School of the Arts Writing Program Associate Professor Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout has won the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Beatty, who was born in Los Angeles and resides in New York, is the first American author to be awarded the Man Booker in its 48-year history.
Described by The New York Times as “a raucous tragicomedy that explores the legacy of slavery and racial and economic inequality in America,” The Sellout tells the story of a young African American man living in Southern California who attempts to reinstate slavery and segregate a local school. The judges for this year’s award – Amanda Foreman, Jon Day, Abdulrazak Gurnah, David Harsent, and Olivia Williams – were unanimous in their final selection of the book, which they described as “a novel for our times,” from 155 original submissions.
Jury Chair Foreman added, “The Sellout is one of those very rare books which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunge it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain.”
Beatty’s Columbia colleagues echoed the jury’s sentiments. Writing Program Director of Fiction Binnie Kirshenbaum expressed abiding enthusiasm for Beatty’s recent addition to the concentration’s full-time faculty, calling The Sellout “a searing book that represents the absurdities of our time with biting wit and profound intelligence.” School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker said of Beatty, "We are proud to have such a brilliant and fearless writer on our faculty. The Sellout is a novel full of collective pain, satirically written, yet not easy to read. It cuts to the heart of the work still left to be done in this country. And its provocation couldn't be more timely."
The Man Booker Prize, which includes a monetary award of £50,000 (roughly $66,000), has been awarded annually since 1969, but was was previously only given to books by writers from the UK, Ireland, the Commonwealth, and Zimbabwe. In 2014 the selection process was expanded to include any books published in the UK and first written in English. The Sellout was published by British independent publishers Oneworld – who also published the 2015 Man Booker-winning title A Brief History of Seven Killings by the Jamaican writer Marlon James.
The Sellout has been garnering praise since its release in 2015. It was named one of the best books of 2015 by the Times and the Wall Street Journal, and also won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. The novel is Beatty’s fourth, following Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle, as well as two collections of poetry.
At the award ceremony in London, Beatty said of his win, “It was a hard book for me to write; I know it’s hard to read. I’m just trying to create space for myself. And hopefully that can create space for others.”