Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Prioritizing the Messenger & Don’t Say It at APAC

 Prioritizing the Messenger

As a matter of practice, I never discuss narrators by name in my posts (other than to mention those I’ve directed) or specific programs I’ve worked on. But here, an anecdotal exception: In order to raise a larger concern regarding an audio book reviewer’s priority, it feels useful to identify a narrator I recently directed.

Below is an Audiofile review that cites the text as the primary fouler of the reviewer’s critical mood. To be fair, the narrator isn’t criticized, much less vilified. The reviewer’s vilifying flak is aimed at the message (the narrative). That said, the messenger (narrator) manages to sufferalbeit collaterallyfrom the reviewer’s pot shot at the text. That’s too bad and, in fact, shouldn’t occur.

COLD CITY F. Paul Wilson, Read by Alexander Cendese • Unabridged • MARCH 2013 
Brilliance Audio • Trade Ed.
Brilliance Audio • Library Ed.
The first novel of a trilogy about the early days of a character named Repairman Jack is an exciting whirlwind of adventures involving a child slavery ring, cigarette smuggling, Mafia shakedowns, Muslims with insidious plans, con men, and a love story. If that sounds like too many plots, it is. The novel ends with no resolution for any of them. Cruel, but it guarantees the sale of the next two parts of the series. Narrator Alexander Cendese gruffly performs the book, which details Jack's early years as an adventurer. His accents get a workout-- Arab, Southern, German, Puerto Rican, and an over-the-top Jewish man --and all sound authentic. It's impossible to turn off, but the unsatisfying ending is a disappointment. M.S. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

To be clear, reviewers must be tenure-free to critique as they wish, so this interrogative essay shouldn’t be construed as a grievance over the reviewer’s autonomy. I do, however, want to argue that the storyteller’s performance should not be subsumed by the text’s literary efficacy. The audio book reviewer’s mandate should be to disaggregate narrative from narrator and then prioritize the storyteller’s performance. Critiquing the narrative should be secondary.

Audiofile isn’t Bookfile. Meaning, difficult as it is for anyone including audio book reviewersto separate narrator from narrative, I want to implore reviewers to consider the storyteller’s primary task: Emotionally connecting the listener to the author’s words. That performance obligation should be the reviewer’s fundamental priority.

Narrators have no control over the book. They should be immune from conflation with it. Narrators, who cannot rewrite or edit the narrative, must as best they can faithfully serve the author’s intent. Sometimes this includes believably crying out, “I hate you,” she said angrily!”

As the narrator and I began to work on Cold City, we devoted our efforts to creating a performance that faithfully responded to what the text presented us. Did we have our opinions about the text? Naturally. Did they matter? No. Do they ever? From a performance perspective, never! I’m positive that the audio book publisherwho never solicited my opinion or the actor’sis not remotely interested in our literary observations. Their concern is the best possible performance the storyteller can give them.

It may be fair to argue that there’s an axiomatic relationship between an audio book reviewer’s assessment of the text and the performance. And it may, indeed, be difficult to hear a compelling or even good performance when the text is screaming at the reviewer, I stink. But it’s also fair to argue: Why review an audio book if you’re not going to reserve the majority of your kudos or disdain for the audio?

The Cold City review’s penultimate observation is an acknowledgement of the actor’s believable foreign accents. They “all sound authentic,” it says.

It is an audio book reviewer’s prerogative to briefly mention an actor who authentically creates, “Arab, Southern, German, Puerto Rican, and an over-the-top Jewish man”as if creating such disparate characters and still maintaining the listener’s willing suspension of disbelief is no big deal. I’d argue that a narrator who can vocally pull that off is worth more than, “His accents get a workout.”

Don’t Say It at APAC

Over the past few months several experienced narrators I’ve coached have grimaced uncomfortably and half whispered at one point during our session, “Sorry, but I’m really not an actor.”

I hope that all narratorsand especially those attending APAC will proudly regard themselves as actors. Storytelling is performance! I’ll bet that all publishing professionals attending APAC who employ narrators desire people that can act, as opposed to recite or read, or disconnectedly modulate. Indeed, they may prefer a great voice but what will get their long term attention is a compelling storyteller.

If an actor isn’t required to narrate an audio book, then who is? Why not employ the high school kid working at the 7/11. Narrators who attend APAC believing that the actorthat is, the person who intuits the text’s emotional consequence and connects those feelings to the listeneris the publisher’s best candidate for the job are thinking smartly.

NEXT POST: An exploration of what care for the self might imply in regards to compelling storytelling.


This past month I was delighted to work on a multicast book with these talented storytellers (in alphabetical order): Alex Cendese, Chris Delaine, Lauren Fortgang, Emma Galvin, David Ledoux, Daya Mendez, and Karen Murray. Upcoming: the author, Eve Ensler and narrator, Carol Monda.

My LA Weekend Narrator’s Workshop in April is almost filled (1 opening remains) and the NY weekend workshop later that month is over half full.

My goal for these and future workshops is to identify and practice self-directing techniques that will quickly improve performance and create compelling storytellers.

For more information or to register, visit:

Finally, my MFA fiction writing program, while demanding, has been productive. After May I’ll be able to increase the frequency of my postsuntil the fall. For now, urged by the mentor I’m working with, I’ve begun submitting one of my short stories for publication. I can relate to any performer who may have had a similar thought while soliciting: It’s true! Everyone thinks they can do this!


  1. I see this all the time on the ratings of my titles at Audible. The "performance" metric is almost always in line with the "story" and "overall" metric. If they don't like the story, they'll ding the narration as well.

    I tend to brush this off. Narrators need only worry when the "Performance" rating is decidedly lower than the other ratings.

  2. Any medium requires a perceptive critic to discern the boundaries of text, acting and direction. It's easy to hold us responsible for the sins or virtues of a colleague; who can tell what went on in the studio/rehearsal room?
    Still, an audiobook reviewer even of limited experience should be able to avoid tarring all collaborators in one broad stroke. Critics are part of the artistic community, with a responsibility to educate the consumer community. Although the reviewer here does say "It's impossible to turn off" (which kinda redeems it for me), will the average consumer understand that's praising the narrator? And maybe the nameless director and/or engineer?
    Having been on both ends of the critical pen, I'd like to think the real culprit here might be the limited space allotted to these reviews. It's hard to get it all across in one brief paragraph. (Speaking of assigning responsibility--was the review reworked by an editor?) But with a bit more care or space, even the book's author might have fared better. Maybe something more along the lines of "This audiobook was a great ride even though the ending sucked!"