Thursday, May 26, 2005

Looking or listening...

Greetings from sunny (er, um, dreary, grey, and drizzly, rather) Cambridge, Massachusetts. There's an interesting article about the validity of "reading" audiobooks today in the New York Times ( What's your opinion on audiobooks? Do you think listening to them qualifies as reading, or do you think that the two are really separate experiences. Given your comment today that Lenny Henry reading the audio version of Anansi Boys is "a happy thing, and a good thing," I'm inclined to assume that you like audiobooks to begin with, so my question has more to do with whether or not you think audio can be a substitute for print or not. Best, Margaret (P.S. Maddy is really the star of your blog. You do know that, right?)

Oh yes. Actually, I suspect that I am merely a supporting player in THE *MADDY*GAIMAN* STORY and am perfectly happy for this to be true.

So, audio books. And once again, Harold Bloom demonstrates his twerphood to the world. "Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear," said Harold Bloom, the literary critic. "You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you." From this we learn that art and wisdom only go in at the eyes. What comes in by the ear is manifestly a lesser experience. The corollary, of course, is that real writing gets written down by the hand, and only inferior, wisdom-less writing gets dictated by the mouth, which is why Paradise Lost must have been rubbish...

Again, it's just snobbery and foolishness.

I don't think the experience of reading a book and the experience of hearing a book are the same. I tend to think the experience of hearing a book is often much more intimate, much more personal: you're down there in the words, unable to skip a dull-looking wodge of prose, unable to speed up or slow down (unless you have an iPod and like hearing people sound like chipmonks), less able to go back. It's you and the story, the way the author meant it.

If well-read, an audio book can be magic. If competently read, well, it's normally okay. If less than competently read it can set your teeth on edge.

There are some authors -- Poe, for example -- who are at their best when heard. (Here's a link to MP3s of The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven, read by Basil Rathbone.) I always find Mark Twain somehow richer in audio.

I don't believe there are books I've never "read" because I have only heard them, or poems I've not experienced because I've only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that, if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can't) you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.

(I do, however, believe that abridged audio books are the work of the devil and that abridgers-of-books will probably have a special place in hell, where it will just be them and Harold Bloom, and there will be nothing for anyone to read but the Readers' Digest Condensed Novels for all eternity. It still bothers me that there are people who've heard the audio version of Neverwhere, who think they've read the book.)

Apart from Neverwhere (which was well read by Gary Bakewell, and abridged sensitively for the first 2/3 of the audio before descending into a sort of frantic and desperate attempt to hit a few of the book's high points on the way to the end), I'm really pleased with the audio versions of my stuff so far -- George Guidall's reading of American Gods was terrific, and Dawn French's reading of Coraline was outstanding.

There's definitely a part of me that feels that Lenny Henry's reading of ANANSI BOYS will be in some odd way the definitive text, but that's because Lenny was there when I came up with the idea, and much of the time while I was writing it, I was hearing Len's voice in the back of my head. (I actually found the original outline for ANANSI BOYS yesterday, the one I wrote in 1998 and never looked at again, while looking for cool things for the Hill House edition, and it was so odd to see the moments of occasional, almost coincidental congruence with the novel I wrote in 2004).

I don't have any judgement when it comes to any of the readings I've done, apart from a vague sort of embarrassment (I think I said somewhere that it's like hearing a message that I left on voicemail -- mostly I just think Do I sound like that?) But I like doing them, and I'm pleased that they're out there, so people can hear what the stories sounded like in my head when I was writing them.


People ask me sometimes why I support the CBLDF, and why, as an Englishman, I tend to wax rhapsodic about the First Amendment. This is an example of why I think the First Amendment is important:

I think that each of us has the right to his or opinions, and to express those opinions; and that each of us has the right to argue with those opinions, to comment on them, to agree with them, to ignore them utterly. I don't think people should be imprisoned, hurt, killed or punished for having opinions or expressing them. And I think that has to apply as much to opinions and speech I find repugnant as speech and opinions I'd happily endorse -- because there are people out there who find my opinions and writing and speech repugnant.


Hi Neil,

The link to the derelict London cemeteries was wonderful. I thought, if you enjoyed that, you might also enjoy this link:

Which is a pictorial guide to the cemeteries of New Orleans. It's great stuff. Especially check out St. Louis No. 1 (where they shot that scene from Easy Rider) and Odd Fellow's Rest, which is one of the most desecrated cemeteries in the city.

I have family buried in Metairie Cemetery, which has in my opinion some of the most unusual and beautiful tombs anywhere (the angel in Chapman and Hyams is my favorite).


Leigh Butler


And my friend Dan'a, who is the better or at least prettier half of human beatbox and all around good bloke Matt Chamberlain, wrote to tell me that matt and i were reading your journal and he says to tell you to tell Maddy he doesn't know what a 'sting' is either... Which probably demonstrates that Matt spends much too much of his life drumming for Tori and Bowie and Fiona Apple and people, and not enough time in Las Vegas supporting comedians so obscure that only Mark Evanier could tell you who they are and why they matter.


Neil, I just finished reading the Mirror Mask illustrated film script and I noticed something I wanted to ask you about. In almost every one of your stories, with the exception of Wolves in the Walls, fathers in your works seem to be either incompetent, indifferent or non-existent. Is this a conscious decision on your part, and, if so, why?Looking forward to Anansi Boys, Mark Goldberg

Not really. Actually, I think that Morris Campbell is a very good ringmaster, and he's not a bad dad. He's just not very good at coping with the situation he finds himself in, and anyway, it's Helena's story. Dunstan Thorne in Stardust was a pretty good dad, under the circumstances. ANANSI BOYS is all about a father-son relationship, in its own way.

But unless you're writing a story about parents, they tend to be marginalised, because if they're on stage and being effective and cool and wise then there's nothing for your lead character to do. If Coraline's parents hadn't been somewhat distracted, and had paid her all the attention she wanted, and sorted everything out when iffy things began to happen... then you wouldn't have had much of a story, especially not a story about a girl going up against something dangerous and learning to be brave and to figure out what was important for herself. In The Graveyard Book, my next novel, the hero's family are all dead when the story begins, because if they weren't there wouldn't be a story.

But there's a children's book I'll write one day called FORTUNATELY, THE MILK which is all about the adventures of a dad, which will, I hope, redress the balance.


I wasn't particularly impressed (or interested) when brought out their "statistically improbable phrases" feature. But I loved it when Roddy Lumsden at Vitamin Q put a list of them together -- it felt like a poem.