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Rethinking Romance/The Audible Experience

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“Burn for You Forever”–bspencer

 

 

I’ve been listening to my favorite paranormal romance books, having read nearly all in the series. It’s been an enlightening experience. Being a romance fan is something I’ve always copped to without hesitation, but I’ve always felt that qualifiers were hanging in the air when I discussed this. You’re supposed to read romance books understanding they’re trash. Sometimes I’ve even said this. “Most of it’s trash. Its’ a guilty pleasure.” I should feel guilty about enjoying romance novels, right? They’re silly, they’re not books of substance. They’re formulaic, they’re cliched. They’re (almost exclusively) for women. I think I’m done with qualifying my like of the genre now, though.

This brings me to the audible experience, streaming audible books. Boy howdy, I recommend doing it. If there’s a book you’re particularly fond of–assuming your narrator is decent–listening to it will take your appreciation to a whole new level. That’s what happened when I began listening to my favorite paranormal romance series. Whereas I had once thought of these books as silly trifles, listening to them made me rethink my take on them. Here’s why: I read the books voraciously…always looking for the “good parts.” I read them hastily, sloppily. In the end, they all ran together in my head. (They have intersecting plot points so this added to that feeling.) In the end I dismissed them as exceptionally tasty junk food. But listening to them changed all that. I was at the mercy of the narrator, I was going his speed…so there was no rushing to the “good parts.” I actually had to sit and listen and take in details I hadn’t before. It turns out these weren’t trashy novels, I was just a trashy reader. A hurried, shallow reader. No more. I can now say without hesitation that these are good books, quality books. With fully-fleshed-out characters, superb character development, fun, fast-moving plots, and even some decent world-building.

But back to the genre of romance. The obvious thing to say about it is that most of it is trash (most of it is, to be sure) but that if you search it out you can find the good stuff. But can’t you say that about just about everything? Oh, don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t relish explaining to a non-reader the popularity of “50 Shades.” I couldn’t, because I couldn’t get through the first chapter of the book. (I also made the mistake of attempting to read a couple of its many imitators and found them as baffllingly awful. Never has so much sexual tension been as devoid of sexiness; and never has it caused so much tension in me.) But I can safely and proudly say (now) that I have a read a few really good romance novels, novels that were crafted with care and–I assume–joy, and that didn’t make me vomit with their tortured prose. So I’m done apologizing for being a romance fan and I’m done qualifying my enjoyment of the genre.

 

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  • Origami Isopod

    Well, most of any genre is trash, per Sturgeon’s Law. That includes tons of works in genres that are aimed at or at least associated with men.

    Romance does get a bad rap. That said, I don’t see the problem in paging through romance novels or any other novels for the “good parts.” Reading or listening to the entire thing may provide you with context that makes the “good parts” even better. Or it may not, if the book’s not that great. Unless you’re reviewing the book for potential readers, how you experience it is entirely your call.

    • Karen24

      I do this. I am so depraved that I will actually read the end of other novels to find out if any of the characters I like die or turn evil so I don’t waste the energy on the book.

      And yeah, Tom Clancy’s success does not speak well of late 20th C. taste, but not everything needs to be “War and Peace.”

  • Derelict

    The obvious thing to say about it is that most of it is trash (most of it is, to be sure) but that if you search it out you can find the good stuff.

    It’s kind of like opening oysters to find the pearls. You have to open hundreds before you find the pearl. Which isn’t so bad if you like oysters. If you don’t like oysters, it’s just an awful lots of disgusting work.

  • I’ve listened to a few audiobooks, recently borrowing them online, and one thing that really annoys me is a male reader whose voice goes all high and silly when there’s dialogue spoken by a woman. In A Farewell to Arms, there are Scottish nurses, and it was like Monty Python. I was surprised they would bother acting the story out to that extent.

    Also there are certain books you don’t want to listen to with the car window open.

    • allium

      Bad voiceover artist! No biscuit!

      I’ve taken classes in audiobook narration, and my instructor made it clear that when narrating for the opposite gender, changing the pace or tone just enough to indicate it’s a different person is better than going full falsetto/contralto.

      Of course if the book has dozens of characters with significant amounts of dialogue, it can be tricky summoning up enough divergent voices for them all without going into some weird places.

      • I’ve taken classes in audiobook narration, and my instructor made it clear that when narrating for the opposite gender, changing the pace or tone just enough to indicate it’s a different person is better than going full falsetto/contralto.

        This sounds like great advice to me. Makes a lot of sense.

      • somethingblue

        Of course if the book has dozens of characters with significant amounts of dialogue, it can be tricky summoning up enough divergent voices for them all without going into some weird places.

        Sloppy! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!
        bspencer hath need of thee …

        • allium

          Alas, those “weird places” of which I spake
          Are those on which my talents I do stake.
          A mook, an elf, perhaps a talking lamb.
          A warlock-emperor – ah, inner ham!
          Although my throat’s portfolio spreads wide,
          Seductive tones elude me (oh, I’ve tried.)
          Any move by me to sound “so sexy”
          Would result in fatal apoplexy.

          P.S.
          For those who say “To narrate I aspire!”
          The rate per finished hour is pretty dire.

      • wjts

        I’ve taken classes in audiobook narration, and my instructor made it clear that when narrating for the opposite gender, changing the pace or tone just enough to indicate it’s a different person is better than going full falsetto/contralto.

        Probably a good rule of thumb, but I think I remember Lenny Henry’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys breaking it to very good effect.

    • The guy who reads almost of all my favorite author’s books does this. It…takes some getting used to. OTOH, his male voices are so phenomenal, so transporting, so remarkably sexy I’ve learned to just get past it. And this guy–he’s not reading, he’s *acting*” He is truly superb. I know why she turns to him again and again. I get shivers just thinking of his voices.

      • Karen24

        Who is your favorite? I like the genre and am always in the market for fun diversions.

        • As in narrator or author? I’ve been cycling through all of these Cole books, as read by Robert Petkoff. He is PHENOMENAL. I’d start here. I had given up on romance when I found this series. And it was like a punch in the gut. They are viscerally romantic and sexy.

          Cole’s men are without peer.

    • In A Farewell to Arms, there are Scottish nurses, and it was like Monty Python.

      This sounds awesome, but I admit I have a Monty Python fixation.

  • grins

    my favorite paranormal romance series

    Tell me, tell me! I’m always looking for a good series :-)

    • Anything by Thorne Smith.

      • Lee Rudolph

        When I was 7 or 8, The Nightlife of the Gods was one of the books my father read aloud to put me to sleep. Also assorted Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, and, if memory isn’t failing me, The Call of the Wild.

        In retrospect, this may explain a lot.

  • Patrick

    Pop Culture Happy Hour had good ten minute mini-podcasts on those two subjects recently. The romance one in particular I found worth listening to – it’s not really my thing so it was cool to hear someone else’s enjoyment of the genre:

    http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2015/03/18/393828190/small-batch-edition-on-loving-romance-with-sarah-wendell

    http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2015/06/29/415198430/pop-culture-happy-hour-small-batch-edition-audiobooks

  • Karen24

    I have almost all of Shakespeare on audiobooks and I can’t say enough good things about this. I like to listen to John Gielgud perform Richard II while I iron or wash dishes. I also have Sherlock Holmes in Spanish, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and Beowulf. I like being able to listen to these works in the way they were intended when written.

    As for romance, may I shill for my friend Susanna Fraser? She writes Napoleonic period works that are well-researched but still fun. I like paranormal romance too, and refuse to apologize for them. None are going to be Undying Literature, but they can be fun and engaging escapism. I particularly like Yasmine Galenorn who sets all of hers in Seattle. She even has playlists at the end of each book for those who are interested.

    • mark

      This. Shakespeare was meant to be performed. Reading him I was seldom captivated, I love live performances but go rarely. Listening I love it so much. I’ve sat in the car after I got to work to hear what happened next; it was like I was addicted to an old radio serial.

      • mark

        I will also add, on the classics, Ian McKellan’s recording of the Odyssey. Currently listening to it a second time; it’s an awesome translation and the reading is perfect–funny, sarcastic, emotional, whatever is needed.

  • witlesschum

    It really depends with audiobooks with me. Gone Girl had a really well done audiobook, with different readers depending on the chapter’s POV. But I remember listening to one of the Hunger Games books and not being able to take the narrator’s voice. She sounded like a Kennedy, which for some reason didn’t fit the story. The two Veronica Mars sequel novels I’ve listened to on audiobook, the first read by Kristen Bell, who was pretty good at mimicking her costars. The second one is read by someone else, but she’s quite good, too.

    I sometimes find the opposite, though, where I find myself letting things breeze by when I’m listening but zone out a bit, whereas on the page I’m more locked in.

    I’m actually listening to my beloved A Song of Ice and Fire books for the first time a bit here and there after having read them a few times. It definitely brings new things out, highlighting some things. Like one scene that didn’t make a huge impression on me in the text, the reader really sells the sadness of the moment beautifully.

    • It’s weird you should mention “Gone Girl,” because I wondered how that would translate to audio. Well, I was thinking.

      Like one scene that didn’t make a huge impression on me in the text, the reader really sells the sadness of the moment beautifully.

      This is what sold me on the audible experience. (At least for the two series I’m using it for) I just feel like it forced me to slow down and really immerse myself in the experience. Everything took on more significance.

    • sharculese

      I listened to the Hunger Games on audiobook and thought the narration was fine. Then I listened to Catching Fire and couldn’t finish it, but I think that was more that I didn’t care for the book that anything else.

    • Hogan

      I saw the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility before I read the novel [feels shame], and Thompson’s delivery of the “What makes you think you’re the only one with feelings” speech went right to my heart in a way the book probably wouldn’t have.

      • Having seen Raul Julia as Macbeth, I hear his voice when I read it. His performance of the pivotal scene in Act III (“I am in blood stepp’d in so far…”) made my blood run cold. I can read all the other plays with a neutral voice in my head, but not that one.

        ETA: Re Sturgeon’s Law, even Will S had his enjoyable-trash moments. What’s Titus Andronicus if not a slasher flick?

        • You mean Hamlet isn’t a slasher flick?

          • wjts

            There are more deaths in Hamlet than in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Make of that what you will.

            • heckblazer

              That there are fewer deaths in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than you might expect? (Only 5 IIRC in the original)

              • wjts

                Five total in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Kirk, Pam, Jerry, Franklin, Nubbins) vs. five on-stage in Hamlet (Polonius, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet) plus three off-stage (Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern), one simulated (the Player King), and two significant ones prior to the main action of the play (Hamlet senior and Yorick) plus a bunch of insignificant ones (various sledded Polacks on the ice, Fortinbras senior).

        • What’s Titus Andronicus if not a slasher flick?

          If the number of Jacobean Revenge tragedies is any guide, Titus Andronicus was the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that his colleagues were inspired to imitate.

        • Origami Isopod

          What’s Titus Andronicus if not a slasher flick?

          A culinary adventure?

    • witlesschum

      Another one I really liked was Tishmingo Blues by Elmore Leonard. Just a really good reader and listening to an Elmore Leonard is good because he’s all snappy dialog.

      • wjts

        I used to drive from Texas to Massachusetts and back a couple of times a year, and I always made sure to bring my tapes of Pronto, Riding the Rap, and Get Shorty, all read by Joe Mantegna. It was like being on a road trip with Fat Tony.

  • KmCO

    I don’t like audiobooks for two simple reasons. One, I am a terrible listener and I have a hard time retaining semantic information audially. Second, I have sensitivities to the sound of certain voices (misophonia) and that sometimes distracts me from what I’m listening to.

  • Ann Outhouse

    I’d probably like this genre better if it weren’t for the dumb names. Every male vampire is named Nicholas (or some version thereof) or Damien or Lucien with the occasional Victor thrown in (Victor, should he make an appearance, is always a bad vampire).

    It’s such a cliche that the author of True Blood got a good laugh out of naming her lead vampire Bill.

    • wjts

      The last shitty vampire book I read (A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness) had a vampire named Matthew.

  • MPAVictoria

    The audiobook versions of the Dresden Files are just fantastic if anyone else out there likes urban fantasy. They are all read by the same guy (weirdly enough the actor who played Spike on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who is EXCEPTIONAL. He starts off the first book decently enough and by book 3 or 4 you cannot imagine anyone else narrating the series.

    As for the books themselves, they are pretty great examples of the genre. My main complaint is the author’s sexual kinks make odd and pretty obvious appearances from time to time. But if you can put up with that I do recommend the highly.

    Additionally I have been listening to the Terry Pratchett (RIP)Discworld Series on audiobook from the beginning and bspencer is right. It gives you a new appreciation for a author’s gift with the language. So many memorable lines from Pratchett.

    • Origami Isopod

      Harry Dresden’s sexism puts me off completely. These days I mostly read fantasy written by women, which tends to have less of that problem.

  • Warren Terra

    I don’t listen to audiobooks, as such, but I listen to a lot of BBC radio material, including a lot of dramas and comedies. They’re much too snooty to get into paranormal romance (or, indeed, romance, for the most part), but there’s a lot of good stuff there, often for free. Their recent broadcast of a sort of imitation-Shakespearean imagined King Charles III was pretty good (it’s still available to listen online, I think).

    • Moondog

      Looks like lots of good stuff at your BBC link.

      • wjts

        I started listening to various BBC comedy/drama programs in the last year or two (well, apart from the Goon Show and Hitchhiker’s Guide tapes I listened to obsessively in middle school/high school), and there’s some great stuff there. This episode of Stephen Fry’s Delve Special could have been written last week rather than 30 years ago.

        • Warren Terra

          If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I strongly recommend learning to use Get_iPlayer, so you can save files and transfer them to your mobile device of choice.

          • wjts

            How come you didn’t tell me about this when The Iguanodon was still available?

  • But can’t you say that about just about everything?

    Yes. And a librarian friend used to delight in sending me passages from the male version of the sweatier sort of bodice ripper – the modern Western.

    Who knew? But they seem to be a bottomless mine of awful.

    Audiobooks don’t work for me, unfortunately. My attention drifts waaaaay off unless I sit still and concentrate. And then I get frustrated because it is too slow.

    • witlesschum

      I tend to listen to them while doing a mindless task, like dishes or running or just driving. That’s enough for me, but I do have a hard time sitting and just listening.

  • mark

    I read a ton of genre stuff, urban high & low fantasy, mystery, SF, and so on. I picked up the phrase “mind candy” from Cosma Shalizi to fill in for when I used to say trash. Calling something I thought well crafted & clever seemed insincere, but at least the stuff I get still has a very different feel than most “literary” fiction.

    • heckblazer

      Genre to a large extant is a marketing category. For example, I read Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten when it was first published and it was in the general fiction section with a suitably arty cover. When they started publishing sequels they switched it over to paranormal romance and changed the cover accordingly. The book itself didn’t change.

      A corollary to that is that “literary fiction” is itself a genre, though a privileged one that can pretend it isn’t.

      • witlesschum

        Yeah. My wife and I both loved The Rosie Project by Graham Simsion, which is totally a romance novel with the twist that the protagonist is a very intelligent geneticist who is someplace on the autism spectrum but it’s probably being shelved under general fiction and marketed that way.

      • Ahuitzotl

        A corollary to that is that “literary fiction” is itself a genre, though a privileged one that can pretend it isn’t.

        Yes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had that argument, invariably with English majors.

        • Origami Isopod

          Litfic snobs are the worst. Particularly the #GuyInYourMFA types who don’t understand why I wouldn’t want to read the totally original story of the male professor who undergoes a midlife crisis and finds meaning by having sex with an adoring young female student.

          • burritoboy

            really? I mean, they’re not self-aware enough to know that Roth, Bellow and Updike (among many others) beat that plot into the ground?

  • Quick, someone send BSpencer an audio version of Ayn Rand’s Best Romance Scenes!!

  • heckblazer

    I would highly recommend the audiobook versions of The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require. They’re both narrated by John Hodgeman himself, with music by his savage feral mountain man companion Jonathan Coulton. The performances and banter are hilarious.

  • marijane

    I haven’t read much romance, but I did read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance in library school, and I have a lot more respect for it as a genre as a result.

    • Hogan

      I plug that book in just about all of these threads, so I’m glad someone else picked up the slack this time. It’s wonderful.

  • Sue.K.Mabels

    bspence at one point asked for criticism of her art, and I made a comment that seemed to confuse some people that I thought her art looked corporate. This post has given me a better way to describe why it looks so corporate, because it reminds me of the slick, shopped art that publishing companies put on romance novels to market them.

    Anyways, more on topic, romance novels have been likened to pornography for women and I think the reliance on the prurient to sell copies is what gives the genre its reputation. Something that gives women the shivers doesn’t need to be of other redeeming quality to sell copies (or make movies, or audiobooks). I don’t read erotic fiction much but I also see no reason that the genre couldn’t sustain more “genuine”* literary undertakings as well, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples out there.

    * why can’t porn be genuine? I’m not sure.

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