Arguably, there’s a reason for everything. However, this widely accepted cliché opens a dubious eye when one discovers that what lurks beneath its simple assertion—that all human experience is explainable—are problematic assumptions. That is, when a reason emanates from a non-sensible or invalid or even irrational pre-supposition, its acceptance may breed far more harm than good.
Lets fasten this reason for everything aphorism to a discussion of the audiobook narrator’s voice (more accurately, its particular sound). Let’s assume that, indeed, there are multiple explanations for why the sound of the voice has come to be venerated and regarded as a narrator’s most valuable asset. That said, (and what this post is primarily concerned with) there is at least one glaring non-sensible, invalid and irrational assumption about the voice that lurks uncomfortably beneath these various explanations. And belief in this wholly unfounded assumption is at best: the narrator’s Achilles’ heel. At worst: it is the listener’s worst nightmare.
The most inaccurate and deleterious assumption about the voice—and one that generates irrational explanations about its efficacy in performance—is that the voice can act. It can’t, period.
Inaccurately, it’s assumed that timbre and volume and presence and mellifluous fluidity are somehow conflated with genuine emotion. Once it’s erroneously assumed that the narrator’s voice has the capacity to generate even a scintilla of authentic feeling, explanations about the relationship between the voice and narration are simply wrong, especially those that equate vocal acuity with compelling storytelling. How so? Because when Aunt Mary uses the voice as an acting tool, it vanquishes any possibility that she’ll organically discover feeling and replaces that process with empty-calorie, facile delivery that’s devoid of real emotion: her specialty!
The voice can always phone it in; it can never connect. Said differently, when the voice acts on behalf of the narrator the way Brutus did Caesar, well, we know how that relationship ended.
Why do we (defined as modern, western society) pay such homage to the voice box? Often to the point of idolatry. It’s as if this relatively uncomplicated mechanism, this creator of audible noise, also possesses an emotive gland that, when activated by the fortunate few, imbues them with mesmerizing authority and preacher-like, persuasive power. (FYI, check out 5 Guys in a Limo on YouTube and hear what I mean). Interestingly, there is no 5 gals in a limo, but women’s voices are most certainly valued by society as well as men’s.
In contemplating the many hyperbolic attributions—e.g., he has the voice of God—to this tiny sound generator, I’m reminded of my son’s high school friend who, by age 16, was nearly six-feet-four inches tall. His mother bragged about his height with such pride, as if being tall endowed him with advantages that implicitly condemned my relatively shrimpy teenager to a life of average Joe-ness. And perhaps the sad truth was, she was right. After all, if one believes something to be true, isn’t it? All of which propels me to wonder further, what is so special about a gravelly or husky voice that propels employers to pay (sometimes a fortune) for its use?
As neither a social scientist nor a historian, I’m not capable of addressing the roots of our voice adoration or discussing why we seem to zealously fetishize certain vocal characteristics as if they were divinely acquired. But as an audiobook producer/director and coach, I can attest to our infatuation with the voice and our misconceptions about its relationship to performance.
The truth is that the voice—especially when it’s construed to be smooth, cool, resonant, powerful, sexy, etc., etc.—does palpably tap into our emotions. So, does the voice make us feel? Yes. But the salient question for the storyteller is: feel what? And for whose purpose? And to what end? In interrogating these questions, the operative notions are: convention, comfort, manipulation and organic.
When I listen to a film trailer, or a perfume voice-over, or a political ad, custom (convention) has conditioned me to expect a professional vocal rendition that attracts me, grabs my attention, seduces me, persuades me, and leads me to the promised land: spending money on whatever commodity is being advertised or aligning myself with someone’s cause or proposition. I’ve come to expect (and therefore will be dissatisfied when my expectation isn’t met) a particular vocal quality that’s commensurate with the experience it’s voicing. Conventionally speaking, that means: sultry female for perfume; macho man gravel for a movie thriller; authoritative for political ad, etc.
When my ears are infatuated by a vocal presence, I am, in effect, happily manipulated: I willingly gulp the smooth, articulate, commanding Kool-Aid. Yes, I feel something, but what’s necessary for the narrator to remember is that my aesthetic expectation is not to feel emotionally connected, but rather, comforted. I am comforted by a confident voice I conventionally expect to excite me about an enterprise whose bottom line is usually the exchange of my money for a product or my fealty to a given proposal. Offer me a voice I conventionally relate to (revisit 5 Guys in a Limo), I’m thrilled (aka, sold); conversely, eschew convention and proffer a voice that does not match my aesthetic expectation, I am uncomfortable and less likely to be interested in the bottom line.
Is the audiobook narrator’s outcome different than his so-called commercial voice-over counterpart? Totally! Ipso facto, the voice that works for the commercial isn’t relevant to book narration (fiction or non-fiction). The voice-over voice delves into and manipulates listeners’ feelings in order to satisfy someone else’s desired outcome. The storyteller’s voice is in the service business too, but its master is the subtext: feelings the author hopes to convey to readers and listeners. In order for the audiobook narrator’s voice to effectively serve the narrative, it cannot manipulate feeling, it cannot generate a call to action, it cannot act on behalf of the text. The storyteller’s voice can speak, but only when spoken to by the subtext. Then, the vocal emphasis that emerges is predicated on the narrator’s having organically connected to the story’s emotional consequence, not what the voice thinks it must indicate in order to represent a given feeling.
This post’s thesis bears repeating: the voice can’t act. Therefore, a narrator who desires to interpret a book can logically assume that how the voice sounds should be as a result of how the narrator feels based on what the text demands.
To be sure, a narrator’s voice can enhance performance by varying pace, volume, pitch, etc. But only when those techniques serve the text. I often direct narrators who are working on dramatic fiction to, in effect, demote their voice: less volume—less, less, less. No emphasis, none—flat, flat, flat. (FYI, the opposite for comedy). These are very counter-intuitive directions for those who believe in the power of their voice. It’s as if I’m telling them to remove their winter coat in the middle of a blizzard. But when narrators relegate the voice to servant rather than boss, when they empower themselves to focus on the given feelings the text is begging them to connect to, they suddenly find themselves telling a story more powerfully; they reflexively discover and organically emphasize feelings that could not be directed by anyone other than their own intuition.
Is commercial voice-over work acting? Not if one characterizes acting as an effort to truthfully portray real emotion. Affecting a feeling with the voice is not acting; it’s imitating. Is audiobook narration acting? Yes. Otherwise, it’s voice-over acting. And that’s not acting.
Viewed through an acting lens, the audiobook narrator’s voice is incapable of creating real emotion. That’s perhaps its greatest limitation. For those who do regard audiobook narration as acting, the primal sound of one’s voice while engaging the story and then connecting those feelings to the listener is an asset beyond words.
Next post: Non-fiction. I received an email from an award-winning narrator who has not yet recorded non-fiction and when she listened to a friend’s effort, she was mortified. “She's a good actress and she makes her living doing voiceovers and audiobooks. But she was absolutely terrible!” One person’s opinion, to be sure. But I’ll offer mine and how I think narrators can best serve the non-fiction author.
I recently directed Adam Grupper—a passionate and connected storyteller—in my first published short story. I look forward to working with Christian Baskous in another published story that’s included in the same collection as the one featuring Adam. Additionally, I look forward to working with Kate Udall next week, and conducting an audiobook webinar for John Florian’s VoiceOverXtra on Nov. 11th.