator (as opposed to the narrative) it became evident that at least some librarians could benefit from a kind of storytelling critique tool kit. I subsequently asked Mary if she thought it would help reviewers to have a concise understanding of the nature of audio book performance as well as how to critique it. She responded: “I think you'd have many different reactions from librarians when asked about a narrator's performance in an audio. In my experience, there is just a small, small group of librarians who actually think about evaluating audio books differently than a print title, and who have the number of hours under the headphones to discern the qualities of a good narrator.” She mentioned her effort to instruct librarians in narration critique vocabulary so they can better discern performance: “That's why I created an Audiobook Lexicon when I chaired the first Odyssey Award committee. I have found that my lexicon is now passed along to incoming members of ALA's audiobook award committees - as even the most accomplished children's & YA literature experts (those who've served on Newbery or Printz committees) are entering new territory when evaluating audio.”
     Presuming there’s a need, and that my thoughts on addressing that need will be useful to librarians and other reviewers, what credentials do I possess that might add credibility to my remarks?
     I could list multiple industry honors awarded to titles I’ve produced since 1990, including two Best Spoken Word Grammys. I would also feel comfortable asserting that many performers whom I’ve directed over the past two decades, coached privately, and who’ve participated in my narrator workshops, have benefited (i.e., become better storytellers) from the particular performance tools I’ve administered (like a storytelling doctor writing a prescription and saying, take this, it’ll make you act better) while working with them.
     Rather than reeling off the awards and charitable high-fives from talent (much of which can be viewed on my website: I’d prefer to define, generally, my role as director/teacher/coach with the purpose of suggesting a particular worldview regarding creativity and craft – the two pillars of performance that, when valued equally by narrators, assure them the possibility of rising above mediocre towards the sublime.

It is often said that if you really want to learn something, teach it. That axiom consistently reflects my two decades experience as a director/teacher/coach. I’ve learned that my worth to a narrator transcends mere instruction: ‘Louder, faster, bite an apple to reduce mouth clicks, c’mon, you can do it better’ isn’t really what stimulates sublime performance. Rather, the narrator stands to actualize her full potential when the act of directing/coaching is construed by me as a mutual discovery portal. Rarely have I witnessed an actor’s ‘discovery moment’ without simultaneously sensing that I, too, have achieved insight, that I now better understand the storytelling process as well.
     Briefly, what do I mean by ‘discovery?’ Why is it a prioritized element of performance?
     For me, job-one (whether coaching a workshop participant or directing an experienced narrator) is to encourage discovery - a repetitive process whose outcome translates into a performance that both inspires and propels the actor to emotionally engage the listener.
     Discovery, as I imagine how it particularizes audio book narration, describes an inflection or nexus, a visceral “ah ha” moment that transcends language or conscious thought. Ongoing discovery is the narrator actively engaging the emotions embedded in the author’s words (what’s called: sub-text) so that he can tell the story in the moment, as if it were happening right now! The result of that present-tense engagement is ignition of the listener’s willing suspension of disbelief and an emotionally powerful bond between text, narrator and listener.
     Said differently, when the narrator is continually discovering the feelings embedded in the author’s text, he is both committed and connected to those feelings, as if they were happening immediately. It is that inveterate discoverer who keeps the listener in his car, buckled up, riveted to the last CD, even though he pulled in front of his house an hour ago. If you’ve ever heard a narrator who reminds you of a kind of passive reporter, as if the feelings he’s recounting have all the urgency of yesterday’s kisses, it is certain that there is no discovery.

Having directed audio books for two decades, taught storytelling to dozens of aspiring and professional narrators, it is apparent to me that if the narrator is the body, storyteller is the soul. Storytelling is the narrator’s art, her aesthetic. Inhabiting her inner storyteller - blending craft (performance technique, such as discovery) with intuition - is how she seeks to engage and enthrall her listener. In the best of all worlds, this is the narrator that consumers want and hope will appear when they borrow, or purchase an audio book. 
     In the next post,  I’ll suggest a template with specific performance vocabulary that audio book reviewers might employ to assess performance. For now,  I’d implore all reviewers to focus not so much on what they think of a given performance, but how emotionally connected they were to the storyteller they just heard. Forget the narrative, disregard the writer’s effort and remember, that from the storyteller’s point of view, the quality of the writing has no effect on their performance – zero.  Think while gazing through this performance lens: here’s what connected me to that storyteller, here’s what didn’t.

I recently had the pleasure of working with three highly regarded and often praised storytellers: Oliver Wyman, Barbara Rosenblat and Yelena Shmulenson. I’ll be working with David Pittu in January.


  1. As someone who has review a lot of audiobooks this year, I look forward to your tips on the vocabulary. I don't consider myself an expert, beyond the fact that I listed to a lot of audiobooks, so I try to describe what I like and dislike in my layman ways. I don't think of what I do as a critique, where I place a value judgement on the performance, for me, it's always whether I liked it or not, and why. I have leaned the best way to do this is just be upfront with my biases, what kinds of narrators I like best, and let the reader take it from there. I look forward to reading more from you on this topic.

  2. Thanks, Bob, for your comment. I looked at some of your reviews and, yes, you are most certainly alerting the listener about your preferences, up front as you indicate. My only further thought on your note: while recognizing you aren't judging (as if you were the last word, final authority) you are nevertheless rating a performance as one somewhere between 'liked' or 'disliked.' It's a referendum of sorts, no. It's a thumbs up/thumbs down. My hope with the next post is merely to advance performance vocabulary that assists in more specifically addressing performance so the person reading the review has, perhaps, a better idea of what precipitated the reviewer's thumb to point up, down or somewhere in between. Finally, my sense is that narrators will ultimately feel more valued by reviews that address their performance (good or bad).