The auditory reception of literature: Experiences and practices with audiobooks

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Lukas Kosch @Kosch

:classical_building: Affiliation: Department of German Studies, University of Vienna

Title: The auditory reception of literature: Experiences and practices with audiobooks.

Abstract (long version below): Despite the popularity of audiobooks and the obvious media differences compared to printed books, there is still a need for a systematic and empirical investigation of the consequences for individuals’ reading experiences when the literary experience shifts from reading to listening. Beyond considering how reading differs cognitively from listening and how printed books differ technically from audiobooks, the aim of this paper is to investigate the modality-based reception differences, based on the results of a focus group study on listening practices of regular audiobook users. The central focus lies on the effects of voice, pace, and side activities for the literary listening experience.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Auditory reception has always been an important form of literary consumption, but in the 21st century, listening to literature, particularly in the form of audiobooks, has once again become a widespread activity. In terms of social and cultural history, the transition from reading aloud to reading silently (e.g. Bickenbach, 2020; Chartier, 1990) or the consequences when oral cultures became written cultures (e.g. Goody & Watt, 1963; Ong, 2012), have been studied in detail, and consequences of these practices have been theoretically underpinned. With the widespread use of digital audiobooks, the last decade has also seen an increased focus on media technology perspectives, leading to a number of extensive research papers (e.g. Binczek & Wirth, 2020; Have & Pedersen, 2015; Rubery, 2011, 2016), but most of these approaches are characterized by a mainly theoretical and/or historical perspective, focusing on production- and performance-aesthetic dimensions of literature transferred to audio. The dimension of auditory reception of literature, though, and in particular how it compares to traditional print-based reading, is still a notable gap in this research field. Despite their popularity, audiobooks are often credited with being a shallow and less demanding alternative to reading and cannot replace reading the printed book. Rubery’s conclusion still appears to be valid: “The audiobook has struggled to gain acceptance among the humanities as a legitimate aesthetic form despite its growing popularity. The absence of critical discussion of a format that has been around for over a century is one indication of its marginal status” (Rubery, 2011, p. 10). Clearly, the skepticism towards the audiobook medium stems from the fact that it is compared to the printed book as the leading medium for experiencing literature. However, as audiobooks are an increasingly popular choice for enthusiasts of literature „it is important to investigate listening experiences with audiobooks in the field of empirical aesthetics“ (Lange, Thiele, Kuijpers, 2020, p. 111). The availability of a literary text in at least three different versions – printed book, e-book and audiobook – calls for accuracy “regarding the mediality aspects of reading, just as it questions the primacy of the printed book” (Have & Pedersen, 2015, p. 27). Yet beyond such pleas, the study and especially the empirical investigation of reception differences between reading and listening to literature is still a desideratum in research in general, and in literary studies in particular. Because as Binczek (2020) recently stated, especially in literary studies, there is a lack of differentiated, proven descriptive criteria that take into account the specific auditory signification processes, including all the relevant paralinguistic features.

The proposed paper will contribute to this new and promising research area by 1) concentrating on the now widespread practice of listening to digital audiobooks and comparing it with traditional printed book reading; and 2) extending existing theoretical and historical research with empirical investigations on the question of intermedial and reception-aesthetic differences between acoustic and visual perception of literary texts. Beyond considering how reading differs cognitively from listening and how printed books differ technically and phenomenologically from audiobooks, the main aim of this paper is to investigate the dimension of medium-based reception differences. The focus is on differences in the literary experience of readers or listeners – that is, in how they understand and relate to the content of a literary text.

Using a focus group study, the actual and subjective evaluations of regular audiobook users are brought into focus. Our data show that listeners perceive apart from side activities, i.e. the listening situation, the narrator’s voice, pace and attention as being particularly relevant to the literary listening experience. As the question of the inner voice that emerges from the act of reading plays a significant role for the mental representation of the narrated world, this is radically changing when a text is represented by a speaker’s voice. Thus, Have and Pedersen (2015, p. 92) point out that “this act is certainly changed and possibly disturbed when another person, the author for instance, interprets the text through sound; the performing voice competes with the inner voice of the reader". This difference is significantly reflected in the fact that typically one reads at their own pace, whereas in listening pace is determined by the recording. Although digital devices and audiobook players allow for better control of listening speed, the control over pace during listening can be varied with difficulty. Hence, print affords readers the option to pause and reflect on the words or to go back to text previously read with far greater ease than listening. Nevertheless, audiobooks offer something that printed books do not: They restore the human voice to literature, adding a dimension of intimacy that is missing on the page.

Now, when a written text is performed by a speaker, literature is given a facet that the written original lacks. In addition to the genuine aesthetic structure of the literary text, there are specific features of spoken language such as rhythm, articulation, speed and sound. Therefore, the performed interpretation of the literary text via the voice opens up new or different aesthetic emotions and a different aesthetic evaluation of the linguistic work of art, which are examined in the proposed paper.


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