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'A novel that is recklessly, scabrously funny, politically of-the-moment and hugely erudite'

24 October 2016

This year's Booker result raises so many interesting issues that a longer report on Frankfurt, the Book Fair and other issues relating to international publishing will come next week. The links this week give a clue to the many themes that Paul Beatty's win with The Sellout has raised.

In many ways this winner is really surprising because the book is not an obvious choice for a UK judging panel, or for the Man Booker itself. The author himself admits it's a difficult one because of its subject-matter and was very pleased but surprised when The Sellout found a publisher in the UK after being turned down by 18 publishers. It is the first American novel to win and this has stimulated greater international interest in the Man Booker.

"I get hurt when I meet editors who tell me about books they really liked but couldn't publish. I don't know what that means. Sometimes I romanticise - I go back even to the Harlem renaissance, when people would say, ‘This book isn't going to sell but I believe in you.' I think there's still some of that in publishing. I hope there's still some of that."

The Guardian concludes that The Sellout rips up the rulebook for what wins and says: "Beatty has achieved the rare feat of writing a novel that is recklessly, scabrously funny, politically of-the-moment and hugely erudite in its frame of reference and its playful invocation of both literary and popular culture."

Although Beatty is a US author, he was cold-shouldered by the American literary establishment, with the exception of two good reviews. But the book has not sold well in the US, so the idea of it winning a prize in the UK, however international that prize now is, seems slightly bizarre.

Then there's the amazing outcome of Oneworld, a small publisher, having the winner two years running, presumably to the intense discomfort of the big companies such as Penguin Random House, which has several literary imprints which would have expected to vie with independents such as Faber & Faber for the Prize.

There are good reasons a win like this is key in enabling a small press to make substantial money, even though it can also overwhelm it and make subsequent years very hard indeed. As LitHub commented, sales "can grow from 463 percent (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) to 1918 percent (Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question) after a Booker win and, to a lesser degree, shortlist" - a reward indeed.

Then there's a good inside story of the judging from another piece in LitHub. It's good to find out from the Chair of this year's judges, Amanda Foreman, that:

"The rules are clear: the winning novel is, in opinion of the judges, the best book of that year. We know what we've signed up to do. At the beginning of the year, we collectively agree on a set of criteria, and "on the syntax of discourse. Although taste plays a role in literary criticism, that's different from aesthetic judgement and value. Once we've been able to craft our lexicon of craft, we can discuss."