JANE AUSTEN'S CURTAINS

This article was originally published in the London Book Fair Show Daily, 12 April 2016. 

One of the pleasures of being an audiobook producer is being part of not one but two creative worlds full of intelligent, articulate people with stories to tell or information to impart: authors, and readers (perhaps it is clearer in this article to call them ‘performers’ to avoid confusion with the consumers of printed books). 

Sometimes these two worlds come together. When Finty Williams read M. R. Carey’s darkly dystopian but enthrallingly written Fellside earlier this year, the author joined us in our studio. The two talked about the process of converting the printed book to audio (we filmed part of their conversation, and it may be found here).

Mike Carey quotes the tag line that used to appear on the blog of his friend and fellow author Liz de Jager: “Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” Reading is an immersive experience, says Mike, and he sees Finty’s job creating the audio version as painting the picture for the listener, taking his words as a starting point. Finty replies: ‘You’ve done all the hard work; my job is colouring in.’

Finty comments how strong his images are – little details draw the reader into the world of the novel, whereas a straight catalogue of events would be far less engaging. Mike Carey replies that he learned the power of such detail when he was a writer of the scripts for comics and graphic novels, and reckons that this played a large part in helping him develop the powerfully visual prose style that appeals so strongly to readers of his breakthrough bestselling book The Girl With All the Gifts. I am interested to note that the similarly visual Neil Gaiman, whose books we have also recorded, also worked on graphic novels early in his career.

At first Mike wrote very explicitly, specifying every detail, but he soon discovered that the artist he was working with could create a coherent whole from quite sparse details, so he could write his scripts almost in shorthand.

CREATING A WHOLE WORLD

The same applies to readers and listeners. Listening to an audiobook is not a passive process. It is all the better for the demands it makes on the listener, who is in a position analogous to the artist working with Carey or Gaiman, having to create a whole world from a script that concentrates on essentials.

Earlier in my publishing career I worked at Thames Television, where I noticed that one of the challenges of adapting novels is that in a film it is necessary to specify things that are irrelevant to the story. I termed this “the Jane Austen’s curtains problem”. When the Bennets discuss Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice, they are speculating about the people who have taken the house, never the details of the furnishings; Marianne’s “handsome pianoforte” is, as far as I remember, the only bit of joinery that rates a mention in Sense and Sensibility. The very act of providing the ‘furniture’ of the novel (in every sense) engages the reader in a way that deepens involvement and understanding, whereas a film version demands that every little detail is specified by the maker rather than the audience.

Michael Morpurgo was recently interviewed on Radio 4 (“Today”, 12 March 2016). Why did he think that the film of War Horse has been only moderately successful, whereas the stage version is a phenomenon now seen by more than three million people around the world? Having the horse being a puppet on stage, he said, not wholly realistic, prompts the audience to engage with the process of telling the story, whereas the definitive reality of the film leaves no room for the viewer to personalise the story to his or her own experience. The stage version, he concluded, “leaves the audience room to imagine”.

EXPANDING THE IMAGINATION

The artist Delacroix, quoted in a podcast we recorded recently for the London Review of Books, wrote in his diaries that “A picture is nothing but a bridge between the soul of the artist and that of the spectator.” That is analogous to the connection between author and audio performer, and then performer and listener.

That doyen of audible images, Terry Wogan, was in our studio several times. “Television contracts the imagination,” he once remarked; “radio expands it.” Groucho Marx had a take on it too, some 30 years earlier: “I find television very educational. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Or you could listen to an audiobook. UK consumers are increasingly doing so, with a 29.3 per cent increase from 2014 to 2015 according to Publishers Association figures. Reading a book or watching a film wholly occupies you and locks you to one place. Audiobooks free both the body and the imagination.

Nicholas Jones

 

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