October 27, 2016
US author wins the UK’s most prestigious literary prize
by Nikki Griffiths
Paul Beatty has become the first ever American to win the the Man Booker Prize, the leading literary award for fiction written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. Beatty received the award (which comes with £50,000) for his novel The Sellout, accepting it from the Duchess of Cornwall last Tuesday at London’s Guildhall. This marks the second Man Booker in a row for Beatty’s British publisher, Oneworld, after last year’s winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings.
The Man Booker is notoriously hard to predict, and The Sellout was not the favourite on this year’s shortlist. Before the announcement, Alison Flood reported for the Guardian on the odds according to British bookmakers:
At the bookies, however, Thien’s story of a young woman who has fled the Tiananmen Square protests in China, and who is invited into the home of 10-year-old Marie and her mother, is out in front. Do Not Say We Have Nothing was backed from 12/1 to 7/4 favourite at William Hill, and is also 2/1 favourite at Ladbrokes. William Hill has Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk at 11/4, His Bloody Project at 4/1, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout at 5/1, David Szalay’s All That Man Is at 7/1 and Eileen at 8/1 to win the prize.
When it came to what the public was buying and reading, it seems the clear winner was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Chantelle Semester wrote for the Mirror that according to data released by Amazon UK, sales of four of the shortlisted titles rose by 200% after the announcement was made, but His Bloody Project saw an increase of 316% on the Kindle store.
Chris White, the Waterstones fiction buyer, told Flood:
Our bestselling title by some distance is His Bloody Project. A cracking plot combined with the literary kudos bestowed upon it by the Booker judges seems to have created a kind of commercial alchemy — which has made it not only our bestselling Booker title but one of our bestselling titles full stop.
However, it was Beatty’s biting racial satire that ultimately won the night. His novel tells the story of a young black man with plans for reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school in a suburb of Los Angeles. They land him in the Supreme Court.
So what was it about The Sellout that marked it apart according to the judges? Amanda Foreman, who chaired this year’s Man Booker panel, told the Guardian’s Mark Brown it was the book’s mix of satire and honesty that made it special:
The Sellout is one of those very rare books: which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunges it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain.
It manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow. While making us laugh, it also makes us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time.
Beatty, who lives in New York City, is the author of three previous novels — Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle. The Man Booker prize has being running for forty-eight years, but only three years ago were the rules to changed to allow a writer of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK, to be eligible. Beatty told the BBC the morning after his win: ‘“Writing’s given me a life. It’s nice to know that something I’ve worked on for the last five years, if not more, has touched people, not only in the States but in the UK. That’s incredible.”
Favourite or not, a huge boost in sales is on the way, with the book currently hitting the number one spot on Amazon.co.uk and number two on Amazon.com.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.