Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
28 August 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 12:56pm

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

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

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