Novelist Paul Beatty Is First American To Win Britain's Man Booker Prize

Oct 25, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 7:33 am

For the first time, an American has won the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most coveted literary award. Paul Beatty will take home the award and the purse, 50,000 pounds (about $61,000), for his novel The Sellout, a satire about race in the U.S. Amanda Foreman, chair of the judges, called the book "a novel for our times," and said Beatty "slays sacred cows with abandon and takes aim at racial and political taboos with verve and a snarl."

The Man Booker judges chose a distinctly American story for its first American winner. The narrator of The Sellout is a black man from a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The town is so down-and-out that it is being taken off the map. In response the narrator, known as Bonbon, re-instates both slavery and segregation in the town. Those moves land him at the Supreme Court where the books begins. At this evening's award ceremony in London, Beatty told the crowd that the book had been hard to write and he added, "I know it's hard to read." That may be true but it's also very funny. The Sellout has been called "a comic masterpiece."

Beatty was one of two Americans up for the Man Booker Prize this year. Until recently it had only been awarded to writers from the United Kingdom or Commonwealth countries. But three years ago it was opened up to any author writing in English whose book has been published in the U.K. That raised some concerns among British writers and publishers that Americans would dominate the award which is not only prestigious but also helps boost the sales of the winner.

In the last three years, a number of Americans have been on both the long and short lists for the award. But they haven't taken over. The other American nominated this year was Ottessa Moshfegh for Eileen, her first novel. There were also two Canadians, Madeleine Thien author of Do Not Say We have Nothing and David Szalay for All that Man Is. Two British authors, Graeme Macrae Burnet for His Bloody Project and Deborah Levy for Hot Milk rounded out the list.

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For the first time ever, an American has won the Man Booker Prize for literature. Until recently, that prize was open only to writers from Britain and from the nations of the British Commonwealth. Now the rules have been widened. Americans qualify, so long as their books were published in the U.K. And American Paul Beatty won yesterday for his novel, "The Sellout." NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The Man Booker committee describes "The Sellout" as a searing satire on race relations in contemporary America. Judge Amanda Foreman said Beatty takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verb and abandon. "The Sellout" wasn't an easy book to write, Beatty said. And for some, it won't be an easy book to read.


PAUL BEATTY: I don't write, like, not to offend. Or - I don't write to offend either. You know, I write to say what I have to say.

NEARY: Speaking to NPR last year, Beatty said humor is a good way to address really serious things. And "The Sellout" does just that. It's the story of a guy named Bonbon, whose home town near Los Angeles has been wiped off the map. He becomes both a watermelon and pot farmer, reinstates segregation and involuntarily takes on a slave. You get an idea of Beatty's satirical sensibility in this excerpt.


BEATTY: (Reading) They say pimping ain't easy. Well, neither is slaveholding. Like children, dogs, dice and overpromising politicians and apparently prostitutes, slaves don't do what you tell them to do.

NEARY: "The Sellout" has been called a comic masterpiece, and Beatty has been compared to famous satirist Jonathan Swift. He says his work is a layered experience.


BEATTY: With a lot of good writing, it works on a number of levels. There's a joke. There's the joke inside the joke. And then there's the serious bit in the joke, you know, in the sentences, in the language and the tempo of the book. I don't write thinking that everyone's going to necessarily understand everything. I think we got to deal with something.

NEARY: Beatty now joins a roster of Man Booker winners that includes Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. The prize comes with a purse of 50,000 pounds, a little more than $60,000, and with any luck, an increase in both name recognition and sales. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.