It's a victory for satire as the world’s celebrated prize takes the literary world by surprise. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a radical choice, but it’s hilarious and high-calibre, says Lucy Scholes.

The Sellout

Earlier this week, and before the winner of this year’s man Booker Prize had been announced, Stav Sherez wrote an interesting piece in the Spectator, contemplating the chances of two of the shortlisted titles—Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet—both of which are crimes novels, a genre that’s not usually considered ‘literary’.

But, as Sherez reminds his readers, last year’s winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, was a "stone-cold crime novel," even if this wasn’t widely acknowledged by either the judges or many reviewers. So, he concluded, might the tide be turning?

Last night’s win for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a razor-sharp satire that tears down any claims that America is a post-racial idyll, might not have furthered the cause of the crime novel, but it is a victory for another genre: comedy.

As the author and critic Andy Miller pointed out on Twitter, it’s a truly “radical” choice on the part of the judges, “not least because it is really, really funny. Blows the prize wide open. Brilliant.” Comedy, however good—and Beatty is at the top of his game, a glowing review in The New York Times carried the words “caustic” and “badass”—is far too often simply not considered serious art.

Read more about the Booker Prize long list

The Sellout
Winner Paul Beatty at the awards ceremony. Image via Vulture

Something we also see all too often in the world of film too: take Julianne Moore, for example, who wins an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, a damp dishcloth of a feature, but whose fabulous, and far better, comic turn as a Nordic academic in Maggie’s Plan, would never even be considered for the same accolade.

Thus, in the same way that James’s win showed us that there can be more to crime fiction than meets the eye, Beatty’s win changes the game for another under-appreciated genre.

In fact, it’s a hugely significant win in a multitude of ways. Far too often the Booker Prize is famous for its controversies rather than the calibre of its winning titles. As early as 1972, only three years after the award’s humble beginnings, John Berger used his acceptance speech to condemn the original sponsor, the UK-based food conglomerate Booker McConnell, for their historical involvement in the slave trade (historically, much of their trade was in sugar).

There are always people eager to publically shoot down the winner and the winning title, from poor Penelope Fitzgerald in 1979 who appeared on the BBC’s Book Programme, supposedly to celebrate her win for Offshore.  Instead, she had to endure listening to the other guests, and host, agreeing that the best book didn’t win and the judges had made the wrong choice. Later came Carmen Callil’s criticism of the 1997 winner, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, as a “vulgar” and “execrable” book that shouldn’t, in her opinion, have even made the shortlist.

 

 

"If the Man Booker Prize is to mean anything today, then this is precisely the kind of book it should be championing"

 

 

The judges themselves aren’t immune from casting aspersions on the entire process. While a judge in 2001, A. L. Kennedy decried the prize as being shamefully awarded on a basis of "who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is."

Indeed, the more winners one reads, the more one becomes convinced of the inherent subjectivity involved. Julian Barnes was spot-on when he famously described it as “posh bingo.” (Barnes, incidentally, was the somewhat unlucky winner of 2011’s “readability” year for The Sense of an Ending, effectively undermining the judges’ criteria since he was the only traditionally Booker-esque novelist on the shortlist.)

Anyway, my point is that whatever choice the judges make is bound to irk someone, if not a whole throng of people, and that’s precisely what seems to garner the most attention. This year’s choice, however, makes for a fascinating exception to the rule.

Beatty is the first American author to take home the prize, three years after it opened its doors to US writers in a move that many skeptics believed was uncalled for, fearing the exclusion of lesser-known British and Commonwealth writers as big name US authors took their places on the long and shortlists.

However, not only has this not happened but Beatty is a far cry from the likes of the dreaded Jonathan Franzen et al. Beatty is an African-American author and the novel he’s been afforded this honour for is one of the most biting and daring pieces of race-relations satire to come out of the US.

He’s not only a brilliant writer, but, love it or loathe it, it’s a genuinely exciting and important book, especially at a time when black American voices, and lives, are crying out to be heard and acknowledged.

If the Man Booker Prize is to mean anything today, if it’s to be recognised as an award that, as it purports to, truly celebrates “the best original novel” written each year, then this is precisely the kind of book it should be championing.

 

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