Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?

5 responses to “Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

  1. (Qualifying statement: I listen to audiobooks, I read ebooks, and I still have analog books hanging around.)

    An additional angle to consider: visually impaired people rely more and more on audiobooks as their means to read. A friend (blind from shortly after birth) is completely fluent in Braille and has a refreshable Braille reader. But the majority of new books are not available in an accessible format that allows them to be translated to Braille. And if he does scan a book or receive an accessible format, it’s read aloud by a synthesized voice – and I would argue that you lose fidelity in that synthesized reading: little to no inflection, or incorrect inflection. He listens to it at such a high rate of speed that I can barely understand it, for example.

    He listens to a vast number of audiobooks, though – some from Audible, and many from the CNIB’s library. I would argue that the intentions and fidelity of the text is preserved in the audio performance in a way that’s not possible in the synthesized reading, and in a way that’s punctuated in a Braille reading. I would never suggest that he doesn’t ‘read’ because he listens to audiobooks.

    Interestingly enough, there’s been recent research that suggests that visually impaired children are now functionally illiterate because of an almost complete reliance on audiobooks and screen-readers – the controversy swings both ways, I suppose.

  2. Enjoyed this post… and I really like the cover on your Ulysses!

  3. I hear you about synth-voice reading; I tried a Gutenberg synth-voice edition of Dickens once and found it instantly unlistenable. Hostile, even.

    With human-performed audiobooks, I’ve noticed a much smaller but still peripherally interesting glitch: mispronounced words. For instance, I couldn’t get a lock on “locative art” in William Gibson’s latest novels until I saw the term in print. I’d only read his books in audio editions in which the speaker pronounces it “LOCK-ah-tive.” Maybe that is how it’s supposed to be pronoounced, but as a word based on “location,” it would have been much clearer to me, much sooner, if it had been pronounced “loh-KAY-tive.”
    (The other audiobook bugbear word I’m never sure about is “Quixotic.” I always hear it pronounced “quick-SOT-ic” but I think it should be “key-HOT-ic.”)

    Your mention of your friend’s audiobook-based “speed reading” is really intriguing. I’m sure I visually read your comment at a much faster rate than that at which you’d speak it – and yet, when I read, I normally do hear a voice, mentally delivering the words, and it’s not like a sped-up tape. (If I’ve heard the actual author speak, then I’ll normally hear their voice.) This seems one of those psychological aspects of reading that get weird fast when you start thinking about it. Surely there’s research on this.

  4. Interesting post, Mark. And Heather’s comment provides further fat to chew on.

    The discussion about “purity” of the text gets more complicated when looking at poetry, I think. Some poems are intended to be read aloud—they exist on paper solely as a convenient way to deliver them to an audience (or for the performer to remember the words). Others, especially those that rely heavily on form (in the visual sense, not merely the structural sense), seem to require the written word in order to exist as a complete piece—concrete poetry being the most obvious example. They are as much visual art as they are a written work. Such poems, I think, would be changed into something different as a result of shifting them to

  5. Whoops…that last comment was me. I didn’t realize I was logged into that other account.

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