Parsing the Parsecs: Proposing a New Taxonomy of Podcast Fiction

So I assume we’ve all seen the WIRED article, right? This one: the one really excited that podcast fiction is “finally” a thing?

Evidently, they’ve overlooked that podcast fiction kicked off in 2005, and that 2007-2009 was arguably the Golden Age of the Podcast Novel. In fact, the origins and development of the genre were the topic of a massive essay I wrote at Stonecoast. I suspect others will be doing overviews of podcasts from 2005-2012, so… I’d like to share a different portion of my essay, one that proposes a new means by which to classify the genre.

ACADEMIA

Academia!

II. Parsing the Parsecs: Proposing a New Taxonomy of Podcast Fiction

Despite the genre’s significant development over the past decade, few attempts have been made to rigorously classify podcast fiction. Nevertheless, there is a generally understood difference between “full cast podcasts” and “straight reads.”[1] A “full cast podcast” generally refers to a fully scored and produced podcast novel featuring the use of numerous actors, as in the case of Morevi, Chasing the Bard, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City, et al. By contrast, a “straight read” features a single reader and minimal production. Mur Lafferty’s Heaven series is thus a “straight read,” alongside numerous audio fiction magazines such as the Escape Artists’ triumvirate—Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod—and the Clarkesworld podcast.

However, the distinction between “straight read” and “full cast” is ultimately limiting, particularly within the field of “full cast” podcast fiction. “Full cast,” as it appears in general usage, obscures the distinction between fully-produced, fully-casted podcast novels, and fully-produced, fully-casted audio dramas. Adhering strictly to a straight read/full cast binary, both Morevi and We’re Alive could be considered full cast podcasts. However, Morevi was originally released as a print novel, and relies heavily on narration to tell the story. As such, it undertakes a fundamentally different approach to storytelling than does We’re Alive, which instead lies primarily on dialogue, performance, and sound, with minimal narrative segments.

This difference between podcast novel and audio drama is recognized by the Parsec Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction Podcasting. There, the primary distinction amongst podcasts is not between straight read/full cast, but rather between “story” and “audio drama.” According to the Parsecs’ 2015 category descriptions, a story “…uses narration as its primary means to convey scene and action,” whereas in an audio drama, “Storytelling is effected through the dialogue of its characters and sound effects/scenery presenting action and scene as it’s [sic] primary mechanism.”[2] While these categories differentiate between the two major approaches to storytelling within podcast fiction, they also have certain limitations. Specifically, there is perhaps insufficient nuance in the “story” category.

For example, the 2014 category “Best Speculative Fiction Story: Small Cast (Short Form),” included both the stories “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot,” (author Michael Spence, podcasted on Tales from the Archives) and “Growth Spurt,” (author Paul Lorello, podcasted on Pseudopod).[3] However, while both “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” and “Growth Spurt” are indeed small cast, short stories, they function very differently. Despite being small cast, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” adopts the production values associated with “full cast” podcasts: music and complex sound effects to denote an aethergate are particularly noticeable.[4] Conversely, “Growth Spurt” has a single reader, no music, and no sound effects. [5] Despite being in the same category, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” is essentially a “full cast” podcast with a very small cast, whereas “Growth Spurt” is a straight read.

Thus, neither a full cast/straight read nor audio drama/story dichotomy is sufficient to classify podcast fiction. The full cast/straight read binary obscures the artistic differences between audio book and audio drama (though again, this difference is understood in general parlance[6]), while focusing on that distinction to the exclusion of all else overlooks the many variances in production amongst podcast stories.

As such, this paper proposes a new taxonomy for podcast fiction. Examining the genre broadly, it is evident that some podcasts (PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Jim Kelly’s Free Reads, Heaven) use audio primarily as a means of distribution, whereas for others (Hidden Harbour Mysteries, The Antithesis Progression, We’re Alive, The Leviathan Chronicles), sound is integral to the story itself—whether the podcast in question is an audio book or audio drama. Therefore, this paper proposes classifying podcasts not by “full cast/straight read,” or by “audio drama/story,” but rather, by “read fiction” and “performed fiction.” “Performed fiction” relies on the use of dramatic techniques to tell the story—that is, music, sound effects, and acting— while “read fiction” does not. The category of “performed fiction” can then be subdivided into “audio drama” and “audio story,” under the same criteria utilized by the Parsecs. This classification, therefore, combines both the commonly-understood distinction between straight read and full cast, along with the Parsecs’ observance of stories and dramas as separate genres.

However, this means of classifying podcasts is not intended as a strict binary. Rather, conceiving of podcast fiction as a spectrum more accurately reflects the vast array of podcasts that have been produced. At one extreme are those stories which are read by a single narrator, without music, acting, or sound effects. Indeed, such stories might not have originally been intended for audio distribution at all. In its submissions guidelines, Pseudopod states, “We do not discriminate between previously published and unpublished works…we encourage new authors to send their work to other markets first, and then send it to us for audio rights after the story has appeared.”[7] Thus, the stories it solicits are not necessarily written with podcasting in mind, unlike We’re Alive or Hidden Harbor [ETA: Or Six Stories, Told At Night]. As such, the performance is not an integral part of those stories—they lose very little when experienced as pure text.

The shift from read to performed podcast fiction occurs as a result of the use of dramatic techniques. Music, sound effects, and voice acting are used to communicate setting, atmosphere, and character in addition to what is already suggested by the text. Thus, reading and listening to performed narratives are ultimately very different experiences.  The key distinction between read and performed narratives therefore lies not in the amount of dramatic techniques used, but rather, in their importance to the story. For instance, it is fairly common to have musical interludes introduce and finish segments of audiobooks; however, they have little impact on the storytelling. By contrast, the now-removed podcast Weather Child had relatively light scoring and sound effects, and a cast of two. As these elements were integral, Weather Child was nevertheless performed. This is particularly evident when considering its use of voice acting to portray character.

The use of voice acting is the most telling characteristic of performed fiction. Acting necessarily denotes performance. However, it is misleading to deem a read narrative “performance” when the reader has simply used different voices to distinguish characters. Here, this paper draws a distinction between “reading with voices” and “voice acting.” While reading, the reader speaks like the character. While performing, the actor speaks as the character. Admittedly, this distinction contains a certain amount of subjectivity, but it is generally useful.

For example, the podcast novels Weaver’s Web (Philippa Ballantine) and Ancestor (Scott Sigler) are both read by a single voice. However, Ballantine offers performances of her characters—this is particularly evident in her portrayal of the Weavers.[8] Sigler can affect accents and emotions effectively—as in the case of troubled geneticist Lu Jian Dan[9]—but ultimately, the difference is one of kind rather than degree. While some allowance should be made for a reader/actor’s particular skill, the difference between reading and acting is ultimately one of intention rather than talent.

Having determined the importance of voice acting in distinguishing podcast works as performed fiction, it is now necessary to examine the distinctions between performed narrative and audio drama. As the name suggests, performed narratives are primarily told through narration, whereas audio dramas are told through sound. This paper agrees with the general definitions put forth by the Parsec Awards. [10] However, this paper maintains that performed narratives fall along a spectrum. Weaver’s Web lies at one extreme: it is a performance due to its use of voice acting, but relies almost entirely on narration. Conversely, Hidden Harbor Mysteries is explicitly presented as a 1930s radio play.[11] Therefore, it is unquestionably a drama­. Not only is there minimal narration, but the narrator himself is another character. Yet between these two extremes fall podcasts such as The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, Metamor City: Making the Cut, and The Antithesis Progression. Sound is more integral to the storytelling than would be the case in a strict narrative, yet there is more narration than would be incorporated into a drama.

Thus, using these distinctions and taxonomy, one might say that We’re Alive is a large-cast audio drama, Weaver’s Web is a solo performed narrative, and “England Under the White Witch,” by Theodora Goss, as read by Kate Baker on Clarkesworld, is a read short story.

[1] Bryan Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, accessed March 26, 2015.

[2] “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.  <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/&gt;

[3] “2014 Parsec Award Winners and Finalists,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.

<http://www.parsecawards.com/past-awards/2014-parsec-awards-winners-finalists/&gt;

[4] Michael Spence, Why the Sea is Boiling Hot, podcast audio, Tales from the Archives Vol. III, edited Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, MP3, 24:30-32:30, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/2014/03/25/tales-from-the-archives-iii-three/&gt;

[5]Paul Lorello, Growth Spurt, podcast audio, Pseudopod, edited Shaun M. Garrett, MP3, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://pseudopod.org/2013/10/25/pseudopod-357-growth-spurt/&gt;

[6] Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, 35:06.

[7] Shaun M. Garrett, “Submission Guidelines,” Pseudopod, accessed March 28, 2015, <http://pseudopod.org/guidelines/&gt;

[8] Philippa Ballantine, Episode 13, podcast audio, Weaver’s Web, MP3, 15:07, accessed March 20, 2015. <http://podiobooks.com/title/weavers-web/&gt;

[9] Scott Sigler, Episode 5, podcast audio, Ancestor, MP3, 11:50, accessed March 30, 2014. <http://podiobooks.com/title/ancestor/&gt;

[10] “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.  <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/&gt;

[11] Jay Smith and Bryan Lincoln. “Welcome to Hidden Harbor,” Hidden Harbor Mysteries, accessed March 30, 2015. <http://zebrapix.wix.com/hiddenharbor&gt;

*****

So I’m still not entirely sure where Six Stories, Told at Night falls…but since it’s performed, and uses a lot of narrative – a solo performed piece?

Also, Tee Morris and I made this awesome infographic detailing other fiction podcasts pre-dating Welcome to Night Vale’s 2012 launch. Check it out, and discover some other cool listens!

Infographic-PodcastFiction

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

Sometimes, there’s  a song that I don’t even remember stumbling across. Amy MacDonald’s “This is the Life,” for instance. I heard this first back in high school, and it’s popped up again. Not my usual style, but quite enjoyable!

Posted on August 29, 2016, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “Six Stories” is indeed a solo performed work. Monologues are no less dramatic, when acted, than dialogues; otherwise Hamlet has been gulling us all these centuries.

    Hot dang, I’m a FOOTNOTE! An academic’s dream come true!

    For what it’s worth, I’d say a significant part of “Why the Sea Is Boiling Hot” truly is performed, because Pip Ballantine is a more accomplished actor than I am and brought out with her characterizations what I was trying to suggest verbally. Both Sir Carroll and the agent of his comeuppance are at their best when heard, and Pip made them shine.

    • You’re a footnote in a GRADUATE SCHOOL paper that James Patrick Kelly called, “Groundbreaking.”

      I think “Why The Sea is Boiling Hot” is a performed narrative. Again, I find the current categories can obscure certain nuances…

  2. “Six Stories” is indeed a solo performed work. Monologue is no less dramatic than dialogue, else Prince Hamlet’s been gulling us for lo these many centuries.

    Hot dang, I’m a FOOTNOTE! An academic’s dream come true!

    I’m convinced the “Why the Sea Is Boiling Hot” podcast truly is performed: Pip Ballantine is a far more accomplished actor than I am, and she brought out vocally the elements that I tried to suggest verbally, particularly in the characterizations of Sir Carroll and the agent of his comeuppance. Pip made them shine.

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