Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’: The Man Booker Goes to an American, and Deservedly So

Three years ago, the Man Booker Prize, previously the domain of authors born in the Commonwealth, opened its door to the rest of the world. Now the nightmare of Anglocentric purists has come true: the Prize has been won by, heaven forbid, an American!

Still, if there’s going to be a prizewinner from this side of the Atlantic, the Booker’s judges would have been hard pressed to choose a more worthy winner: Paul Beatty, who has been awarded the prize for his riotous novel The Sellout. Beatty’s novel is quintessentially American, in that it’s a satirical examination of this country’s history of racial discrimination and how that history affects the country today. But its impact reverberates beyond America’s racial peculiarities and has a great deal to say about the treatment of people of color the world over.

It’s also a resounding victory for Beatty’s publisher, Oneworld, and more generally, for American writers who exist outside the bubble of high-end Manhattan imprints and New Yorker reviews. As our prodigal ex-Editor-at-Large Michelle Dean, now at the Guardian, wrote this morning: “Beatty’s book is not the kind of book that American publishers, even literary ones, are typically betting on these days… There is nothing wrong with wanting to publish – or read – books that have a wide potential audience. But it does generate a certain plodding sameness of tone and subject matter that plagues a lot of contemporary American fiction. Beatty’s win might just shake that up, a bit.”

Quite so. The fragmented, disorienting nature of The Sellout‘s narrative reminded this reader of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as did the book’s ability to be both laugh-out-loud hilarious and genuinely disturbing, often at the same time. There’s no merit in being Difficult for the sake of it, but Beatty’s work is exuberantly challenging because that’s what the subject matter requires. Ambition is always welcome in a writer, and it’s a genuine delight to see The Sellout get the recognition it richly deserves.