This month Audible.com announced a new series of audiobooks, each narrated by a well known Hollywood actor, called the A-List Collection. I greeted this news with little more than a yawn. While I am quite fond of the actors comprising the series and love to listen to Samuel L. Jackson cuss, there is nothing especially compelling to me about the combination of Hollywood super stars and audiobooks. In fact, it’s more likely to make me think twice about listening.
I’ve made the mistake of jumping on an audiobook simply because it was narrated by a Hollywood actor I happen to find quite attractive. I wish I could tell you exactly how long my love affair with this hunky Hollywood actor’s audiobook lasted. Suffice to say I’ve only DNFd one audiobook faster. This person proved not to be a narrator at all. He did little more than read the book out loud. Because the anticipation was so great, the disappointment was that much worse.
One could say that my opinion of the Hollywood actor’s performance – if it can in fact be called a performance – was colored by the audiobook that preceded it, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Having now read many Simon Vance audiobooks, I know just how high he sets the bar. Still, comparing my experience with Hollywood man to the experience provided by a true narrating professional opened my eyes. I understood, as much as someone who is neither an actor or an audiobook professional can, that narrating an audiobook isn’t the same as acting. I am sure that the skills and gifts vital for each career overlap and intertwine. I’ve often heard that a background in theater can lend itself well to audiobook narration. For myself, I’ve discovered that Alan Cumming and Dan Stevens are very talented both as actors and as audiobook narrators. That doesn’t change the fact that narrating is an art unto itself. Being an A-List movie star does not automatically make you an A-List audiobook narrator anymore than being a one hit wonder automatically makes you the King of Pop.
I probably would still be contentedly in my own little Armchair Audies sector of the audiobook universe right now if it weren’t for a quote I read in Listen Up from Audible’s Donald Katz (emphasis mine):
“Audible has consistently sought to elevate the quality of audiobook narration, and we hope this collection will expose an even broader audience to the rich palette of performances that makes listening to audiobooks so pleasurable.”
I love audiobooks and hope that in some small way I am an evangelist for this art and medium. I also love banding together with others for the love of audiobooks because there is a vast expanse of greatness out there and I alone will never do more than scratch the surface. The use of big name celebrities to bring new listeners into the fold gives me reason to pause. Although my particular experience with a Hollywood narrator may not be typical, what if that had been my introduction to audiobooks? What if I hadn’t just had that come to Jesus audiobook epiphany with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? If “Hollywood” was my first audiobook experience, it very well could have been my last. If that actor had been lauded as part of Audible’s “A-List,” you’re damn right it would have been.* If “the best” turned me off, what else would there be to keep me?
I haven’t heard much about these of audiobooks on the ground since the first four in the collection were released, but Bob Reiss from The Guilded Earlobe published his review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Anne Hathaway’s performance this week. For all the audiobook newbies out there considering one of these titles, I truly hope that each and every one of them will be just as well received. It is often difficult enough to overcome the bias against audiobooks that says that listening to them isn’t “really reading.” I can guarantee that having that same discussion with a person who has given the “A-List” a spin and has been left wanting will be downright brutal.
I’m certain that Audible intended no disrespect when developing the name “A-List Collection” for this project, but I wonder if they see the impression that this might give? I like these actors a great deal. I wish their audiobooks success, but will they continue to narrate audiobooks after this campaign? What does this say to those hardworking, dedicated and gifted narrators who make audiobooks a reading experience like no other when a novelty act, no matter how talented, is given top billing? What does this say to up and coming narrators? Must one have a blockbuster Hollywood movie under one’s belt before truly making it in the audiobook world? Here’s the thing: those narrators called “A-List” by Audible are not the ones who will have me tripping over my feet to spend my credits or to drop additional audiobook dollars. I know who my best of the best are and it is for them and because of them that I will keep coming back for more audiobooks.
So who are the actual A-List narrators? Which narrators makes you count the days, tapping your toes with impatience, until your next Audible credits materialize (I know I’m not alone in doing this!)? For which narrators would you gladly forego groceries and clean clothes when necessary? Who makes you hunt down your local librarian and demand to be moved to the top of the waiting list because, for the love of all things holy, you must listen to [insert narrator's name here] read [insert name of new awesome book here]?
Audiobook lovers have a vested interest in the health and success of the audiobook industry. Why not create a listener’s list of outstanding audiobook narrators? Who better than us to provide guidance to new listeners? After all, we once were them.
* For the record, the Hollywood actor I mention in this post is not one of the actors currently listed in Audible’s A-List Collection. That he isn’t is a very good thing.