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Paul Beatty's novel The Sellout wins Man Booker Prize

Published 25/10/2016

Madeleine Thien, who has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize
Madeleine Thien, who has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize

Paul Beatty has become the first American author to win the Man Booker Prize for his satirical book The Sellout which was described as "a novel of our times" by judges.

The Sellout examines race relations in contemporary America and is narrated by African-American BonBon whose hometown of Dicks in Los Angeles county has been removed from the map to save California from embarrassment.

BonBon ends up in the Supreme Court after attempting to reinstitute slavery and segregation in the local school as a means of bringing about civic order.

Beatty, 54, was born in LA, California and now resides in New York. He was handed the award and £50,000 prize money at a ceremony at The Guildhall in central London attended by The Duchess of Cornwall.

The Sellout is Beatty's fourth novel and his success follows in the footsteps of previous winners that include Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie.

Announcing the win, chair of judges Amanda Foreman, acknowledged the book's timeliness due to it dealing with the "complexities that modern society is confronting with", adding that one of those issues was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few years.

Foreman revealed the judging panel had three books that they "felt particularly strongly about" but had opted for Beatty's novel after four hours of deliberations on Tuesday, calling his writing "a high wire act".

She said: "The Sellout is one of those very rare books that is able to take satire, which is in itself a very difficult subject and not always done well, and it plunges into the heart of contemporary American society and, with absolutely savage wit, of the kind I haven't seen since Swift or Twain, both manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct, nuanced, every sacred cow, and while both making us laugh, making us wince.

"It is both funny and painful at the same time and it is really a novel of our times."

She added: "This is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon but that is why the novel works because while you're being nailed you're being tickled."

Foreman said the panel, which was made up of critic and lecturer Jon Day, author Abdulrazak Gurnah, poet and professor David Harsent and actress Olivia Williams, had set a criteria which included aesthetic, quality and depth of ideas, craftsmanship and whether the novel transported the reader.

The win marks a second consecutive success for independent publisher Oneworld who also received the prize in 2015 for Jamaican author Marlon James' A Brief History Of Seven Killings.

The shortlist was opened up to American authors in 2014, with Beatty seeing off compatriot Ottessa Moshfegh and bookies' favourite Madeleine Thien for the prestigious prize.

Moshfegh's novel Eileen is about a "disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father's carer and her day job as a secretary at a boys' prison" whilst Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows a young Chinese woman who flees to Canada in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests

Also listed were British writers' Deborah Levy for Hot Milk, which "examines female rage and sexuality as well as the strange and monstrous nature of motherhood", Graeme Macrae Burnett for His Bloody Project, a crime story exploring the life of a 19th century crofter, and Canadian-British writer David Szalay for his novel All That Man Is.

Receiving his prize from the Duchess, a visibly emotional Beatty said "writing has given me a life".

Choking back tears he added: "I'm just trying to create space for myself and hopefully I can create space for others."

Beatty revealed that his girlfriend had convinced him to write the book after he repeatedly put it off, joking that he "hate(s) writing".

"I'm not lazy I just don't commit to much because if I commit to something I do it.

"So I've been avoiding writing this book and this organisation called Creative Capital they were just basically asking me to take their money. I didn't want to do it because the application was too long and I just didn't want to write."

The author also said he had started crying after he first read the book out loud as it "matches exactly the language in my head".

Ending his speech, Beatty said: "I tend to keep my head underground, like an ostrich I think. But when I got here there was all this talk of cultural appropriation which was interesting to hear.

"I think you can write what you want but people get to say what they want back to you and that's not censorship and I think that's important and I think it's also important to know that cultural appropriation goes every direction.

"It's not about white appropriating this it's about everybody appropriating everything and thank goodness I would have absolutely nothing to say if that was the case."

Press Association

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