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.
But the short list is only the penultimate stage in a long and entertaining Booker process. It begins much earlier, with reviews of books that somebody considers Booker-worthy, alongside profiles of their authors.
In summer, the long list appears, in this case on July 27, and it tends to focus heavily on established names. It is selected by the same panel of judges who deliver the final decision. Having been cut down from a great many nominated titles (one hundred fifty-five), the 2016 long list contained thirteen titles. Here is where the second-guessing becomes quite serious. Most of the established authors, in any year, do not make the long list, or, in the journalistic cant, are “snubbed.” Snubees in 2016 included Julian Barnes, Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Dave Eggers, and Lionel Shriver, of whom both Barnes and McEwan are previous winners. The only real heavyweight left on the long list was Nobel laureate and two-time Booker recipient J. M. Coetzee, with his strange and austere novel The Schooldays of Jesus. The long list included four first novels, and a balance between male and female, as well as between UK and North American, authors. A slight swerve toward “genre fiction” was detectable, with murder mysteries and psychological thrillers making the cut. Most of the nominees came from major publishers like Jonathan Cape and Faber. Others—including the winner, which apparently had trouble securing British publication—emerged from small, mostly regional presses Salt, Contraband, and Oneworld.