Bennett goes straight to tape

THE playwright Alan Bennett, the cherished family favourite who brought the plaintive voice of Eeyore to your car stereo, may one day also be remembered as the pioneer of a new art form.

His first-ever work of narrative fiction, The Clothes They Stood Up In, published this month, will not appear in book form. Instead the short comic novel, or novella, has been put out on tape as an "audio book".

Bennett's decision to eschew the literary kudos of hardback publication and to read his own words aloud to his public follows the huge commercial success of audio tapes in which he read from his diaries and from A A Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories. The tape of the series of dramatic monologues, Talking Heads, featuring Dames Thora Hird and Maggie Smith, and which Bennet wrote, is the best-selling talking book ever, with total UK sales of 115,000.

The remarkable appetite for audio books in this country means that sales of spoken-word cassettes, as they are known, have increased 20-fold from pounds 3.5 million in 1990 to pounds 67 million last year.

But there is also a middle-weight literary precedent for Bennett's move. This summer Tom Wolfe, the American author of Bonfire of the Vanities published his new novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg, exclusively on tape. The story, which tells of three soldiers who are captured on film by hidden cameras as they investigate the murder of a gay soldier, contains a predictably higher proportion of swearwords than Bennett's work. But the shock for Wolfe's fans lay in his decision to snub book form.

It looks then as if the growing market for literature on tape format could bring about a revival of the novella through the back door. The normal audio tape has room for about 30 thousand spoken words and no more - about a third of the length of a normal novel.

Patricia Ingham, a former professor of English at Oxford who reviews audio books for Radio 4's Books and Company, believes the chance to talk directly to readers will have an increasing appeal for authors.

"The advantages are that the novella is always a difficult length to get into print. I also think what writers really like is the chance to have control over their own words," she says.

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