Paul Beatty wins Man Booker Prize, a first for an American writer

Although I haven’t read Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, I will now, for it’s just won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. I’ve found the Booker Prize a reliable source for good literature: that’s the way I originally came upon Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet (its sequel, Staying On, won the Booker in 1977), a book that I keep recommending to people and which nobody ever reads (note that Christopher Hitchens also thought the book was marvelous). Other Booker winners I loved were Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), part of her Regeneration Triology, a mesmerizing account of soldiers and their psychiatric treatment in World War I (read all three books), and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002, I haven’t seen the movie), which was a masterpiece of imaginative fiction despite its religious overtones. Finally, although Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam (1998), I still prefer his runner-up novel Atonement (2001), one of the finest books of the last several decades.

The New York Times describes Beatty’s award:

Paul Beatty’s novel “The Sellout,” a blistering satire about race in America, won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the first time an American writer has won the award.

The five Booker judges, who were unanimous in their decision, cited the novel’s inventive comic approach to the thorny issues of racial identity and injustice.

With its outrageous premise and unabashed skewering of racial stereotypes, “The Sellout” is an audacious choice for the judges, who oversee one of the most prestigious awards in literature.

“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, the head of the judging panel, said at a press briefing in London before the winner was announced. “It plunges into the heart of contemporary American society.”

And a precis of the plot:

The novel’s narrator is an African-American urban farmer and pot smoker who lives in a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Brought up by a single father, a sociologist, the narrator grew up taking part in psychological studies about race. After his father is killed by the police during a traffic stop, the protagonist embarks on a controversial social experiment of his own, and ends up before the Supreme Court.

He becomes a slave owner to a willing volunteer, an elderly man named Hominy Jenkins who once played understudy to Buckwheat on “The Little Rascals,” and seeks to reinstate segregation in a local school.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Beatty waded into the raging debate about cultural appropriation. “Anybody can write what they want,” he said. “Cultural appropriation goes every direction.’’

Yay for that last remark! Beatty was able to win because although the Booker used to be restricted only to authors from Britian, Ireland, and other Commonwealth countries, it’s now open to any novel written in English and published in Britain.

And do read The Raj Quartet! It is the greatest unappreciated English novel (or, rather, five novels) of the twentieth century.

Here are all the nominees; caption and photo from WSFA12.

The Man Booker prize short list writers pose for the media, with the books ,they are from the left-Paul Beatty, "The Sellout", Deborah Levy , "Hot Milk" Graeme Macrae Burnet, "His Bloody Project", Ottessa Moshfegh "Eileen", David Szalay "All That Man Is", and Madeleine Thien, "Do Not Say We Have Nothing", during a photocall for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in London, Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. This will be the third year the £50,000 (61,000 US$), prize has been open to any writer, writing originally in English and published in the UK, irrespective of nationality.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The Man Booker prize short list writers pose for the media, with the books ,they are from the left-Paul Beatty, “The Sellout”, Deborah Levy , “Hot Milk” Graeme Macrae Burnet, “His Bloody Project”, Ottessa Moshfegh “Eileen”, David Szalay “All That Man Is”, and Madeleine Thien, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”, during a photocall for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in London, Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. This will be the third year the £50,000 (61,000 US$), prize has been open to any writer, writing originally in English and published in the UK, irrespective of nationality.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

34 Comments

  1. Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    I did start out on the Raj Quartet, based on your recommendation.

    I did not (yet) finish it. (At least at the time of reading — a year or two ago) I found it a degree too detailed, too slow, too intently focused on the detailed interactions of the Anglo and Indian characters.

    I’m sure these are much of the point and charm and importance of the book; but for me, it just didn’t work — at least at the first reading.

    I got about 100-200 pages in before stopping.

    Call me a cretin! 🙂

    • John Taylor
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard that book reading leads to sin anyways. Giving it up is probably for the best.

      • Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Oh I read, all the time.

        No TV. Haven’t since 1987.

  2. Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I am currently reading Middlemarch on your recommendation. Thank you, I’m loving it. I will eventually get to The Raj Quartet, I promise, but first I’ll need to take a short break from 800+ page novels and then go in for Anna Karenina, which I sadly have never read.

    Also, no mention of Midnight’s Children, winner of Best of the Bookers? I loved that book.

  3. rwilsker
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I just pulled down “The Sellout” yesterday.

    I agree on McEwan – I found “Amsterdam” a bit too snarky, predictable, and mean-spirited. The two protagonists were both drawn so archly that one could have little sympathy or emotional connection to either one.

    “Atonement” was much better, though I felt it suffered a bit from the “Sixth Sense” syndrome, where much of the emotional punch comes from a twist.

    I’ll read anything by Margaret Atwood, though (a previous Man Booker award winner).

  4. Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Just picked up Vol. 1 of the Quartet* and Atonement for my Kindle.

    I truly am hopeless! 🙂

    (* I had been reading a single-volume HB set of all four books.)

  5. Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Trying to follow Da Roolz and not put in too many comments; but I thought you might enjoy the fact that I am now reading WEIT for the third time and enjoying it very much!

  6. Merilee
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I have been reading all of the Booker short-listers for the past few years and the winners for the last two years, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings ( centers on Bob Marley), and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North ( vaguely Bridge over River KwAi story) have both been extraordinarily good. I am looking forward to this latest one. Thst said, I think the selection committee has come up with some doozies in their short lists. Last year’s A Little Life, by Hanya Y…, is an avoid-like-the-plaguer: the first 300 pages being a well-written chronicle of 4 young male friends growing up in NYC, turning into 500 additional pages of all kinds of abuse, self- and otherwise, of one of these men. Repetitive, dreary, unlikely, imho. Don’t get me wrong: the Marley and the Flanagan are both very violent, but with a purpose. A Little Life, not so much.

  7. Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    No real comment, other than that I found _Life of Pi_ overrated. Like the Mona Lisa, I found its reputation way out of proportion to how it actually turned out to be. Both are very good, but not “world shatteringly awesome”.

  8. eric
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    The only one of JAC’s mentions that I’ve read was Life of Pi. I found it interesting, but not particularly memorable.
    I’m currently reading Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. It’s good, but the author has an annoying tendency to go from interesting and deep ideas one moment to weird and crazy ideas the next. It took me a couple hundred pages to figure out whether I liked it or not. But overall, the interestings outweigh the crazies.

    • Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Interesting eric: My reactions to both of those books were identical to yours!

      I couldn’t finish Sapiens for that reason.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      I really enjoyed Sapiens.

    • TJR
      Posted October 27, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      Yes, Sapiens is a fun read but its definitely not scholarly serious history, its the sort of thing a scholar might say in the pub after a few pints.

      Come to think of it, several things in there are exactly what I’ve said in the pub after a few pints.

  9. Frank Bath
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I read and enjoyed McEwan’s ‘Atonement’. If you haven’t seen it watch the movie which is superb. The long tracking shot of the Tommies waiting to be lifted off the beaches at Dunkirk is one of the most moving things I’ve seen on the screen. With true Brit acting talent all the way through.

    • Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      +1 (Agree on all points on the movie — haven’t read the book yet.)

  10. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Completely agree about the Raj Quartet. A fine account of a fascinating time in the history of both the British Empire (in its death throws) and India (at its outset as an independent nation).

  11. Billy Bl.
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I also rely on award winners (Booker, Giller, Governor General’s, Nobel, Hugo) for my reading material. Recommendations too often disappoint, but then, so do some of the award winners.

    • Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      My most consistently enjoyed books that have won prizes are those that have won the Pulitzer Prize. 100% satisfaction for those so far.

      • Merilee
        Posted October 26, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Did you read All the Light You Cannot See whic won last year, I believe? I found it unbearably smarmy. Most Pulitzers have been pretty good, though.

        • Posted October 27, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

          I have not. The thought of the basic plot/idea makes me think I will find it too depressing. Several family members have read it and liked it but didn’t love it.

          • Merilee
            Posted October 27, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            Not overly depressing but overly sentimental imho.

  12. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I have to confess that I have rather gone off contemporary fiction. Too much of it is redolent of the Creative Writing course and of earnest library research. Having said that, Beatty’s book sounds good, and I will probably give it a go.

    I fully support PCC(E)’s enthusiasm for the Raj Quartet (and the sequel). But it is slow-burn stuff and the reader has to be patient. Scott’s earlier books are interesting, although nowhere near as good, but one can see the rising curve of competence leading up to his masterpieces.

  13. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    The prize has only been open to Americans for a couple of years. From Wikipedia :

    From its inception, only Commonwealth, Irish, and Zimbabwean citizens were eligible to receive the prize; in 2014, however, this eligibility was widened to any English-language novel.

    That initial constraint probably reflects some idea about promoting the British publishing and writing industries.
    Of the various books mentioned by various people, I’ve read a Margaret Atwood (Handmaid, obviously), and heard parts of the serialisation of others on the radio, and not bothered to even remember their names, let alone their subjects in any detail. But I’ve got a James Hogan to take back to the library, and that’s an author I’m not going to waste eyeball-seconds on again.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    sub

    • Merilee
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      Saw Beatty interviewed by Jeff Brown on the NewsHour tonight. Bright, likeable guy.

  15. Rupinder
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    I’d never heard of The Raj Quartet!! I’m going to read it next.

  16. Rhonda
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    I’ve asked Santa to bring me The Raj Quartet (good used copies) for Christmas. Thank you for helping him!

  17. Ray Leonard
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    All great books which I’m happy to say I’ve read too (except The Sellout which sounds intriguing! On a contrary note you say that the competition was “only to authors from Britian, Ireland, and other Commonwealth countries”. Ireland is not a Commonwealth country as inferred by the “other”.

  18. barael
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    I’m a couple hours into to the Raj Quartet as well, bought on the recommendation of PCC!

  19. Stephanie Mayer
    Posted October 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I read The Raj Quartet after watching the fabulous BBC series The Jewel in the Crown in the mid 1980s. I was so sad when I got to the end of both; I wanted them to go on forever!

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 29, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      Hard to believe that series was so long ago! I have indelible memories of it.

  20. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted November 6, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I just finished the Raj Quartet on PCC’s recommendation and I quite enjoyed it!


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