Yesterday, when I mentioned to a colleague in an email that I had recently published a book, he replied in a distinctly modern way: “Congratulations! Great news about the book publication. I can’t wait to listen to it.”
Because, of course, for a lot of people, books are something to hear – in the car, on the subway, at the gym – and not something to read. It was inevitable: people spend most of their time, it seems, wandering around with earphones wedged firmly into their skulls or clamped tightly around their ears, so at some point they’re going to want to listen to something with words and a story.
Most professional authors know this. I’m not a professional author – my profession, when I am forced to declare it, is “complaining lazybones” – so it was sort of a thrill when my publisher notified me that my book was about to become an audiobook.
Someone, in other words, was going to read it aloud into a machine, so that others wouldn’t have to bother. The question, though, is who is going to read the book?
“We’d prefer to have a professional reader,” came the reply from my publisher when I – cheekily, I now see – suggested myself.
Professional readers, I was informed, get the job done quickly and efficiently. They know how to deliver a joke, sell an emotional passage, keep the pace up, and “really embody the author’s voice”.
I countered by suggesting that since the author’s voice was already inside my body that seemed like a head start.
“We’ve found,” was the more direct reply, “that professional actors with voice training know how to keep the recording sprightly. A good vocal actor can really cover up a book’s weak spots.”
When someone tells you that they’re hiring a professional to “cover up” the inadequacies of your work product, I’ve learnt that it’s a perfect time to end the conversation. So I did the email equivalent of shrugging – “You guys know best” was my terse reply – and then thought a bit about what was really happening here. Once again, a writer was being replaced by an actor.
This happens all the time in Hollywood. Every movie or television show was once just a sheaf of pages – or a scrolling laptop screen – that came from a writer’s imagination.
I’ve spoken aloud almost every single word I’ve ever written for money, acted out every scene, impersonated all of the characters in every one of my scripts, and occasionally improvised huge portions of a screenplay with my writing partners.
I have even twisted my ankle while acting out a physical comedy bit. It’s an odd thing, trust me, to have to tell people who ask about your crutches: “I hurt myself writing.”
Lurking just below the surface of every writer is a frustrated actor waiting for his moment. Writers, mostly, are a pale and misshapen group. We don’t have the looks or the physical perfection of a movie star – though there’s not a professional screenwriter who can (honestly) deny looking at the recent crop of podgy, unattractive male leads – your Jonah Hills, your John C Reillys – without thinking: “That guy is a movie star? He looks like a writer!”
And what’s worse, often we’re convinced that the performance we put on in our writers’ dens and rewrite sessions is just as good – No! Better! – than the resulting screen performance of the same words by a much better-looking person.
A few years ago, I was helping a colleague on a television series that was based rather closely on his own life, except for the crucial detail that the actor playing him was taller, fitter, and a lot more handsome. Oh, and he still had a full head of hair.
After a scene, the writer approached the actor and told him that he wasn’t really delivering a line the “correct” way, to which the actor (understandably) bristled. “This is my way of saying the line,” he said.
“Yeah,” my writer friend said, “but you’re playing me. You should say it the way I’d say it. You’re supposed to be more like me.”
The handsome actor looked sadly at the writer in his dumpy blue jeans and rumpled shirt. In his hands the writer had, with unfortunate timing, a large half-eaten pastry. His skin was pale and mottled.
“Shouldn’t you be trying to be more like me?” the actor asked.
Which was a fair point. All the actor was doing, I now realise, was covering up the writer’s weak spots. That’s all they ever do.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood. His two books, Conversations with My Agent and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke were published in July as one volume by Bloomsbury
On Twitter: @rcbl