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Paul Beatty, a shocking writer in shock

Paul Beatty, a shocking writer in shock

How ironic that Paul Beatty's first act as the Man Booker Prize winner 2016 was to be lost for words. Over the years many winners have zombie-walked to the stage to collect their prize, insisting that they didn't expect to win and had no words prepared, only to whip out from a pocket a list of people to thank and a few well-chosen phrases to mark the enormity of the occasion. Not Beatty though. If he had prepared himself then he's an even better actor than writer: his long speech was punctuated by sighs, breaks and tears (though he didn’t go the full Gwyneth) as he struggled to pull himself together. ‘This is so weird. This is not me up here,’ he insisted, ‘I gotta get off. I'm sorry.’ But just as he was leaving the stage he thought better of it and returned to take a pop a people who accuse writers of ‘cultural appropriation’. Cultural appropriation, he pointed out, was the very stuff of writing: ‘It’s not about whites appropriating this, it’s about everyone appropriating everything – and thank goodness, I would have absolutely nothing to say if that wasn’t the case.’ His speech really came together when he declared: ‘I think you can write what you want and people can say what they want back at you.’

Beatty's win was of course a triumph too for his publishers Oneworld, a small independent that has remarkably picked up two Man Booker winners on the trot (Marlon James is with them too). According to Beatty, Oneworld were willing to take a chance where 18, yes 18, other publishers wouldn't. The Sellout may take on super-sensitive topics such as race and slavery but uncomfortable fiction is hardly a new phenomenon so what was it about his novel that all those publishers found so off-putting? The question has Beatty scratching his head: ‘I think it’s a good book. I was like, ‘Why? What’s all that about?’ I would be uncomfortable guessing [why I couldn’t get a publishing deal]. I would hurt myself. It would be like, ‘Really? Still?’ I guess they thought the book wouldn’t sell.’ Those egg-on-their-faces 18 are just about to find out what real sales mean: while still at the dinner Oneworld pressed the button for a 100,000-copy reprint.

Beatty is a teacher of creative writing at Columbia University having turned to writing after studying psychology. His first trade is one he uses now, he says, especially by mastering how to ‘listen to yourself listen. Not listen to yourself thinking, or listen to yourself speaking, but to listen to yourself listening. To think about what gets in and what doesn’t: what you missed, how you heard it.’ You might think that that might lead to the sort of introspective fiction he emphatically doesn't write but in fact no, ‘It helps me interpret the world.’

A couple of random Beatty facts: he studied creative writing under the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. He won his first book deal after being crowned Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1990, the result was his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank.

Many of the news stories around Beatty's coronation have made much of him being ‘the first American to win the Man Booker in the prize's 48-year history’, which makes it sound as if Americans have been trying and failing to win for almost half a century. Americans have only been eligible for the past three years so they are hardly such serial losers after all.

A quick scan of the early reports of Beatty's win gives some idea of the Man Booker's global role: the BBC and the major British papers all picked it up instantly but so too did, among many, many others, The Hindu in India, The Australian, the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail from Canada, the Dublin City Council website, outlets across America from radio stations in Illinois and Kansas City to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The prize for the most charmingly-named book-loving media organisation, however, goes to the Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser which was gracious enough to laud Beatty even though they must have been rooting for local boy Graeme Macrae Burnet.