Kevin Pask on Audiobooks

When I was a teenager, it was still possible to encounter slighting references to people who read while moving their lips. I didn’t immediately understand why this kind of reading should be a sign of deficiency although I simultaneously tried to determine whether I committed this apparently graceless act that betrayed something less than real reading.

Eventually, I came to understand that such readers were reading out loud (however quietly) to themselves. They had not fully completed the transition from reading out loud to reading silently, whose history begins as early as St. Augustine’s surprised discovery, recorded in his Confessions, that his mentor, St. Ambrose, read without speaking. “When he read, his eyes moved over the pages, and his understanding ferreted out the sense, but his voice, his tongue, was inactive.” Reading out loud was in part a communal and pedagogical activity in the early Christian church, but Ambrose was focused on the “sense” of the text itself, residing in the domain of silence. Augustine’s Christian Platonism lent itself to the long history of silencing reading, culminating in the modern sense that our relationship to the printed book should be a silent, solitary, absorbing experience.

For those committed to the art of reading as it has developed within this framework—certainly, this includes critics and scholars of literature—the audiobook is a kind of guilty pleasure since it appears to drop the art of reading altogether for mere listening pleasure. The digitized and downloadable format of the book can that can easily be listened to on portable devices has become a formidable part of the literary-entertainment marketplace. Sales of audiobooks grew by 24% in 2018 (27% in unit sales), and the market for audiobooks is younger than the consumer demographic for print books or e-books. It has also produced a range of “celebrity” readers, including both readers popular with audiobook listeners and the use of celebrities from the entertainment world as readers. The prizewinning audiobook of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) features an all-star cavalcade of readers, including Lena Dunham, Julianne Moore, David Sedaris, and Don Cheadle. In the world of the audiobook, the performer, not the listener, occupies the place of the “reader.”

The audiobook version of literary fiction, therefore, has all of the ingredients of a “middlebrow” cultural experience denigrated by mid-twentieth-century intellectuals: the mediation of high culture through popular forms of the mass media. But the experience of the audiobook is also that of the mediated storyteller, with connections to even earlier oral cultures. Despite its technological mediations, its affiliations to the culture industry, and its often solitary nature, the audiobook discloses aspects of literature that were partially occluded in the age dominated (though never completely so) by silent reading.

The question of the storyteller’s status in the age of technological mediation is not new. Walter Benjamin associated the rise of the novel with the decline of storytelling. His essay, “The Storyteller” (1936), argues for the fundamental distinction between the novel, as a genre of modernity, and the experience of the oral tale, mediated by the storyteller (usually artisanal and male in his account):

What distinguishes the novel from all other forms of prose literature—the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella—is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor enters into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has secluded himself. The birthplace of the novel is the individual in his isolation, the individual who can no longer speak of his concerns in exemplary fashion, who himself lacks counsel and can give none.

What does Benjamin mean by the novel? He seems to have in mind the social and historical panoramas that Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy (to name some representative figures) delivered so brilliantly in the nineteenth century. This form of the novel reflected the new disciplines of sociology and psychology. Its voice was a kind of “third person magisterial,” although the author was also willing to emerge as the narrative “I” at certain points. The storyteller, by contrast, represents the local, the artisanal, and the direct connection between teller and listener. But in “The Storyteller,” Benjamin’s focus is not so much the orality of the tale as the very modern, printed version of the tale. His example of the storyteller is the written work of Nicolai Leskov (1831-1895), a writer deemed by Benjamin to incorporate some of the aspects of the oral storyteller. The end of Benjamin’s essay, which celebrates the achievement of Leskov, seems to have wandered away from its origin, which is much more pessimistic about the possibilities of storytelling in the modern age, and to have produced instead an account of the ongoing role of storytelling for the world of print.

Benjamin’s own Radio Berlin broadcasts to young people (1927-1932) were themselves examples of a kind of storytelling for the new medium of radio. In these broadcasts, collected in Radio Benjamin, Benjamin sometimes tried to convey the spirit of “old Berlin” to his listeners. Well-known as a flaneur in Berlin, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a key figure in Benjamin’s project. “Hoffmann indeed was less a novelist than a storyteller, and even in his books, many if not most of his tales come from the mouth of one of the characters. Of course, in a manner of speaking, Hoffmann himself is always this narrator, sitting around a table with friends as each tells a story in turn.” Benjamin himself, as broadcast narrator, channeled the voice of the storyteller in his radio broadcasts (“Today I want to tell you about…”), indicating his own early practical experiments in narrative voice and storytelling in a new media environment.

Modernity and the novel, then, were not always for Benjamin the death of storytelling. About three years before “The Storyteller,” and shortly after Hitler’s accession to power in early 1933 which ended Benjamin’s radio career, he reviewed the German translation of Arnold Bennett’s novel, The Old Wives’ Tale (first published in English in 1908), in a piece titled, “Am Kamin” (“By the Fireside”). The subject of the review was unusual for Benjamin. He usually wrote about the German, French, and Russian literary canons and rarely about middlebrow works like Bennett’s. Benjamin, however, enlists Bennett as an ally against the still relatively recent elevation of the novel to a high literary art, pitting “the broader tradition of epic narrative” against the “art novel” (associated with Flaubert in particular), and the epic tradition turns out to be an English one in Benjamin’s account. It includes Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, and Kipling, “who are primarily storytellers in their novels.” This is an alternative lineage for the novel, one which disappears in Benjamin’s better-known “Storyteller” essay.

Do stories, as Benjamin conceived them in his review of Bennett, flow out again from novels or at least from the anglophone branch of the novel that he finds to be more continuous with storytelling? Benjamin’s answers to this question in 1930s were equivocal. Along with the current scholarly interest in recovering histories of reading aloud, the digitized reader of the audiobook raises this question once again.

The audiobook seems to release the storyteller effect—the aura of orality that seems to acknowledge the presence of the reader/listener—in new form. I recently listened to Timothy West’s audiobook readings of Anthony Trollope’s series, “The Chronicles of Barset” (1852-1867). West’s reading brilliantly amplifies the sympathy, irony, and chiding Trollope uses both to depict his characters and engage his readers. The narrator pretty clearly is Trollope himself, often amusedly negotiating with his readers. In Doctor Thorne, for example, Trollope firmly informs his readers that the eponymous bachelor doctor is the intended hero of his novel, even though he archly acknowledges that readers might think the plot revolves around the central love interest of the ingenue and her lover.

For Trollope, the experience of the fireside is not dead. In his review of Bennett, Benjamin maintained that stories flow into the book and flow out again through the book. In effect, the electronically-mediated reading of the book turns out to be a means of allowing the oral experience of storytelling to flow “out” of the novel, more completely recognized as that which was already “in” the novel, or at least in some novels.

What does this mean for the idea of reading, particularly the kind of advanced reading performed by students of literature? The printed text is the fundamental instrument of the literary critic. The digitization of the literary text renders it available to “data mining,” a new form of extraction, but the audiobook is less amenable to academic study. It is not easy to review an audiobook—to do, for example, the equivalent of rifling through the preceding pages in order to recall a name, phrase, or plot detail. At the same time, it is also more difficult, or at least less immediately inviting, to skip ahead for a quick peek at what might be coming up. Unlike the physical object of the codex book, in which the entire text is readily available in a form that encourages annotation and retrieval, the audiobook makes the listener a partial prisoner of the storyteller and thus a prisoner of the temporality of storytelling—and with it the tyranny of plot, the forward momentum of story which, at least since modernism, has marked off “genre” fiction from properly literary fiction. The audiobook can appear something less than literary because it reveals elements of the literary that precede literacy. The audiobook thus enters into literary criticism at an odd angle to the canons of taste and analysis, which have traditionally depended on a relationship to reading, and to reading without moving one’s lips, as it were.

The new media ecology of literature—if it can still be called literature—allows for the rediscovery of the aural effects of voice that were always there in that child of print, the modern novel. For Benjamin, in “The Storyteller” at least, the novel “neither comes from oral tradition nor enters into it.” The audiobook belies that understanding of the novel. Although the audiobook is not a new form, its current popularity as a digitized medium facilitates some of the oldest pleasures of reading, which are sometimes the pleasures of not reading, of listening. The history of reading is also the history of listening.

Kevin Pask teaches English literature at Concordia University in Montreal. His most recent book is The Fairy Way of Writing: Shakespeare to Tolkien.

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