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Paul Beatty and saving the world

Paul Beatty and saving the world

Spare a thought for Paul Beatty. Because of the nature of his Man Booker winning The Sellout (slavery in a contemporary America) he is treated as much as a commentator on American race relations as a novelist. During his recent appearance on the BBC's Hardtalk for example, he was first asked the sweeping question ‘Are you an optimist?’ – to which he answered, ‘No I'm not . . . I'm not a pessimist either’. Later came the even more wide-ranging: ‘What's your take on how best to achieve change in the US?’ Poor chap, he's a novelist not a politician and his response was typically self-depreciating: ‘My take is just to write. I don't write to provide answers. I'm much more bold on the page than in real life.’ Beatty might have to become a bit bolder though since the big, non-literary questions are going to keep coming.

A recent item on the South China Morning Post pointed out that while many in the western world have had a dispiriting year (Brexit, Trump, and the deaths of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Muhammad Ali among other reasons to be miserable), the Eastern year has been not too bad at all, and when it comes to books, positively good. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize and Yan Lianke’s The Four Books was a contender. Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing meanwhile was shortlisted for the Man Booker itself. The subliminal message being it seems go East young man (and woman).

A look back at the literary year in the Guardian was as dotted with Man Booker writers as a Christmas pud is with raisins. Paul Beatty was, naturally, singled out for his win: ‘This cerebral rollercoaster ride of a novel was praised to the skies in the US but brought to British attention by a Man Booker list that was full of surprises.’ Innumerable other Man Booker authors appeared too, a reminder that 2016 was a good year for novels – something that is always easier to see in hindsight than while the flow of new books is in spate. Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, the Smiths – not Morrissey and Marr but Ali and Zadie, Paul Kingnorth, Elizabeth Strout, Margaret Atwood, J M Coetzee, Ian McEwan, A L Kennedy . . . the more you look at who published the more bumper 2016 becomes.

The Man Booker year was not without its sadnesses. The death of William Trevor in November caused a legion of literary hearts to wince. The great Irish short-story writer was a five times Man Booker nominee and had seemed an imperishable fixture of the literary world. And only a matter of days ago the underrated Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard also died. Hazzard was Man Booker longlisted in 2004 for The Great Fire and her The Bay of Noon was one of the contenders for 2010's Lost Booker Prize. 

From one sense of an ending to another . . . the official trailer for the film of Julian Barnes's 2011 Man Booker winner has now been released. The film stars Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery and Emily Mortimer and it will come as a surprise to many of the book's readers that such an intense and internal story promises to make such an intriguing and indeed cinematic film.