Paul Beatty refuses to be The Sellout of the modern literary world.
4 days after I finished reading The Sellout and wrote about this Man Booker-winning fiction branded the world over as ‘homourous’ and as a ‘satire’, came this interview By Amrita Tripathi at Jaipur LitFest, in Scroll.in with Paul Beatty, the author. And he had a few things to say about his work being perceived as a ‘satire’ (by the Man Booker jury, major print media, that gang), which I find completely dishonest and unfair.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is not a satire. It’s an inquiry, a literary critique of the society he lives in in context with its history of racism and privilege. I don’t understand why grown-ups on panels such as the Man Booker jury and reviewers in various major newspapers turn their backs to such honesty of emotion and find it difficult to accept the work on its own terms without reducing it to something that is simply not there – Satire. Yes, you find satire eddying around some places in the story but that’s not what the whole book is made of.
Take this excerpt from his interview:
You’ve spoken about being uncomfortable with The Sellout being labelled a satire. Can you tell us why?
What’s weird is I don’t read a ton of contemporary fiction…man, maybe I don’t read the stuff that they would label satire. But It’s kind of a word that hasn’t been thrown around lately much. This book is not much different in terms of tone and stuff from anything else I’ve written, but the word “satire” never comes up (for those). So I think that word is somehow tied to whatever the zeitgeist is right now in the States. It’s like a counter-point to something, not just to Trump or whatever, but also to this kind of progressive rhetoric. Sometimes, yeah, the book is definitely about that, but it’s not satirical, really, to me.
And the other thing is, there’s a…y’know, people were talking about humour earlier today. You can just hide behind that word. You can say something is a satire, okay, but what does that really mean? Where’s the invective? It’s an easy word to just hide behind and not have to really deal with or confront, whether, as a reader or as a reviewer, one is implicated or not. It’s a word that’s like this shield.
It’s funny, I taught this course on satire – of course I had no idea of what the word means. The students were giving really good examples of where that word gets used. I had one student – the guy’s a fantastic writer – whenever he says something that makes people really uncomfortable with, he’ll go like you know, that’s all satirical, as an excuse, y’know what I mean. You know, I don’t want the book to be that.
Seeing Nabokov talk about Lolita, and seeing that book initially, some people had called it a satire. If you think about it, I’m not trying to equate or do something tantamount to that, but you know this book and that book and whatever, they make people very uncomfortable, not necessarily in a bad way.
But you know what I mean? You got this paedophile and whatever is going on there, and then people go “satire” – almost as a way of making it a little more palatable. I’m just really uncomfortable with that word. Because it also limits, maybe, what people think I should be doing next. Because it’s hard for somebody to be a satirist and then write something, I can’t let that happen.
It allows people to not engage with some of the difficult…
Yeah but then it also sets another level of expectations that I don’t give anything about.
However, note that when Amrita Tripathi asks him this:
It would be interesting to know how Indians read your book – we’re also ridiculously racist, skin colour and…
Paul Beatty says: Of course, yeah, that’s everywhere though.
And that’s the point. It is everywhere. Racism. Because it’s not just in the head of the perpetrator. It is also in the head of the one that’s at the rough end of the stick. Often in a much more powerful way. And The Sellout is perhaps an expression of that.