Gillian Philip

…taking dictation from people who don't exist.

Sound affects

Posted by Gillian Philip on 7 October 2011. 3 Comments so far.


No, it’s not a spelling error. It’s a DELIBERATE VERB, I tell you. Because it does.

The clink of teacups, the wind in the trees, the scrape and clash of sword blades. A book without them would be like a silent movie, but without even the piano soundtrack. The thing is, though, I want to hear them in my head, evoked by words. Books! Don’t SHOUT at me!

I’m a big fan of ebooks (despite the fabulous rudeness of their advocate Terry Deary on Woman’s Hour today, Friday). I’m a bigger fan of paper books but I DO like ebooks. And I can see the potential for added value, extra features, fun quirks… but in the case of sound effects, I’m unreconstructed. I fling up my hands in maidenly horror.

There’s this proposal, as you may have heard, to add the genteel tinkle of porcelain to Jane Austen novels. And a rumour that Salman Rushdie plans to have sound effects included in his ebooks. The trouble is, it strikes me as the aural equivalent of the author casting the story’s characters for you, and having actors play it out on the page.

Not, of course, that I don’t cast my books. It’s half the fun. I can’t begin to detail the happy hours I’ve spent googling photos of Alexander Skarsgard, Billy Crudup, David Tennant and Gabriel Byrne. And, of course, Christina Ricci, Halle Berry and Christy Turlington. And it’s sometimes nice to know who the author had in mind (assuming it was anybody). But I don’t want another author’s choice there, on the page, acting it out in front of me, because I think half the fun of other people’s books, too, is casting them yourself.

I’m always intrigued to know who people visualise (if anyone) when they read my books. I may not agree. I may inwardly shout ‘Seth does NOT look like David Boreanaz!’ But if somebody sees him that way, that is fine, that is fun, that is the whole point of reading a book instead of watching a movie.

The same goes for sound. I bet my thunderstorm sounds a bit different from yours, and I bet the murmur of the women in my tea shop (so to speak) isn’t quite the same either. I want to hear it through the words. In my latest manuscript I’m quite pleased with my description of a herd of bullocks stampeding across a field. I don’t want to take a microphone up the road and record the nearest herd and embed it in the book. I hope the reader will be able to hear it anyway.

I know book covers have been imposing their images of characters on us since the year dot, but I dunno, I think those are somehow ignore-able. You can put them out of your head as soon as you turn to page one. I don’t think I could do that if the book was actually shouting at me. And don’t get me started on the scratch-n-sniff possibilities.

Sound, smell, vision, whatever. I just think it’s what the words are for.

See how I'll use any excuse for a picture of David Tennant?


3 responses to “Sound affects”

  1. Jo Carroll says:

    I so agree. I read descriptions of people, but they wash over me – I have my own image in my head and would be horrified if, a few pages on, there was a photo and they looked different!

    The great thing about books is how they become something slightly different in the head of every reader. We all bring our own dreams and prejudices and they colour our reading as well as our writing. We hear our own sounds, smell our own smells, savour words in our own heads. Please – let’s not change that.

    But you can include a photo of David Tennant any time you like! Who needs excuses?

  2. Yes, totally agree. I have argued for years with a certain proponent of adding all kinds of bells and whistles to e-books. He thinks I’m a Luddite, I think – I think he’s a party-pooper. The fun of being a reader is using your imagination. If you wanted to hear all the sound effects, you could listen to a radio play. (I assume you will be able to turn them off, though?)

  3. Geraldine says:

    What happened to imagination – the reader’s as well as the author’s? I usually have a ‘picture’ of a character or a place in my head as I’m reading – based on the author’s description, but then adding my own ‘visual effects’. I tend not to have a real person as my character – more an outline of their form, their face etc. The exception might be books where I’ve seen the film of the book, and then the actor tends to come – unbidden – to play their character at the next reading. I can live with that – but otherwise I’d like my mind left alone to conjure up its preferred sights and sounds – thanks all the same.

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