Abridge This!

Audioshave: What sort of book could be cut in half without losing a certain something?

A couple of weeks ago, I spent Monday and Tuesday at a sound studio on Ninth Avenue, taping a month's worth of hour-long radio programs. As the host of Audiobook Cafe, set to debut in January on XM Satellite Radio, I interviewed two authors and reviewed one audiobook for each of the four shows. I talked in-studio with Ron Chernow and SJ Rozan, and on the phone with Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Rule, and Tony Hillerman. I recorded my reviews of books by Ed McBain, Philip Roth, Augusten Burroughs, and Jonathan Lethem. And I taped some of the show's connective tissue ("Thanks, Jeff." "And now for a word from our Twisted Sisters, Rochelle O'Gorman and Barbara Sullivan. What have you got for us today, girls?" "Over to you now, Jeff.")

I spent the following Tuesday and Wednesday at HarperAudio's sound studio, recording the abridged audiobook of my own forthcoming novel. This was the 17th audiobook I've narrated, so I know the drill. It went well; we wrapped it up early Wednesday afternoon and I headed home with a feeling of accomplishment.

Back in the day, and a long-ago day it was, the notion of writing something and getting paid for it was absolutely exhilarating to me. It barely mattered what I wrote, just so long as those were my words on the page and there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (And it didn't actually have to be a pot of gold. A pot of silver was fine, or copper if you were fresh out of silver. Back then, come to think of it, a pot of pot would have done, too.)

illustration: Joshua Gorchov

Well, my first story was published in 1958, my first book a year or so later, and there have been a lot of words on a lot of pages since then. I still like to write and get paid for it, but along the way I've discovered something even more thrilling—not writing . . . and getting paid for it.

Thus, this second career with the spoken word. It's been propelled by the same two motivators, ego and avarice, that got all those words onto all those pages, and it does make a nice change of pace from writing, and uses some different muscles.

And the muscles, I should tell you, get stronger through exercise. The first audiobook I narrated was Burglars Can't Be Choosers, published in audio in 1995. That was a severe abridgment, the book cut down to 26,000 words, with a running time of three hours on two cassettes. (I wrote the book in 1976, and if I'd known that I'd someday have to read it out loud, I wouldn't have named one character J. Francis Flaxford, easy enough to type but, I was to discover, almost impossible to say.)

The recording session went well, J. Francis notwithstanding, and I was out of there in six or seven hours. I got home around four and lay down for a nap, and I slept for 15 hours. All I'd done was sit in a chair and read for a few hours, but the requisite level of concentration was pretty intense, and the whole thing knocked the crap out of me.

Well, some of it, anyway.

Nowadays the abridgments are longer—six hours on four cassettes, or a little over 50,000 words. The work of narration is still demanding. You have to stay in the moment; if your mind wanders, it shows in your voice. But it's not as exhausting, and I have to say I'm getting better at it.

But I won't record an abridged audiobook again. Nor will anybody else narrate a book of mine in abridged form. There's going to be a clause to that effect in the next contract I sign. No abridgments.

Because it's been an embarrassment to me that I can't recommend my own audiobook narrations, but instead find myself steering prospective readers to the unabridged versions with other narrators. The audiobook I recorded of All the Flowers Are Dying runs 53,000 words; the unabridged version, which Alan Sklar will narrate for BBC America, runs to 99,000 and change. Anyone who listens to my version will get the story. They'll know what happens, although a whole subplot's been excised, but they'll miss far too much of what most concerned me as a writer. The book's the 16th in my Matthew Scudder series, and what the book is about, as much as its plot, is aging and mortality, and Scudder's response thereto. All of it grist, alas, for the abridger's mill. And how could it be otherwise? What sort of book could be cut essentially in half without losing a certain something?

The thing is, nobody really likes abridgments. The listeners who don't mind them are generally unaware of how much they're missing. (And sometimes I wonder what they think they're listening to. In the abridgment of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, the listener has no way of knowing that Bernie's best friend, Carolyn Kaiser, is a lesbian. If you don't know that, their relationship makes no sense whatsoever. The audio director, who read only the abridgment, kept wondering why Bernie never put the moves on her.)

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