Audiobook industry wrestles with representation

Laura Miller looks deep into the audiobook industry and suggsts it’s headed toward a reckoning around race and representation for voicing books. What do you do when a book has a diverse cast but can have only one narrator? It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure how it’s going be solved short of hiring more actors for each book or just accepting that it can’t be solved… But if you’re a black lesbian, how do you feel about a white male voicing a character that represents you (in those two aspects at least) in a book?

I have only ever voiced the audiobook for my kids book, and it was about a fox, a crow, and some fleas, so I haven’t had to wrestle with this. But my languishing fantasy novel includes a transman half-giant and a black wizard from “a distant land”. I can’t even begin to imagine voicing either of them, even though I fucking made them up!

Twenty years ago, Grover Gardner began narrating a series of comic mysteries whose title character is a white lawyer named Andy Carpenter. In the series—written by David Rosenfelt—Carpenter also has a partner, Willie Miller, who’s a Black ex-con, which means Gardner had to voice Miller too. Back then, he hardly gave any thought to the fact that he was a white narrator voicing a Black man. “I probably modeled him on something I’d heard on television, on Hill Street Blues, or The Wire,” Gardner said. Today, 14 books later, he’s still voicing Willie—but he’s changed his approach. “I’d think very hard about doing that kind of accent now,” he said.

In an era of heightened sensitivity to issues of representation and misrepresentation, it’s no longer acceptable to cast a white actor as a character of color in a movie or TV show. But audiobooks play by different rules. It’s customary now in the audiobook business to try to match a book’s narrator to the gender, race, and sometimes sexual orientation of a novel’s author or main character. Yet most novels feature characters with an assortment of different backgrounds, and this can require narrators to voice characters with identities very different from their own.

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