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28 August 2019updated 04 Apr 2023 3:47pm

Why the BBC is producing audiobooks

By Antonia Quirke

Reports of a 43 per cent surge in audiobook sales last year come as no surprise to anybody listening to BBC Radio these past months, and noticing the growing number of ads for its own recordings (from Michelle Obama’s memoir to Proust). For some reason the Corporation guards its actual listening figures in this area like Netflix (ie it won’t give any). But here’s the gist: this could be bigger than podcasts. It’s a near-limitless theatre.

Should you use just one actor to voice a whole novel? (But with more time taken over it now – more directing, more preparation.) Or several actors, and sound effects too? Of course there’s already a Raiders of the Lost Ark-sized hangar of BBC recordings of books by established actors who went on to become even bigger stars, such as Damian Lewis’s confident, studious pre-Billions rendition of John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams.

But one new area is particularly thrilling: already published books, finely abridged into walk-to-the-shops-long chapters, read by the author. Jon Ronson’s eviscerating new reading of his 2015 collection of essays, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – about public shaming online and off – is in his own mouth no less than a thriller, and more so than any other readings he’s done of it. In a single phrase in this rendition, Ronson can go from sounding like Adrian Mole, to someone curiously and profoundly isolated, despite a career built on speaking to people and getting them to trust him. Maybe it’s the short chapters, but you notice every microbic inflection, so phenomenally raw does it sound.

In one episode, Ronson recalls a time when his online identity was stolen. He describes meeting his fascistic oppressors (a handful of academics who infuriatingly blame algorithms) and appealing to them to stop tweeting in his name (“I would like it to not exist!”). Panic and fury choke Ronson’s throat. His voice is altered; the memory is killing him. This is four years after publication, away from sales campaigns and publishing drives. Just distinctive writing, distinctively read by the author for no reason other than such things ought to exist. Such stuff our ears were made for. 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
BBC Sounds

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler