Today the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner will be announced. The award has a stiff atmosphere of prestige surrounding it, with a hefty £50,000 cheque for the winner. Yet the winner is only crowned because their work has pleased a small group of people, the Judges. If another group of people read the same few books, perhaps the winner would be different. So to check if this set of judges had good taste, I decided to read The Sellout for myself.
It’s a visceral novel. But before delving into that, it’s dotted with Americanisms and little witty quips that someone foreign to the culture would miss: being part of that cultural clique adds to the attraction of the book. Basic psychology, one could argue; the ‘in’ and ‘out group’ theory- relating here to understanding the pun, or not. Aside from that the subjects in it are incredibly intense. It’s about the reintroduction of segregation and slavery in modern-day L.A. A very fine line to tread, even when the characters hold entirely different views and are a separate entity to the author, because although the West might think themselves above both of these things- that they’re buried safely underneath the weight of history- the truth is far from it. There are an estimated 40.3 million people in slavery today across the world, including America and Britain. To start to toy with the idea with ownership if a human is a calculated risk, but the manner in which Beatty did so was considered enough to distinct itself from satire on that topic. Perhaps he deserves merit in his own right for handling that suitably enough. Maybe he thought was ‘on a roll’, or held a level of conceit for his skills (rightly so at any rate) but he decided to lump in segregation too. The segregation of the city, Dickens, of the protagonist. It’s a polarising topic, in my head at least. The topic of segregation was approached much more bluntly than slavery and it was intrinsic to the plot. I believe that in all honesty there would have been mortified and incensed reactions to Beatty’s work if he hadn’t have been black though. In Western culture particularly there has been a rising trend in the embracement of minorities, women and LBTQ+ (basically everyone bar privileged straight white men), with this book no doubt falling into this category. Whilst I wholesomely advocate this movement, still today in society there are copious amounts of racism, so approaching topics like this have to be done with care.
For the actual details of the book; it has a plot certainly, but is mainly made up of factors that appeal to the aesthetic more than literary rhetoric of any kind. Little twists in fate like Marpessa having the bus where Rosa Parks famously denied to move are in all honesty fascinating quirks, but don’t add substantial to weight to the storyline on their own. There are many other instances of this, such as the protagonist of the book having the last name “Me”, so that when he was in court it was “Me vs. The United States of America”. A fun, if somewhat extravagant touch, which is mainly how I sum up the novel as a whole. Things happen, of course, but I don’t feel like there’s something I can tangibly take away from the experience at the end. It’s not like you can close the covers saying to yourself, thank goodness he got the girl. There’s a resolution, certainly, but it’s not life changing, not pivotal to the sense of closure in the conventional manner.
In Western liberal democracies, there are often issues with renowned institutions, be it government (in general) or something as flippant as the Oscar Awards; creating cultural diversity without appearing to fall for tokenism is one of them. I admit that I have only read the Man Booker Prize Winner from last year, and none of the other competing titles, and yet bearing this eagerness to create a diverse playing field in mind, it does not surprise me that Paul Beatty’s piece had won. Because it is a book by a black author about a black protagonist talking about racism. Much in the same way that a few years ago the book Lies We Tell Ourselves (read my review of it here) got onto the Carneige Shortlist when frankly it was awful- the actual prose of that novel itself couldn’t have been strong enough to merit a place on it’s own- so it suggest other factors were influences too. Bearing in mind the large amount of children reading the Carneige Shortlist in shadowing groups, the exposure to a vetted book about mild racism and lesbians would have been an eye-opening experience for them. The judges have a far greater responsibility on their shoulders than simply choosing the best book; it’s worth remembering that when considering titles with awards. Now whilst I’m not suggesting that Beatty won on these grounds, it wouldn’t surprise me if these factors did work in his favour. As The Man Booker Prize is a prestigious award, of course the winner is going to be highly scrutinised, so it is going to have to be a high quality. Yet given the amount of exposure that each novel gets after being awarded, it seems that handing this American satire this opportunity to reach the masses would, as with Lies We Tell Ourselves, be a wise idea.
The subject and morality of racial quotas can be discussed in another post, but it’s clear that we’re not living in a post-racial, post-judgemental world. It seems obvious to me why The Sellout would hold such an attraction to the Man Booker judges; because it openly grapples with subjects that people are too afraid to articulate themselves for fear of being called a racist. Now noting someone’s skin colour, calling them a ‘white person’ or a ‘black person’, is unfortunately now synonymous with racial slurs because people have have been brought up today to be so considerate of others, to rectify the horrendous attitudes of the past, that no one knows where they stand. It’s like social media posts where people make racial jokes that ‘my (coloured) friend laughs at as well’ and then are grilled by the international community for their words. The appropriateness of the joke is beside the point; it’s the cautiousness that society is now trained to adopt which is the important factor. The Sellout isn’t cautious. It doesn’t care about social convention or pleasing the crowds- which is why it does hold that level of attraction. This year all the novels on the 2017 shortlist are experimental, and this one certainly is too.
So the Sellout. The Man Booker judges certainly picked an appropriate novel, but would I read it again? Probably. It seems like something which has to be read several times to be understood fully. Or maybe it doesn’t. I’ll just have to take the risk and find out.