Audio books

Francis Gilbert wonders how William Blake would respond to tomes on tape

For William Blake the ear was "a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in" and "a golden ascent winding round to the heaven of heavens". Despite his pictorial talents, Blake perceived the ear, and not the eye, as the most important human organ - listening solely to the spoken word and sound allows the imagination to roam free, to create worlds which lie beyond the visual and the tactile, to conjure up the truly spiritual. If Blake were alive today, he'd definitely be beavering away at making audio books of his poems. He'd be using every technique possible to enliven his poetry: music, sound effects, sound distortion, and multiple voices and choruses, too.

Unfortunately, the poems of Blake which are currently on tape do not live up to these high ideals. Nicol Williamson's reading (William Blake: poems read by Nicol Williamson, HarperCollins, ISBN 1 56511 163 X, £9.99) is freaky, plummy and wretchedly inadequate; while Penguin's tape (William Blake: selected poems read by various readers, Penguin Audiobooks, ISBN 0 14 086572 1, £8.99, two cassettes) is part of a homogenised series of "classic" readings which have the same dour, unenlightened actor-readers, dreadful music and lifeless biographical commentary for each poet. The most recent addition to this series is Byron, who suffers from this homogenisation as much as his near contemporary, Blake (Lord Byron: selected poems read by various readers, Penguin Audiobooks, ISBN 0 14 086578 0, £8.99, two cassettes).

So where are these Blakean ideals of audio book production to be found? Generally, blandness and apathy prevail in the world of audio books, but there is a little rebellious corner fighting for the imagination: Naxos AudioBooks.

As part of the budget classical CD company Naxos, Nicolas Soames, the managing director, is able to draw upon an amazing back catalogue to provide music for each audio book. "Sometimes," he says, "music can say more than a page of text in conjuring up a certain mood." This is certainly the case in its most recent releases: Byrd and Dowland's music brilliantly evokes the chivalrous atmosphere of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, (Selections from the Faerie Queene read by John Moffat, Naxos AudioBooks, ISBN 962634159 9, £9.99 cassette, £13.99 CD), while Rameau definitely assists in conjuring up the polite boisterousness of Cleland's Fanny Hill. (Fanny Hill read by Emma Fielding, Naxos AudioBooks, ISBN 962634160 2, £9.99 cassette, £13.99 CD).

But it is in its adaptations of the difficult modernist classics where Naxos really comes into its own. In 1994 the company released its wonderfully accessible adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses (read by Jim Norton, Naxos AudioBooks, ISBN 962634511 10, £11.99 cassette, £16.99 CD).

The extraordinary combination of swirling sound effects, Dublin drinking songs, classical music, masterful abridgement by the Joyce scholar and composer Roger Marsh and a virtuoso reading from Jim Norton make this the best audio book I've encountered: I had never fully appreciated the true poignancy and humour of Joyce's text until I heard this. It deserves many repeat listenings.

Soames has followed up this triumph with the recent release of Joyce's Finnegans Wake (also read by Jim Norton, Naxos AudioBooks, ISBN 962634163 7, £15.99 cassette, £19.99 CD), using the same production team but providing a booklet containing the abridged text so that the visual puns as well the aural ones can be appreciated. Norton's true genius comes to the fore here: listening to him reading this is like watching someone dive down Niagara Falls and survive.

More than anyone else in the industry, Soames understands the true art of audio book production. He sees that the producer is more like a film director adapting a novel for the screen than simply someone who has to find an "abridger", and that when done well, an audio book is far more spectacular and meaningful than a celluloid adaptation of a literary classic.

One hopes that Naxos AudioBooks can flourish in an increasingly commercial market. At the moment, the annual earnings from audio books in the UK is £50 million - but insiders predict that the market share could double or even triple in the next few years. Unlike in the United States, which has a much healthier audio book market, retailers don't quite know how to sell the products: very few shops have a decent range of what's on offer.

And there are still a few problems that retailers have to overcome if they are really going to rake in the profits. First, what do you call the product? Audio books, spoken word or books on tape? Second, how do you promote it? Do you promote the author, the production or the brand name of the publisher?

Audio books receive very little coverage in the press, with only two national papers running regular - but small - review slots for them. As a result, publishers tend to rely on celebrity authors, titles or readers to sell them. The biggest publicity coup of the year was the audio release of Tom Wolfe's Ambush at Fort Bragg (BBC Radio Collection, ISBN 563 55791 5, £9.99).

Wolfe's satire on the world of the American media is clumsy, but savaging television in an exclusively audio format - there was no print version of the work - was a good idea and one can understand why an industry somewhat starved of publicity awarded it the 1998 Talkie of the Year, the audio book equivalent of the Booker. Perhaps it will encourage a few other serious writers to outdo Wolfe and write a tale for audio of which William Blake would have been proud.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!