When Should Writers Narrate Their Own Work?

It's one thing to be a gifted author, it's quite another to give life to those words in a way listeners will love. How often can an "authorrator" do both?

Whenever James Frey — the best-selling author of the controversial memoir A Million Little Pieces, as well as novels like Bright Shiny Morning and the Endgame trilogy — completes a new novel, he pitches the same narrator for the accompanying audiobook: himself. And every time the answer is a polite but firm “No.”

“My publishers always say my voice isn’t very good for it,” says Frey, who speaks in a gravelly tenor. “It’s not worth the fight for me.” 

Instead, the duties are handed over to professional actors like Hell or High Water star Ben Foster, who narrated Bright Shiny Morning. Frey is a big fan. “I’d love to have him do them all,” he says. “He’s great and has a cool voice.”

“The majority of people in the world are just not particularly good at acting.”

Ah yes, the “cool voice,” an essential asset when you expect a listener to settle in for a 100,000-word reading. Views about what constitutes cool when it comes to audiobook narration vary wildly, but one thing is certain: Some authors are invariably born with “it.” Only they tend to be few and far between. “Most authors should stick to writing and leave the audiobook narration to others,” says Basil Sands, a self-published writer and actor. “This is in no way demeaning the authors, by the way. The majority of people in the world are just not particularly good at acting.” 

Michelle Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, agrees. “They don’t realize how hard it is,” she says. “You think you can just walk into a studio and get the words — your own words — out.” But spending dozens of hours in a recording booth (the rule of thumb is generally two hours of recording time to get one hour of narration) is a lot more taxing than most writers expect. “It’s surprisingly difficult to do things like stay still for the microphone, or to even wear the right clothes. Standing still is incredibly physically rigorous,” Cobb says.

There’s no denying that reading one’s own work can carry with it certain advantages. Says author Sands, “They (authors) know the characters much more intimately.” While narrating is a tall order to expect of someone who primarily identifies with the quiet, keyboard-tapping solitude of writing, Sands adds that “If it works, it is truly rewarding.”

One of the most lauded double threats in the business, writer and narrator, is Neil Gaiman. The ability to do character work — creating through voice alone dozens of characters of differing sexes and ages — is a skill that trips up many a writer-turned-narrator. Not Gaiman. The English fantasy and science-fiction author reads many of his books and “brings a very interesting take on his own work,” says Cobb.

Neverwhere

Richard Mayhew is a young man with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk....

Neverwhere

Richard Mayhew is a young man with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk....

She points to his solo-voiced reading of his The Graveyard Book, about an orphaned boy raised by ghosts, and Gaiman’s ability to voice individual characters at various ages and phases of life. That 2008 audiobook won an Audie Award, the field’s highest honor — and many Gaiman fans prefer it even to the full-cast audiobook production released in 2014.

And what if a novel contains words, phrases, and concepts that entirely elude translation? That was the case with Khaled Hosseini’s breakthrough novel, The Kite Runner, about two boys growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. His facility with the pronunciations of certain Dari and Pashto words and terms of endearment ensured the musical flow of his moving tale. Said one Audible commenter, “The accent and pronunciation made such a difference to the book overall.”

There is a correlation between authors who give exciting live readings and those who do great audiobook narration. Chuck Palahniuk’s public appearances were likened by the Guardian to a visit to “an extreme amusement park.” Audience members are even said to have literally passed out during his rendition of “Guts,” a notorious short story about sexual injury that instructs the listener to hold his or her breath for the duration of the tale. To date, Palahniuk has recorded narration to only one of his novels — 2001’s Choke, whose explicit and shocking content (it’s about a sex addict who fakes choking at restaurants to pay his mother’s medical bills) benefits from the author’s unflappable, deadpan delivery.

As for memoirists, it would seem that politicians have an ability to connect with an audience — unique oratorical skills honed through countless stump speeches delivered on endless campaign trails. But that can also have its pitfalls: In her review of Tony Blair’s reading of his best-selling 1997 autobiography, A Journey, the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Minkel writes that the UK’s former prime minister sounded “… tired. Hoarse and a little angry… But most of all, he sounded like he was giving a speech. It was as though he was trying to court my vote with anecdotes and accomplishments, rather than simply weave some kind of narrative.” By contrast, Minkel writes, Sarah Palin’s narration of Going Rogue“doesn’t sound like she’s giving a speech — but that doesn’t mean it’s a good reading, either.”

Spending dozens of hours in a recording booth is a lot more taxing than most writers expect.

Certainly Palin’s highly familiar cadences and rounded Alaskan accent gave the reading a certain authenticity that would have eluded, say, Dame Judi Dench performing the same material, since nailing accents can trip up even the most highly trained actors. Authors, on the other hand, frequently write what they know. So, when the late Frank McCourt narrates Angela’s Ashes, he captures the nuances of the various regional brogues, and even sings the tunes of the various songs sprinkled throughout the book.

Kentucky-raised novelist Barbara Kingsolver, meanwhile, lends her authentic American southern twang to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s foray into natural eating. That audiobook also includes sections read by her husband, Steven Hopp, and daughter, Camille Kingsolver — portions they wrote themselves — as well as some ambient sound effects such as animals. The combination gives the audiobook a journalistic feel, akin to a supersized episode of This American Life.

Speaking of This American Life, the beloved public radio series (and other platforms like it that helped to launch the current podcast craze) has served as a fertile training ground for some of the best-loved self-narrating authors, including Sarah Vowell, the late David Rakoff, and, in a class by himself, David Sedaris. The witty essayist behind Me Talk Pretty One Day got his start in 1992 with a reading of his uproarious essay “SantaLand Diaries” on NPR, which led to his first book of short stories, Barrel Fever, in 1994, and a regular spot on the This American Life roster when that show debuted the following year. All that microphone time helped Sedaris hone his spoken-word persona. Sedaris narrates all his books and “makes me cry laugh-tears,” says Kerry Garvin of the Bushwick Book Club Seattle. “His dry sense of humor is captured perfectly in his audiobooks, and he is good at accents and does an impeccable Billie Holiday impression.”

Most of the time, there is no replacement for solid acting chops, and specifically a theater background. “They have vocal training, they know characterizations, and they are able to bring the required stores of boundless energy you really need to bring a book effectively to life,” says Cobb. Perhaps that’s why some of the most popular audiobooks are by famous actors reading their own memoirs: They benefit from the best of both worlds, having the performance dexterity required of the task and an intimate familiarity with the source material. Among them, few do a better job than Tina Fey, whose 2011 memoir, Bossypants, is enormously popular on Audible. “I would never read a Tina Fey book in print — I would only want to hear it read in her own voice,” notes Cobb. “Then again, I wouldn’t listen to her read Jane Eyre, either. But that’s not her particular skillset.”

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