I want to like fiction podcasts! I really do, but it hasn’t happened yet. Before I continue, let me emphasize that I have a true appreciation for the effort and love that goes into them. They are certainly more work per minute of entertainment than an audiobook. I mean just wrangling voice actors #amiright?
That said, I admittedly haven’t tried that hard. A big part of my struggle might be the genre mismatch between the novels I enjoy reading and the fiction shows that I’m aware of (admittedly not more than a few dozen). This will make more sense later in the newsl’r when I describe the kind of fiction I gravitate towards.
The other big issue for me is that I need a narrator. If start listening to a show that starts with a cast of characters with different voices talking to each other and no description of where they are and what they look like and how to tell them apart, I can’t hang! This is maybe my own failing and I just need to put in the work to get over it? But I have a hard enough time remembering character names with a narrator let alone without one. This happened to me within minutes of trying a highly lauded recent show in an underwater setting. I’m sure it’s good, I am! But I couldn’t last for 10 minutes. I had no idea even how many characters were present in the opening scene.
That said, I have loved audiobooks since forever. As a kid my dad read to me (doing voices) until I was maybe 14? I bought my first book-on-tape for a cross country road trip in 1996. I spent the late 90s and early 2000 helping myself to audiobooks via eMule and later bittorrent. And finally, I locked into an Audible subscription in 2006 and currently have 400 completed audiobooks in my Audible library. So I think I can claim some kind of “core audiobook guy” status.
For me, I think the way into fiction podcasts is basically not far removed from narrated audiobooks but with a richer sound bed and good music. In fact, I have already enjoyed a few episodes of Imaginary Advice, but anthological fiction can be hit or miss for me and the misses make me lose steam. Actually The Golden House was the closest I’ve come to really loving a multi-part fiction show. If only it wasn’t a mystery that could have been it! I do love The Adventure Zone, but really only for the jokes and banter. Through 26 episodes, I haven’t really been able to feel invested in the plot or characters. To me they’re just the real McElroy’s goofing around and that’s not quite fiction. Sorry!
As for genre, this is where it gets a little tougher for me. As the world has gotten crazier, or I’ve gotten older it has been more and more difficult for me to find fiction I love. Below is a list of the last 10 fiction audiobooks I really enjoyed. Maybe from these, the fiction podcast producers out there can help me find my way into their world:
November Road—A novel by Lou Berney who’s JFK assignation setting makes it remarkable, but at it’s heart is about how brief encounters with strangers can change our entire lives.
The Great Alone—I read this book by Krisin Hannah around the same time I read Educated and the two blend in my mind a bit. They both have the ultra-smart girl fighting to break out of a terrible family situation. I loved them both.
The Border—A Narcos-like story by Don Winslow. It’s the third in a trilogy and I loved all three. It feels like non-fiction but you get inside the characters’ heads. I generally like this. Also I love going on surfing trips in Baja when there’s not a global pandemic, and reading this trilogy added a layer of grime and intrigue to my thoughts as I looked out over the barren Baja landscape.
The Meg—Yes you read that right. The original book by Steve Alten that inspired the terrible movie is so fun to read. I heard the author talking about it on NPR and needed to read it. And unlike the recent movie of the same name, it has a Jurassic Park-like plausibility to it.
It—Good ole Stephen King. I have memories of listening to this while aimlessly driving around in Southern California on a family vacation trying to get my two year old son to fall asleep. It might be billed as horror, but it’s a story about lasting friendship and the loss of imagination that happens as we grow up.
That Old Ace in the Hole—Hopefully it’s starting to be clear that I love characters. Annie Proulx’s dry-as-the-landscape characters in this book and their weird idiosyncrasies (loving tarantulas, collecting vintage plastic jewelry) made it fun for me.
Seveneves—This novel by Neal Stephenson has one of the most incredible descriptions of what would happen with an imminent doomsday that I have ever read. The second half of the book that is much more speculative scifi takes place long after the doomsday event and is not as entertaining.
The Name of the Wind trilogy—I agree with my wife that this trilogy is too much of a standard male fantasy. But I’ll admit that when you grow up as one of my kind in the 80’s maybe there’s a certain part of you that will always be entertained by a rogue hero. And like everyone else that is still waiting for book three. COME ON, PATRICK! JUST WRITE FFS!
Fall of Giants, Edge of Eternity, and Winter of the World—This trilogy by Ken Follett is a fairly ambitious attempt to wind a single thread through all of modern European history. I’d say it more or less succeeds, and where it fails, it has plenty of bawdy, chauvinistic sex scenes to distract you. I listened to this trilogy with my wife on road trips. It was the last set of audiobooks we listened to together before our kids got old enough that we could no longer play Audible in the car on trips without headphones.
Child 44—I haven’t thought about this book in a long time. I wonder if Tom Rob Smith has written anything else (or please god, made a fiction podcast)? The villains in this book about a murder during Stalin’s time in Russia are incredible. It transported me to a place I knew very little about. My favorite memory of this book is listening to it while on a 6 hour solo hike and getting lost and slightly afraid to the point that I had to take breaks and deep breaths without my headphones to ponder whether hunting season had started or not.
What is the What—I think this book, the last one in this list, by Dave Eggars helps me see that I really like true to life fiction. Listening to Eggars’s book, I felt the emotion of the Sudanese civil war, and came away changed. What fiction podcasts are doing this?
Based on this list of books, I wonder if there’s any fiction audio that will draw me in?
And relatedly, I was just having a conversation with my sister who is also a big fan of audiobooks but has not crossed over to podcasts at all. In trying to get her to listen to any kind of podcast let alone fiction, I said, “I’m so sure there’s a way in for you. Because at the end of the day really good [podcasts] are just better produced audiobooks."
She said, “It’s interesting that you say that because I always thought of them as inferior content.” With audiobooks, “someone took the time to think through what to write, perhaps did research, hopefully edited, etc. Not saying a podcast isn’t researched, but it feels off-the-cuff.”
Don’t worry, I’ll work to improve her understanding on this. I’ve got S-Town, In the Dark, and Bear Brook on her todo list. But she’s right about one thing. If you’re going to make a fiction podcast that’s good, you’ve got to take the time to write it. And if you’re going to do that, isn’t it a surer bet financially to write a novel? How do people with the skill to write a novel (or write for TV) end up writing audio fiction podcasts? Fundamentally, to outsiders, this is the question that needs to be answered for fiction podcasts to both transcend their current niche status and to attract more great writers. I am very aware that insiders are tired of this kind of question and don’t concern themselves with it. They shouldn’t. They should just keep creating great work that can withstand the test of time and will still be there when everyone else—including me—“gets it.”
I can feel you fiction podcasters just giving me hate-stares right now. I’m sorry! Help me in! Build a bridge from audiobooks to audio fiction for me. Or maybe don’t! Maybe what we do is what Nick Quah mentioned the other day. Agree that “a show is a show is a show is a show,” so audiobook makers can just start putting more effort into sound design and I can start thinking of what I listen to on Audible as “shows.” I’d be ok with that!
Looking forward to your hate mail 😊, your audio fiction recommendations that have narration, and eventually coming around to listening to more podcast fiction in 2021!
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