Today’s literary landscape has become a soundscape as well. The audiobook and podcast are now premier media; arguably, today’s cultural milieu is about voice. We have, thankfully, moved beyond tired debates about whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading.1 And just in time, considering that the audiobook is one of the largest mediums for contemporary publishing. It has transformed from a minor “service medium for the print disabled” in the 1920s, as Sheri-Marie Harrison argues, to a major commercial medium that includes professional narrators, celebrity readers, and musical scoring.2
The author-read audiobook is an anomalous and small slice of all audiobook productions, but an intriguing one. Even within the nonfiction genre of memoir, this category ranges from the celebrity memoir (by authors such as Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Issa Rae) and literary novelist-turned-essayist collections (Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jesmyn Ward) to literary memoir (Suleika Jaouad, Michelle Zauner) and the scholar’s memoir (Eddie Glaude Jr., Imani Perry). The percentage of author-recorded audiobooks is perhaps small compared to those read by professional voice actors trained to embody and voice multiple characters. But the soundscape of contemporary author-read audiobooks is varied and dynamic. We need only look at the furor generated by Prince Harry describing, in a soft aristocratic voice on his new author-read memoir, the ravages of frostbite in places best left unmentioned here.
But “voice” is a slippery and capacious term. Mark McGurl’s The Program Era argues that the widespread concern with a metaphorical “voice” emerged in the 1940s and 1950s through the institutionalization of New Critical doctrines. Instructing writers to “find your voice,” composition teachers used—and still do use—voice as a metaphor or proxy for style. MFA programs reinforced the prescription to “find your voice” by telling writers, particularly writers of color, to “write what they know.” Nika Mavrody, Laura B. McGrath, Nichole Nomura, and Alexander Sherman’s quantitative study of the discourse of “Voice” in criticism showed that voice refers not merely to genre or style but to a combination of both.
Audiobooks turn this metaphor literal. And, indeed, the author-read audiobook resurfaces and renews age-old scholarly debates. What do we make of authorial intent when the contemporary novelist offers a reading of their own novel? And what does the literal voice of an author have to do with the metaphorical voice of her writing? Perhaps most importantly, is the audiobook a unique or promising mechanism by which minority voices can chart a pathway between art, self, and self-representation?
No American author has a stronger voice than Toni Morrison. If “voice” is a metonym for style, she has a resounding one. When people refer to Morrison’s singular voice, they refer to both her unique literary aesthetic and her speaking voice. She is also, not incidentally, the contemporary writer who most invites questions about authorship, canonical American literature, and minoritized American voices.
Beloved was released by Random House as an eight-cassette unabridged book on tape in 1998, the same year the film version was released. Morrison was a major author at the time she recorded Beloved, a novel that was both a critical success and a bestseller. She had won numerous accolades, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. But the audiobook was still a minor medium. At the turn of the millennium only a few thousand audiobooks were released per year, and they were mostly aimed at visually impaired, print-disabled readers.3
This was prior to Random House’s purchase of Books on Tape in 2001 and Amazon’s acquisition of Audible, which transformed audiobooks into a neoliberal medium that aims to combine work hours with leisure.4 Certainly a celebrity author reading her magnum opus for a potentially disabled audience in 1998 contrasts with today’s recorded authors, who unambiguously pitch themselves to the masses. Celebrity audiobooks—Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Ellen Degeneres’s Seriously … I’m Kidding, RuPaul’s GuRu—even seem written with the audiobook in mind. They are not translations of a book into an accessible form but memoirs that anticipate the spoken voice of the author.
Much like the old aphorism that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed not read, these books are written to be spoken. And as audiobooks become bigger business, such memoirs increasingly seek to comment on the intersections between public performed selves and private interior worlds. Michelle Obama’s recording of her memoir Becoming, for example, distinguishes between her political public persona as the First Lady and her private voice reading to our private ears.
In her two memoirs, Mindy Kaling recounts her frustrating experience being collapsed into Kelly Kapoor, the character in The Office that she wrote, directed, and performed. “No one wonders what I’m like in real life, because they assume I am Kelly Kapoor,” Kaling explains with audible sarcasm. “When you’re playing a bit of a selfish, boy-crazy narcissist, it’s a concern.” She wants us to hear Mindy Kaling’s voice as distinct from Kelly Kapoor’s. She wants to use the reality of her selfhood, as underscored by her own spoken voice, to firmly define the intersections between art and artist.
is the audiobook a unique or promising mechanism by which minority voices can chart a pathway between art, self, and self-representation?
The conflation of Kaling with Kapoor is partly about tokenization and the distinction between her literal and literary voices. Indeed, one of the most ambiguous and minoritized contemporary American voices is the Asian American one. The sonic presence of Asian Americans is less familiar than the overdetermined sound of Black and white voices in America. Through the use of a “white voice,” films such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) satirize the way white directors coach Black actors to sound authentically “Black” in television and film. This subtle inheritance of minstrelsy runs through, for example, the use of Black dialect in novels such as The Help and every Quentin Tarantino film.
We are less familiar with what the Asian American voice is supposed to sound like, in the literal and literary senses. As Cathy Park Hong explains in her author-read audiobook, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020), “Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon.”
Hong’s reading of her memoir pointedly draws attention to the split between her experience reading the book for private, individual consumption and reading her poetry in public: “To recite my poems to an audience is to be slapped awake by my limitations. I confront the infinite chasm between the audience’s conception of Poet and the underwhelming evidence of me as that poet. I just don’t look the part. Asians lack presence.” A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program in poetry, Hong describes her experience with poetry composition and readings as encounters with implicitly white audiences. She learned at Iowa, through white supremacist online harassment and more subtle cues in the classroom, that writing about Asian identity was a juvenile, unintellectual retreat into identity politics. It was inferior to the higher aim of formal poetic innovation. The implied audience of poetry is white, managed by institutions of literary prestige. And the sonic environment of poetry readings reveals this: “Maybe once, readings were a vital form of commons, but now readings felt terribly vestigial with all their canned ecclesiastical rituals: the scripted banter, the breathy ‘poet’s voice,’ the mechanical titters, the lone mmm of approval.” These “canned” sounds are not unlike the canned laughter of sitcom television that told audience members when to laugh.
But Hong’s recording of Minor Feelings detaches her voice from the presence of her body in public. Her sense of the Asian American as a diminished and inadequate minor form is softened by the ostensible privacy and disembodiment of the audiobook. The medium gives her a third way to verbally articulate her own experiences within the welcome vacuum of the sound booth.
This distinction tracks an important difference between the audiences who gather at a poetry reading and the audience of readers who listen to the audiobook privately. It is not incidental that the latter is more diverse. As Sherie-Marie Harrison notes of her own experience—listening to Morrison’s novels as she was trying to raise an infant while teaching and publishing, a weary scholar with no time for pleasure reading—“I barely had any time to myself, and the act of putting in earbuds and listening was almost like privacy.”
The audiobook memoir promises a perfect confluence of person, author persona, voice, and aesthetic form. But are we ready to register all of the implications? The contemporary author-recorded audiobook is a unique aesthetic form, changing how authors write, how we read, and how we imagine literary celebrity in the era of the voice. Will the next generation of blockbuster audiobooks be produced by the James Camerons of the world, sinking into sunken interior worlds to colonize the mind?
- Instead, scholarship on the audiobook considers the aesthetic innovations that emerge when a literary text is transformed into a sonic form. ↩
- Sheri-Marie Harrison, “ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: An Ode to the Audiobook,” Post45: Contemporaries, Series “The 7 Neoliberal Arts” (August 2020). ↩
- See Harrison, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” ↩
- See Harrison, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” ↩