Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Friday, August 24, 2012


An award-winning narrator and friend emailed me last week and recounted a distressing conversation he recently had with some of his colleagues concerning the plethora of crummy books they must endure narrating while hoping a literary (or at least semi-literate) story will mercifully come their way, at least once in a blue moon. Speaking for everyone, he confided that continually investing their talents in poorly written, hastily produced, and/or gratuitously smutty books hamstrings their creative purpose, leaves them disgruntled, aesthetically disfigured and regularly muttering: “Why should I care? How can I do my best work in these circumstances?"

Exploring rich characters and mining the subtext is what all storytellers aspire to, in theory, my friend suggested. But reality finds narrators mostly asked to record terrible books, “...riddled with clichés, cheap metaphors, and too often an overwhelming lack of subtext.”

To be fair, he suggested that, yes, narrating bad books is commensurate with his occupation’s mandate: Record what you’re handed. “The truth is,” he added, “that we all take jobs from time to time for the paycheck, and not the love of the material. We have bills to pay, and much as we'd love to stand on artistic principle, we…can't always pick and choose.”

His email concluded with a request for any insight I might have, specifically regarding how to emotionally navigate what he described as “real turkeys” in a way that maintains his integrity as a storyteller and, as he suggested, his artistic principles.

Though no coherent answers or insights immediately come to mind, I do suspect that all creative people, including narrators, suffer a kind of psychic damage - personally and professionally - when they engage in non-creative work they deem, at the very least, diminishing and aesthetically meaningless. Assuming my characterization accurately reflects narrators’ concerns, I think there’s value in unpacking this particularly unsettling dilemma.

The Bad Book/Good Narrator Conundrum.

In my experience, virtually all creative artists (sorry Aunt Mary, you’re free to take a break) identify with their aesthetic, as if it were a vital organ. Additionally, they possess a moral compass that conflates their self-worth and integrity with the quality of their work and its artistic merit. Said prosaically, creative types ain’t in it for the bucks. Not that they’d turn good money down, but it’s the aesthetic reward (located perhaps in a momentary connection to a transcendent, higher calling) that fuels their desire to perform. All the creative people I know, including storytellers, axiomatically co-mingle their feelings about ‘the work’ with feelings about ‘themselves.’ It is this co-mingling of feeling that, at least in part, propels storytellers to reflexively recoil at yet another “turkey book.” It is this co-mingling of feeling that represents the heartbeat of what I’ll call: The Bad Book/Good Narrator Conundrum.

How then does the storyteller/artist, who I’ll argue will be fortunate to record one good book for every 50 turkeys, address this distressing fact of artistic life?

My initial response is to deconstruct this Bad Book/Good Narrator Conundrum by suggesting: There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ book without a ‘good’ narrator. (I’ll explain further shortly). Then, in an effort to wed critique to solution, I’ll propose an aesthetic antidote, a storyteller bromide, or a conundrum cure, as in: Take two of these before starting a “turkey book” and you’ll get through the next six hours. 

‘BAD’ book/‘GOOD’ narrator

Let’s begin with a particularized lens through which we can define ‘bad’ book/‘good’ narrator. That lens is: Me!

As producer/director of more than 500 audio books, believe me, I know from ‘bad’ narrative. I confess truthfully and categorically to having guffawed, cried and agonized over what publishers call books but to me are income generating commodities – little more than page after page of stupefying, banal, gratuitous manure.

And there you have my definition of a ‘bad’ (turkey) book - income generating commodity - and thus, the definition. Do I mean that I am the arbiter of what’s good and bad, literary vs. crapola? Yes. But who am I to say what’s ‘bad?’ Precisely! I’ll explain: I am an educated (MA degree), middle-class (income well above the national average), white (majority race), Jewish and irreligious (not an oxymoron) male who lives in the bluest of blue states. Ask me to recommend a book, I’ll suggest one by J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth or Jhumpa Lahiri. I possess a literary aesthetic that easily permits me to instantly conjure a ‘bad’ book/‘good’ book binary.

Uh, hold on there, one could argue. What if I wasn’t who I am? Suppose I was less educated, barely graduated high school, and my primary reading experience was the headline banner on Fox News. What if I never heard of Proust, or Roth, or Joyce, much less Henry James? Suppose all I ever wanted in a book was sexual titillation, and bullet riddled bodies graphically spewing gooey pools of crimson blood? Drop Joyce Carol Oates in front of me and I am not only uninterested but suspicious of you: What the hell is this? Probably some lesbo, lefty crap. But a thriller that exposes threateningly accented, towel-headed evil doers for the world dominators they are! That’s something I can relate to. Hell yeah, that’s a ‘good’ book.

Hoping to avoid the clichés and cheap metaphors that plague the books narrators are complaining about, I’ll reductively summarize my proposition: While you can’t tell a ‘bad’ book by its cover, you can tell one by the ‘bad’ person who reads (or listens) to it. In other words, what’s a bad book to me (to the person I am) may be reprehensible precisely because it’s so appealing to people I am contemptuous of, or frightened of, people who definitely don’t share my values and aesthetic. A fast paced, gratuitously violent beach read may be someone’s definition of ‘good,’ but to me, it’s meaningless drivel: “Bad book! Bad book. Yuk! Get away. You gross me out!”

In effect, I am suggesting that an important measure of an audio book’s ‘badness’ (or ‘goodness’) is narrators’ very understanding of themselves as well as their listeners’ understanding of themselves. Additionally, once the good/bad line is drawn, there may be a non-rational tendency to absolutize, to reify what this abstract line represents: Those who stand on the opposite side are not me or people like me and I should regard them suspiciously and contemptuously.


Is it fair to suggest that virtually all audio book narrators are highly educated, at least when compared to the national average? Culturally and politically similar? I’ll bet, yes. Certainly narrators represent a geographical cross section of America, otherwise they are a rather homogenous lot. And this speaks directly to the way I understand ‘good’ narrator. Not good, as in, talented. Not good as in, nice guy/gal. But aesthetically good, and perched high above the bumpkin masses.

Since most narrators are literate, educated, culturally and politically similar, they are driven by an aesthetic vision of themselves that is anathema to those who would listen to, not to mention enjoy and actually prefer, the ‘bad’ books they’re compelled to narrate.

The aesthetic by-product of who I am vs. what I must narrate is: The Bad Book/Good Narrator Conundrum. So, how might good narrators respond more positively to these “turkey books” that mock their creative purpose, suck their performance juices bone dry and are deeply offensive to them?


First, what qualifies me to prescribe an antidote to an aesthetic dilemma that, arguably, is profoundly troubling to narrators? I’ve already mentioned my “turkey book” experience. But I’ve also been fortunate to produce and direct aesthetically rewarding fiction and non-fiction as well. Since I regard myself as culturally/intellectually ‘good,’ I’d like to think that I share a common bond with anyone who’s narrated a “turkey book.” I can relate. And as I'm still directing, I still feel your pain.

It is impossible for me to even vaguely suggest to a storyteller how they should emotionally mediate a “turkey book,” or what the line is and where to draw it when considering, after having been made an offer, ‘how aesthetically low do I go.’ Providing a moral and psychological blueprint that leads to an answer far exceeds my pay grade.

But I am a creative type, I can relate to this conundrum that distresses narrators because I’m bombarded by it as a director, and I can introspectively question what confounds and troubles me. In that spirit, I’ve chosen to examine ‘good’ and ‘bad’ through this particular autobiographical lens. In doing so, my hope for storytellers is that they might revisit their fundamental aesthetic claims in a way that permits them to feel better about their professional choices and themselves as well. Finally, I hope that interrogating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leads to other, perhaps far more illuminating ways, to address these concerns.

I have avoided prescriptive advice so far. No more.

Audiofile Magazine features commentary from narrators whose audio books are highlighted in their monthly Editors Picks section. A narrator – as sublime a storyteller as I know – whose Earphone Award winning audio book was recently recognized in that section sent me his contribution:

"Occasionally I’m given a book that’s either so beautifully crafted, or so wonderfully observed, or that I connect with so deeply, that recording it is pure joy.The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving  is all three. Benjamin, the protagonist, is so sweetly damaged, and his coming to terms with a tragedy of which he was the principle architect is so believably wrought, that while prepping the manuscript (a process too often more about vocal choices and vocabulary lists than about emotional investment) I was reduced to tears repeatedly. Both a pleasure and a privilege to perform.”
            -Jeff Woodman

For me, Jeff Woodman imagines a worldview that soothes this Bad Book/Good Narrator Conundrum’s aesthetic heart, and stimulates me to rethink the relationship between who I am and the work I do, feeling okay about myself along the way.

I am happy that my September weekly and October weekend, New York narrator’s workshops are full. Additionally, I’m looking forward to conducting my first workshop in San Francisco this September.

1 comment:

  1. Long, long ago, when discussing 'bad books' - I said to my significant other (something along the lines) of "HOW can (or: "I can't believe") people read that crap?!"

    To which he immediately replied: "At least they're READING." That shut me right up and I've never forgotten it to this day. There is perhaps ALSO a kind of unspoken snobbery inherent in how 'storytellers, axiomatically co-mingle their feelings about ‘the work’ with feelings about ‘themselves.’ As my coach likes to say, "it's not about YOU, it's about the writer's intent and who they're speaking to..."

    One of your best posts to date. Thanks Paul.