Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing

This is the high season for literary award announcements, from the international Nobel Laureate to the Mystery Writers of America’s Anthony Awards. In between come plaudits for the best writing in everything from investigative journalism to lifetime achievement in military literature. Many such award winners have had previous titles recorded as audiobooks; some have the winning title already available in audio format; a few will remain unrecorded, at least in the foreseeable future.

Does a satisfying, literary award-winning book automatically translate into a great listen? This is like asking whether a fantastic cake recipe can be made into delightful cookies. Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on factors that have nothing to do with the print work—the quality of the narrators’ performance, sound engineering care—and a few that do, in fact, connect to what the book is, how the author treats both language and prosody, and whether the content makes sense aloud.

Pro-audiobook folks are accustomed to arguing for the equality of audio format with print, and indeed that is the general case. When it comes to specifics, however, sometimes the print is better—and sometimes an excellent performance and/or insightful direction can list a mundane text into a shining performance. In short, running off with the latest prize-winning cake recipe to eat the cookies someone makes from it could be excellent or disappointing.

For this reason, some literary award-granting bodies specifically forbid judges and juries from listening only. This rule doesn’t arise from audio prejudice but from the awareness that what could be a winner—or failure—in print may not be fairly represented in audio. It’s the corollary to audiobook prize judges taking responsibility for listening to all of the recording of each work judged, rather than sampling it. In the prize world, whether books or audiobooks, format counts.