On the Man Booker Prize

Merritt Moseley

Spring 2017

On October 25, 2016, Paul Beatty was announced as the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize. This outcome surprised many observers because Beatty’s novel The Sellout is not conventional Booker material. For one thing, it is not a historical novel, like previous winners The English Patient, Midnight’s Children, or Hilary Mantel’s two fictions about Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry viii. It is instead a contemporary tale, fantastically detached from the sensation of reality. Mordant and scarifying, it also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. In its forty-seven-year history, the Booker Prize has not often shown much interest in comedy and, when it has, it has favored a wry version, a collection of mild ironies in the Henry-James-does- humor mode.

More significantly, Paul Beatty is an American, the first to win the Booker Prize since it opened to U.S. writers starting with the 2014 competition. It was clear from that moment that it would take a brave jury and a richly deserving novel to breach the long-standing barrier against American novelists. On a somewhat less momentous but still striking note: Beatty is African American, so, following the previous year’s award to Jamaican Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings, two consecutive winners have come from the African diaspora.

The judges who named Beatty the winner dared to fulfill chilling prophecies of American co-option of a British prize, risking complaints of competitive asymmetry, since Brits cannot win the Pulitzer. Amanda Foreman, a historian, chaired the committee. Other members included the academics and writers David Harsent and Jon Day, the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Olivia Williams, an actor. As chair, it came down to Foreman to announce the winner and to explain the thinking behind the choice. She declared, “this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. That is why the book works — because while you’re being nailed, you’re being tickled.” The decision was reported to be unanimous, but, since the judges took four hours to reach it, it may not have been easy.

Beatty’s novel, along with Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, was one of two American finalists. The rest of the short list comprised Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, All That Man Is by David Szalay, and His Bloody Project by Graham Macrae Burnet. Burnet and Levy are British — Scottish in Burnet’s case, while Levy is a transplanted South African. Szalay, born in Canada and brought up in England, now lives in Hungary. Thien is Canadian.

Merritt Moseley is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and has been covering the Man Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review since 1993.

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