The Sellout
by Paul Beatty (2015)
Picador (2016)
291 pp

The last few pages of this novel feature a comedian at an open-mic night telling a joke which the narrator describes as the funniest he had ever heard up to that point. “Yo Mama been on welfare so long,” it goes, “her face is on the food stamp.” Had this vital insight into the quality of humor to which we are subjected here featured amongst the first few pages instead, this reader would have very contentedly tossed the thing into the bin and thought no more about it. As it is, it provides the last straw after 280 pages of ham-fisted, overwrought, self-indulgent, obvious, cheap and unamusing jokes. The torpor inflicted by mile after mile of smart-arsed rambling excess, pointless swearing and compulsive digression calls desperately for a robust and exacting editor. No amount of attributes, and there are some to be found (other reviewers will tell you all about them as if the flaws don’t exist), can possibly survive what is effectively a polemical stand-up set masquerading as a novel. Seldom is an opportunity missed to give too much of what we don’t want, nor to rob us of what we do.

The Sellout

We begin on the steps outside the Supreme Court, where our narrator, the simply named Me, lights up a joint whilst he awaits progress in his trial, accused as he is of violating the constitution by re-segregating his neighborhood school and other public amenities as well as keeping a former actor as an albeit voluntary slave. The novel goes on to end here too, but most of what is in-between occurs in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of southern Los Angeles in which Me is raised by his father, a sociologist named F.K. Me (geddit??!!) who side-lines as the neighborhood’s “nigger whisperer,” to be deployed to rescue young black men who are laid down on railway tracks or about to hurl themselves off bridges. Me is subjected to a range of domestic childhood behavioral experiments, such as being forced to live left-handed and having B.A. Baracus style jewelry put round his neck and pockets stuffed full of money before being driven into the city where his father mugs him in order to see how long it is until a white person assists. After F.K. Me is shot dead by police (“just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t still shoot niggers on sight.”), Me is awarded $2 million and begins to grow exotic fruit. The love interest is a bus driver called Marissa. Me is bad at sex, in fact he “fucks like an overturned guppy,” apparently, but as this aspect of his character doesn’t amuse or inform — it is merely mentioned a couple of times — it is unclear what relevance this has. The former actor Hominy, who was noted for always playing highly stereotypical black roles designed for white people to laugh at, volunteers to be his slave, and together they segregate the local school in pursuit of re-establishing the issue of race in “post-racial America” because “racism takes them back. Makes them humble. Makes them realize how far we’ve come. And how far we have to go.” That’s the plot, and in the era of Baltimore, Trayvon Martin, seemingly weekly episodes of white police officers shooting black people without decent reason, and Black Lives Matter, the novel’s grander ambitions with respect to racism in Obama’s America are pretty plain too and require no further adumbration from me.

With Race and America, America and Race, a subject which will never lose its appeal to literature, it is less that The Sellout‘s themes are unsatisfactory, irrelevant, or uninteresting, nor that the characters are unconvincing, nor the geographical setting inadequately explored. The problem is what a colossal failure its jokes are. They are not designed to be subtle, but rather to hit you like a bus. This makes them worse. The occasional brief portion threatens something approaching amusing and provides the best insight into what lacks elsewhere. For instance, F.K. Me is a stalwart of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, one of whose members, Foy Cheshire, is on his own quixotic crusade to rewrite masterpieces which he considers racist, to include re-naming Huckleberry Finn “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journey of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go In Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” In recent view of Rachel Dolezal, the black activist who (in an unintentionally brilliant invocation of Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain) turned out to be white, safe spaces, cultural appropriation and trigger warnings — not forgetting the Washington official who was suspended a few years ago for using the word “niggardly” in a budget memo —  there is mileage here, but to draw the most humor from it would require Beatty to present comment via means of plot and character rather than launching extraneous rants. When he refers, quite amusingly, to “a small sub-Saharan African nation such as Detroit,” the humor is woven into a larger theme, it is snuck in from out of sight rather than his usual method of hitting weary readers in the face with a cricket bat. There wasn’t time to mark them all in pencil, but even the most cursory thumb though the book sadly provides a multitude of examples of the cricket bat variation. For example:

Hominy is no source of pride: He’s a Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African-American legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Dave Chapelle’s meltdown and people who say “Valentime’s Day.”

About a quarter of the book is like this. I suppose people who like this sort of thing might like this sort of thing, but note how one simile is never enough. Beatty’s delusion is that four bad ones amount to a good one. Conversely, take a humorist like Clive James, who has expertly deployed similes for decades: an unpronounceable foreign colleague’s name sounds like “a fly trapped against a window”; Arnold Schwarznegger’s arms are like “brown condoms filled with walnuts”; a fat guy in a black gown at university is “like a piece of fruit going to a funeral.” I offer these examples of similes which do work due to their subtlety, calmness of tone, precision of delivery, and self-evident contrast with Beatty’s cricket bat.

Not that similes are the only way to be funny. Set-pieces are useful too. Take John Self’s tennis match in Martin Amis’s Money, or Lowell Lake’s hapless attempt to pay a bribe to a New York court in L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life (these examples called from direct memory because they are, you know, funny). Sadly, the set-piece with the greatest potential in The Sellout also falls victim to Beatty’s poor focus. Me tells his father that he doesn’t really think there is racism in American any more. He is bundled into the car and driven for three days to Mississippi, where father and son spend some time provocatively wolf-whistling at white women, an act, incidentally, not far from being as indecent as the racism they are hoping to provoke. Just as some white guys outside a bar sit “open-legged and open-mouthed, aghast at the sheer fucking nigger audacity” and things could just become amusing, we instead get a crass digression about the girl’s “B-cup breasts . . . the Hindenburg and the Goodyear blimp, respectively.” Really, who does Beatty think might be  amused by this puerility? Then we inexplicably get a joke which starts, “Bubba the redneck, a nigger and a Mexican are sitting at the same bus stop when BAM!, a genie appears . . .” Its punchline, something or other about a bottle of Coke, is every bit as unamusing as the opening suggests, and the set-piece is destroyed, ground into dust by Beatty’s severe lack of deftness, subtlety, dexterity, or appreciation of his own limits.

What a saddening novel. Also jarring are that alongside the jivey street-talk and never-ending use of the word “nigger” and variations of “fuck” are references to Kafka, Jean-Luc Goddard, “the nacre interior of an abalone shell,” antebellum vellum, and phrases from obscure Japanese and Greek folklore. They don’t belong in the same novel, and the cynic concludes they are only included so that The Sellout may live on in sociology seminars at progressive universities.

Sadder still is that it is plain that Beatty has much of value to say about modern day racial politics in America. At times the target of his ire are certain categories of black, redolent rather of Chris Rock’s routine about “the difference between black people and niggers.” Hence his even-handedness is evident; no-one will accuse him of taking an anti-white view particularly, or of failing to see how black communities might have contributed to some of their own difficulties. But this novel is the worst possible delivery system for anything of substance. Beatty is, I read, soon to edit a collection of historical essays drawn from the media and literature which will chart how white authors have written about black people. Presumably he will be able to select, arrange, and introduce these pieces as he chooses. It sounds an interesting and worthwhile project and will benefit from there being clear delineation between when we are getting the essays and when we are getting Beatty. This distinction between novel and rant is absent in The Sellout.

Edmund Wilson said that a novel could survive anything but a failure to live. Had he been alive to read The Sellout, he might have added that a comic novel or “Swiftian satire of the highest proportion,” according to one, I presume hallucinating, reviewer, cannot survive such an abject failure to amuse. The groupthink of reviewers who couldn’t wait to gush over this novel is quite bewildering. I should like to point them to Howard Jacobson’s observation that “we like to think of laughter as liberating, but it is just as much an expression of copycat submissiveness.” The main benefit to this reviewer from this perplexing experience was insight into the interesting question of why the United States seems to do such a poor job of producing literary humor, or why the best American comic writers, like Peter de Vries or Charles Portis, are practically unheard of. It is because critics find things like The Sellout funny.

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By |2016-10-26T11:28:30-04:00September 7th, 2016|Categories: Book Reviews, Paul Beatty|Tags: , , , , |69 Comments


  1. BookerTalk September 7, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of this to even sample ahead of the Booker shortlist announcement. Now I’m glad I didnt have to read it – it sounds dreadful

  2. fulcherkim September 7, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    What a great reviews “No amount of attributes, and there are some to be found (other reviewers will tell you all about them as if the flaws don’t exist), can possibly survive what is effectively a polemical stand-up set masquerading as a novel.” Exactly

    If this makes the shortlist the Booker is dead to me.

  3. Adam September 9, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    Dead. To. You. Then

  4. Colette Jones September 10, 2016 at 6:58 am

    The beginning of your review states:
    “The last few pages of this novel feature a comedian at an open-mic night telling a joke which the narrator describes as the funniest he had ever heard up to that point.”

    That’s incorrect. The narrator finds black comedians to be generally not funny, and this is a black comedian’s joke that he finds funny. That might seem like a minor correction, but I think you may have missed several subtleties in your reading.

    I’m thankful that the Man Booker judges selected it for their longlist, or I might not have come across it.

  5. Chris Phillips September 10, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Well I may accept the minor point of order but what is said is that the joke:

    “…left me crying.”


    “Anybody who could make me put down Catch-22 had to be funny. After that, it was me who dragged Pops to open-mike night.”

    So possibly it is my error but what is inferred is much the same. And confirms the novel’s problem, which is that Beatty doesn’t know what funny is.

  6. David September 10, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Chris, I haven’t read the book and likely won’t, but I am curious about your claim there. Why do you take it that what a character in the story says about what he (the character) takes to be funny as an indication of what the author thinks is funny? We would not typically take the claims of a character to be those the author endorses, so I don’t know why this would be a different case. The character is, it seems, pro-segregation and ok with slavery, so I would seem that having a bad sense of humour might be just another or his qualities that are different from the author’s.

  7. Chris Phillips September 10, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    “Why do you take it that what a character in the story says about what he (the character) takes to be funny as an indication of what the author thinks is funny?”

    I don’t, particularly. The joke is merely as unfunny as the previous 280 pages, whether the ‘laughs’ have been supplied by characters or by Beatty himself via the narrator (though there is not one word of this novel which is character rather than Beatty).

    This is a different case because, as I argue, the entire novel is a Beatty stand-up act masquerading as a novel. And because the incident in question takes place with four pages to go and by this time it is manifestly plain that neither narrator nor Beatty are funny. No matter which character is talking, Beatty treats it as an opportunity to vicariously use them for something he thinks is funny. Whether within dialogue or not, it is amazingly, quite staggeringly, unfunny. Worse of all this is in spite of a huge effort to be so. Very rarely did anyone funny have to try.

    Perhaps Beatty finds the joke in question funny or not, who knows (though I’d hope not)? But here we have a character who takes Catch 22 to divert him from the tedium of these open mike nights and puts it down when, and only when, he is stunned by, of all jokes, that one. For me it was the final confirmation that Paul Beatty, whether by means of his characters of not, should not be trying to make readers laugh.

  8. David September 10, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Chris, your answer makes sense, but I hate to tell you this: You are making me curious about reading the book now … just a little … but still …. :-)

  9. Arsen Kashkashian September 11, 2016 at 12:42 am

    People seem really split on this book. I think it comes down to the whether you enjoyed the humor or not. I enjoyed the humor from page one and didn’t stop laughing. I also think the social commentary he makes about black life in America is quite biting and originally done. The narrator’s efforts to re-segregation the buses, to re-segregate the school (which is already segregated based on economics) and to get his town’s name back are all hilarious and tragic at the same time. Most importantly, they are trenchant critiques of our society. This is a book that had a lot to say and Beatty does it an a way that presents us with a unique voice and character. I applaud the Booker committee for recognizing its excellence. I’m sorry more readers didn’t laugh and cry as much as I did. It was one of my two favorite novels of 2015. The other one was The Sympathizer.

  10. Colette Jones September 11, 2016 at 2:33 am

    Thank you, Arsen. Well said.

    Chris, you didn’t find the book funny. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny. You berate the critics who did find it funny, and say they’re the reason “why the United States seems to do such a poor job of producing literary humor, or why the best American comic writers, like Peter de Vries or Charles Portis, are practically unheard of.” Charles PortIs, practically unheard of? I don’t think so. At what point do we readers who like the book decide that you are not only insulting the author, the critics, and US literary humourists in general – you are also insulting us, because our sense of humour and sense of literary merit are different to yours.

    If I saw read this book as a stand-up act, like you do, I probably wouldn’t find it funny. As Arsen says, it’s funny and tragic, which is a combination I particularly like.

  11. Chris Phillips September 11, 2016 at 3:03 am

    Good. That’s wholly up to you. Perhaps you’ll approve more of the million or so other reviewers who did find this thing amusing. That you think disagreement with the consensus view is insulting is extraordinary. I really fail to see the problem. I happened to find this novel so spectacularly unfunny that any of its attributes – and I do not deny they are there – are as nothing. Amongst the procession of fawning reviews of this book, one negative one is surely not too hard to take. On Portis, you might disagree with my selection of him as an example, but the New York Times seems to agree with me:

    “His elusiveness has only enhanced his status as a cult writer’s cult writer, cherished by a small but devoted following. He has published four novels besides “True Grit” (all five have recently been reissued in paperback by the Overlook Press), and for years those in the sect have been pressing them on new readers like Masons teaching the secret handshake.”

    The broader point is what I see as American literature’s failure to produce literary humourists in any great proliferation. Even Heller only wrote one funny novel; the funniest I’ve ever read, for what it is worth. Whereas on my side of the pond, Waugh, Wodehouse, Amis Snr and Jnr and even Saki are household names,even to those who’ve never read anything. I could list a few dozen very funny American writers, but barely any of them were/are novelists. This is merely an observation, with which one may disagree or not. There is no requirement to be offended.

    Arsen – I did say that the social commentary side is biting, or words to that effect. I just happen to think all the valuable stuff is rendered worthless by the failure to amuse. This novel does not survive that failure, in my opinion. That a consensus of American reviewers and perhaps readers disagree with me is irrelevant. Volunteering to spend money on these novels and review them does entitle me to say what I think of them.

  12. Colette Jones September 11, 2016 at 3:59 am

    Of course you can disagree with those who liked the book. It’s your incredulity that anyone could find this funny that rankles, and it comes off as “I’m right, and if you disagree, you are wrong”. I did not say or imply that “disagreement with the consensus view is insulting” (and this is far from a consensus view anyway!) I don’t have a problem with your not finding this funny; it’s your attitude towards those that do that doesn’t sit well.

  13. Colette Jones September 11, 2016 at 5:03 am

    I’ve read Waugh, Wodehouse, Amis Sr and Jnr. I’d put Beatty up there with Amis Jr, but the others do not tickle my funny bone as well. They are funny, yes, but I enjoyed The Sellout more than anything I’ve read of theirs (not so, Martin Amis, who is a master in the field).

  14. Colette Jones September 11, 2016 at 5:06 am

    As for “literary” Americans, Richard Ford and J Robert Lennon come to mind as masterfully comic. I don’t think one country has been doing it better than the other, but styles can be drastically different.

  15. David September 11, 2016 at 8:46 am

    I find it very odd to think in terms of nationality of author here, but since the subject has been raised here are a couple of thoughts. Firstly, has The Sellout gotten more bad reviews in the UK than in the US? Because if it has been praised in both countries then the fact critics like it explains nothing about why authors in one country tend to write fewer novels that are literary humour than the other.
    Secondly, if the argument is something like (1) This isn’t funny (2) Critics think it is funny (3) Therefore we should generally expect American literary novels not to be funny … then the argument does not work. At best the conclusion you should expect is that there might be lots of American literary novelists trying to write funny books and they are praised for being funny even though they are not funny.
    Thirdly, if a country produces Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, and novels like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces it seems odd to complain about a lack of literary humour in that country or that generally literary critics can’t see what is funny. I would suggest that if lots of readers and most critics don’t see a lack of humour in American novelists in general and you do that this is more indicative of a blind spot you might have.

  16. Chris Phillips September 11, 2016 at 11:33 am

    That’s not quite the argument. The argument is that this is not funny, but American critics find it funny, therefore they are easily pleased. I’m interested in why might this be. I currently take the view that it is due to several decades of American underachievement in the field of literary humour and a lack of reliably and consistently funny American novelists. We can all list funny American writers, but hardly any of them are novelists. We can all list the odd funny American novel, but Wodehouse wrote thirty or so. Waugh another eight, perhaps. The two Amis’ between them maybe about sixteen. The only American novelist who compares with this output that I can think of is de Vries, and barely anyone knows who he was.

    I hope I do have, as you say, a blind spot. There are enough people disagreeing with me here that I hope to be furnished with the names of authors who will change my mind.

  17. David September 11, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    “The argument is that this is not funny, but American critics find it funny, therefore they are easily pleased.”
    That does not follow. I know people (I am sure we all do) who laugh at jokes that just are not funny but who also don’t laugh at jokes that are funny. The fact that someone finds something funny that we do not is not an indication they are easily pleased, just that they are pleased by the “wrong” things. In other words, they just have different tastes in humour from us.
    “I currently take the view that it is due to several decades of American underachievement in the field of literary humour and a lack of reliably and consistently funny American novelists.”
    That would make sense if novels didn’t travel across borders easily. But I would expect that both British and American critics read a lot of books by authors in both countries (not to mention authors from a great many other countries). But anyway, this argument only works if American critics think it’s funny and British ones do not. But the Guardian loved it and the mostly British Booker panel nominated it for the prize. It seems British critics generally do think it’s funny too.
    As I said at the outset, I find the discussion of nationality odd here. American writers don’t just read other American writers. American critics also don’t just read American writers or only praise American writing. The same is true for British writers and critics. Writers and critics from both countries read lots of novels and novelists from both countries (and many other countries), so the idea that nationality is relevant here is mysterious to me. But what do I know? I’m just a Canadian reader who in the last year happens to have read novels by writers from the US, Britain, Nigeria, Russia, Italy, Norway, Sierra Leon, and Canada.

  18. Lee Monks September 11, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    “Heller only wrote one funny novel” – which one? I’ve read two of his that I found very funny (and one not-so-funny effort)…

  19. Arsen Kashkashian September 11, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Philip Roth is a great comic novelist. I also love Donald Harrington although must people don’t know who he is.

  20. Lee Monks September 12, 2016 at 4:41 am

    “American literature’s failure to produce literary humourists in any great proliferation.”

    “I currently take the view that it is due to several decades of American underachievement in the field of literary humour and a lack of reliably and consistently funny American novelists.”

    I think I’ll have to stick up for a few US writers here. Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Craig Nova, Joy Williams, David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover, John Barth, Nicholson Baker, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, Sam Lipsyte, John Kennedy Toole, Charles Bukowski, Thomas Pynchon, Truman Capote. Just a few there, there’s plenty more. It seems to be an unsupportable argument. And I’d argue that you overplay the chuckles us Brits have provided.

  21. Colette Jones September 12, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Apologies if these thoughts appear twice. I received an error when posting so I’m trying again.

    Great list, Lee. I can’t believe I forgot to mention Nicholson Baker! I did mention two novelists and David mentioned three before Chris wrote “There are enough people disagreeing with me here that I hope to be furnished with the names of authors who will change my mind.” I guess ours didn’t count.

    Like David, I’m now finding this discussion odd, and if it weren’t for the fact that it’s posted on Mookse’s site, I’d see Chris’s comments as trolling. Since it is Mookse’s site, I have to give the benefit of the doubt but wonder what has fuelled such a chip on his shoulder.

  22. David September 12, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Well, Colette, I am sure Chris is more than capable of speaking for himself, but let me offer these as general observations, whether they apply here or not.
    It is common for people to react to humour in ways that suggest that they think there is an objective measure of what is funny. If you don’t laugh at something others are sure is funny you run the risk of being accused of not having a sense of humour (or, at the very least, of not having a good sense of humour). If you do laugh at something others are sure is not funny you might be accused of being “too easily amused”. In either case the idea is there is something defective about your sense off humour.
    The contrast is people who think that different things strike different people as funny or not and that’s all there is to it. Recently in another discussion we found that while I did not find the film Young Adult funny at all, Lee Monks did. Is one of us right and the other wrong or do we just have different tastes? I feel the impulse to say he’s wrong, but I am much more strongly convinced that humour is just something people differ on.
    Somtimes people like to have it a little of both ways, so they will say that humour is cultural. People from different cultures find different things funny and there is no absolute right or wrong about it, but within a particular culture there are things that more objectively count as funny or not. Chris’ comments here seem to me to be a bit of the first thing (when it sounds like he is trying to explain why other critics have a defective sense of humour) and a bit of this one (when he tries to explain why American critics might have a different sense of humour from him, a British reviewer). But it seems to me that any argument that tries to show why someone is wrong about what is or is not funny is doomed from the start.
    Roger Ebert once said that reviewing comedies are both the easiest and the hardest films to review. They are the easiest because you know whether or not you laughed and how much you laughed without even having to think about it. Laughed start to finish? Great film. Didn’t laugh once? Terrible film. But they are also the hardest to review because trying to explain why you did or didn’t laugh is no easy task. Whether we laugh can somtimes be a function of our mood before seeing the film (or reading the book). So maybe it wasn’t the artist’s doing at all. Then when you try to explain why someone else did or didn’t laugh and why they had the wrong reaction, it can get more difficult yet.
    I think Chris has an understandable instinct here. If so many critics and a major prize jury think something is funny and he doesn’t, then someone reading his review might wonder why we should trust his judgment. Maybe Chris does not have a sense of humour? Or maybe just not a good one? His attempts to diagnose why other critics did like the book have not been convincing to most here, but that’s ok.
    I watched Siskel & Ebert review movies for decades and I always found the most useful discussions they had were when they disagreed. Not because I thought one was always right and one always wrong, but because their disagreement challenged them to better articulate their reactions and that is always better for an interested audience. That’s what I see happening here.
    When I first read about The Sellout I was reminded of the Spike Lee film Bamboozled. It is about a TV executive who creates a hit by reviving the blackface minstrel show for the 21st century. I thought it was a brilliant satire that was at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, and a profound satire of how black entertainers are sometimes viewed today. But the film got a lot of poor reviews and was a box office flop. It is not regarded generally as one of Lee’s great films. I am tempted to want to diagnose people who didn’t love it as being either too hypersensitive about the subject matter or not really understanding satire as a defense of my assessment of the film. But I know that’s not right. We each come to art from different perspectives and those perspectives colour our reactions. Sometimes the conversation isn’t about sorting out who is actually right and who is wrong, but to get a deeper understanding of the work and how it does or does not affect an audience.
    I think I went off on a tangent there. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again … well, at least not today …. :-)

  23. Chris Phillips September 12, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Well I just wrote a long post, intending it to be my last on the subject, and then it disappeared.

    But to summarise :

    – I will not be accused of a lack of humour (or of trolling or having a chip on my shoulder, as it happens)! Read my review of de Vries’s The Blood of the Lamb, or of Inherent Vice.

    – There are myriad funny Americans and I acknowledge many of those mentioned. I maintain, however, that most of them are not comic novelists but rather writers of a different sort who have written a comic novel here or there or included comic moments in otherwise un-comic novels. I maintain that the critical reception for The Sellout is evidence that America has, in recent years anyway, underachieved in the field of comic novels. What was the last American comic novel to get a reception on a par with The Sellout’s? Even gruel tastes good if you’re starving.

    – I believe that there is groupthink amongst the critics and cited Jacobson in order to offer a possibility why. I would not have wanted to investigate why my review is so out of step with the consensus if I had not found it so monumentally bad at being funny.

    – It reads as if it was completed after fifty pages, then gone back over and had inserted into it hundreds of unsubtle and severe wisecracks, similes and smartarsery. Then the characters and situation were manipulated to accommodate them. The things of value in the novel are buried.

    – Nothing is less funny that that which tries oh so hard to be funny but fails. No-one genuinely funny ever left evidence of working so hard at it. I concede that I may be unnaturally hard-line where this is concerned. A thriller which fails to thrill is probably ruined.

    – Any of you are welcome to my copy of The Sellout free of charge no matter where you are in the world, on the proviso that a review to The Mookse and the Gripes be submitted for consideration. Drop a line to the blog for contact details.

    And with that, I think perhaps my next review will be on an engineering manual or something.

  24. David September 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Two quick comments:
    “I maintain that the critical reception for The Sellout is evidence that America has, in recent years anyway, underachieved in the field of comic novels. What was the last American comic novel to get a reception on a par with The Sellout’s? Even gruel tastes good if you’re starving.”
    I still don’t get it, so let me push the point. Suppose, for the sake of argument, there has never been any comic American novel that was any good, an entire national history of gruel or worse. Then along comes The Sellout. I see no reason for the history of American non-achievement in writing comic novels to matter since (1) critics, American or otherwise, will have read lots and lots of comic novels that are outstanding written by writers who are not American, thus they have eaten a lot of fine dining, not just gruel and (2) critics don’t (I would hope) grade on a scale of previous achievement by authors who happen to share a nationality with the current book. So the nationality of the author and the previous achievement of authors who happen to share his nationality are also irrelevant to how critics will perceive the book.
    “Any of you are welcome to my copy of The Sellout free of charge no matter where you are in the world, on the proviso that a review to The Mookse and the Gripes be submitted for consideration. Drop a line to the blog for contact details.”
    Well, I said I have not read the book and the discussion was making me curious about the book, so … I’ll take that offer.

  25. Lee Monks September 12, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    The Ask got a similar reception, as did The Anthologist. But the best comparison is probably either Absurdistan or Super Sad True Love Story from yet another fine US comic novelist – Gary Shteyngart.

  26. Lee Monks September 12, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    David: if you don’t find Patton Oswalt remotely funny at all in Young Adult, well…:-)

  27. David September 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Lee, I find Patton Oswalt funny as a comedian. I like him in a lot of his acting roles. I found his character in Young Adult to be likable and sympathetic. But I wanted to walk into the film and drag him as far away from Charlize Theron’s character as I could as quickly as I could. Neither of us deserved to be punished by spending any time with her at all. At least Buddy had Beth to help protect him from her.

  28. Colette Jones September 13, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Do I dare say that I don’t find Wodehouse that funny. The first one you read is funny, and maybe the second, but after that it’s much of a muchness. It appears, from Chris’s arguments, that we can count those who only write comic novels, so there aren’t many more examples on the British “side”. I use quotes because I disagree with the distinction being made between the two contries’ output.

  29. Lee Monks September 13, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Colette: I agree that Wodehouse is much more of the same. But after a bit of a gap: lovely stuff. Although it’s smirks and the odd guffaw rather than laughs for me.

    And I’d also question this division, I don’t see that it matters really. I’ve read more funny US novels than Brit ones, probably because I’ve read more US novels. Funny Brit books tend, perhaps, to be drier and tarter on the whole, but I don’t particularly like making the distinction between ‘comic’ novels (House of Holes) and novels about ‘literary matters’ that are very funny (The Anthologist). The latter is very dry and witty: one might say ‘British’ if one was inclined to make such distinctions. I certainly don’t see this great canon of peerless Brit literary comedy, I wish I did. Answered Prayers and Breakfast of Champions have no British peers: but nobody else is doing quite what the Patrick Melrose novels do. And so on.

  30. StAug October 25, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    As a Black American, I think it’s possible that Liberal White Americans are giving Beatty’s shoddy (and overstuffed with exhausted riffs and routines) book some well-meaning chortles of solidarity, lubricated with (petite segregation’s enforced) incomprehension… not to mention the fact that we Blacks are often considered funny by default. So that would explain the ones who’ve actually read it. The rest are possibly just happy to approve of the idea that a Black man wrote a book… and even won the Booker for it. But “The Sellout” really is a shoddy piece of work that Beatty clearly stitched together with his patronizingly-forgiving White target demo in mind… he knew he could get away with this kind of thing, because he’d gotten away with it before, but even he, on some level, most be both A) ashamed of how far short the book falls of being good and, B) aware of the irony that bar-lowering Affirmative Action is one of his favorite targets for broad, unfunny, college newspaper-type “satire”. Which should make some of us serious readers, happy, at least, for the return of one of postmodernism’s favorite Meta-gimmicks: Beatty has entered his own book as an unfunny Black writer that Liberal Whites find hilarious! Bravo?

    Oy vey, Racism! When it’s not evil and persecuting Genius, it’s friendly and lauding Mediocrity (eg any number of your “favorite” Rappers….)

  31. Colette Jones October 26, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Or perhaps it’s just that others have an opinion of the book different to your own.

  32. Lee Monks October 26, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    I find the arguments/advocacy/derogation surrounding this book fascinating. It really does rub people up the wrong way/have them deliriously impressed. Partly why I’m a bit miffed to fall right in the middle somewhere as I found it an often impressive and funny exercise that doesn’t quite work overall. But I did find the two posts prior to this one very funny, in tandem and in isolation.

  33. David October 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    StAug’s comment makes me curious just what the reception of this book has been among black American readers. Does anyone know of any prominent reviews of the book by black Americans?

  34. StAug October 26, 2016 at 7:50 pm


    The utter subjectivity of taste goes without saying; we can choose to voice our opinions or remain silent… never write reviews/ critiques, never judge. But who goes through the day without judging food/ music/ lit/ architecture/ odors/ fashion/ paintings/ graffiti/ language/ advertizing, et al? And who can *reasonably* pretend that all opinions are always equal? My ten-year-old Daughter very definitely knows what she likes, but that doesn’t mean her opinion on Lit or Vegetables is as good (or grounded in experience) as mine.

    I think getting very specific when showing the mechanical (to begin with) flaws of a text is more helpful than saying “Well, I like it” or “It sucks”. I bought the book and read it carefully (with mounting irritation) and on a page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence level, I can show that “The Sellout” is a poor piece of writing; that the brushstrokes are too broad, the tone is sophomoric, its clichès were already old forty years ago. Forget whether or not it’s “funny”, because people laugh for very different reasons (there are people who still laugh at banana-peel gags): it fails as a long text written by an adult. If “The Sellout” is good, then almost anything I’ve ever read is. I don’t think that can be true. I’ve read quite a few disappointingly-weak or poor books (from authors as famous as Ian McEwan, Will Self, or Saul Bellow) and I can get very specific about the mechanical failures of sloppy or misfired or cynically-lazy texts.

    If anyone thinks a particular passage of “The Sellout” is better than mediocre, I’d be happy to re-read that passage. Can anyone post anything….?

  35. StAug October 26, 2016 at 8:09 pm


    Well, I’m not sure what the writers at Black Agenda Report (an interestingly radical site) have to say about Beatty’s material, but would you like to know what they think of the work of another anointed Writer of Color (Ta-Nehisi Coates)…? It ain’t pretty. Here’s the intro, for example, to something on Coates, linked to by B.A.R. in 2013:

    “How does one become rated “the best writer on race today?” By telling white people what they want to hear. Ta-Nehisi Coates is “the new favorite Black cultural tour guide of the chattering class” because he “talks about racism in a way that makes White Liberals feel good.”

    Seems relevant to this discussion…

  36. Colette Jones October 27, 2016 at 2:41 am

    St Aug, if you kept your remarks to your opinion of the book, rather than generalising that it can only be liked by a particular tyoe of person, I would give it more credence.

  37. StAug October 27, 2016 at 4:41 am


    My opinion of the book is that you have to to be strongly predisposed to liking it (or its author), for extra-literary reasons, in order to give its many obvious flaws a pass.

  38. Colette Jones October 27, 2016 at 5:36 am

    Nice try.

  39. Lee Monks October 27, 2016 at 6:12 am

    “How does one become rated “the best writer on race today?” By telling white people what they want to hear. Ta-Nehisi Coates is “the new favorite Black cultural tour guide of the chattering class” because he “talks about racism in a way that makes White Liberals feel good.”

    I’ve read a lot of similar comments, about Coates, Beatty and Rankine in particular. I do think this is an important factor re: what might affect the reception of this book amongst white readers. Did The Sellout win because it’s talking about an issue that allows judges to confer a certain liberal largesse upon it, and turn it into a totemic political artefact/gesture? Would they even necessarily know they were doing that if they’re tightly bound up in left-leaning sympathies that negate any such self-surveillance? If this is ‘cutting-edge satire’ to a white reader and ‘old hat timeworn white-permissible riffs’ to a black reader, what does that mean for the Booker? And who’s right? And does it entirely depend on your proclivities, or your race, or what? This is all stuff that intrigues me.

    “My opinion of the book is that you have to to be strongly predisposed to liking it (or its author), for extra-literary reasons, in order to give its many obvious flaws a pass.”

    Well, Amanda Foreman certainly was. But was it really that bad?

    I thought there were some fantastically funny bits in The Sellout, but I’m a white working-class English bloke.

  40. StAug October 27, 2016 at 7:06 am


    “I thought there were some fantastically funny bits in The Sellout, but I’m a white working-class English bloke.”

    Well, imagine a guy from Alabama sees an English comedian for the first time and that comedian happens to be Michael McIntyre (or: name your least fave, bog standard English comedian) and the Alabama guy thinks McIntyre is knee-slappingly hilarious and a genius of great originality and is tireless in promoting MM. Would this not grate? (Laugh).

    One of the problems, here, is that Writers of Literary Fiction of Color are so jaw-droppingly underrepresented that we see the “Alabama-guy-sees-McIntyre-for-the-first-time” effect, over and over again, and, sad to say, Rankine and Beatty (and a few others I could name) are the beneficiaries. And there are very few blow-away Writers of Literary Fiction of Color I can offer as corrective counter-examples… that’s one of the vicious circles we’ve inherited from being a very short distance, downwind, from Chattel Slavery, Jim Crow, et al. The form of “Black Culture” that’s always (always) promoted, among Liberals and Conservatives (and Blacks and Whites) alike happens to be borderline-illiterate. Not nice to say; a terrible Truth.

    Problem: it’s not really useful to discuss this on the superficial level people generally prefer to discuss it on. But my larger point is that awarding Beatty’s mediocre-to-shoddy book is a condescendingly benign gesture that won’t do anything to energize or enrich the state of Black Lit… it will only serve to keep the bar critically (in all senses of the word) low.

  41. StAug October 27, 2016 at 7:29 am

    erratum: “The form of “Black Culture” that’s always (always) promoted as AUTHENTIC…”

  42. David October 27, 2016 at 8:07 am

    StAug, it seems you are sliding back and forth between two different criticisms: (1) The flaws with the book are not artistic so much as they are political. In other words, the work might be very artfully done but the political perspective expressed is flawed or trite in ways that a white audience might not see. (2) The work is not so much politically flawed as it is artistically flawed, but a white liberal readership is willing to look past these flaws because of the political comfort liking the book provides.
    It does seem to me in places you say each of these things, but they also strike me as mutually exclusive. If there are artistic flaws in the book, then surely even a politically uninformed white critic can see those. This seems to be the best basis on which to criticize the Man Booker for awarding it a prize. Because if the claim is that the flaws are political, not artistic, and the white jury cannot see them, then at least you do agree it is artistically strong, which means that maybe the Man Booker jury is not so wrong in assessing the art of the book.
    Political objections to works of fiction are certainly worth making and discussing, but it should be clear just what the objections are we are supposed to be discussing. For my money, The Merchant Of Venice was pretty clearly meant to be a comedy, but the humour of it only works for an anti-Semitic audience. Judged based solely on the art of its execution, it’s an excellent play. Viewed politically, it is very deeply problematic. But I can understand why critics who don’t see the political problems I do might hail it as a great play. It seems to me most likely that this is the sort of thing happening here, because if there is an artistic problem with the novel beyond the politics of it, surely it winning a major award is not explained by a white audiences inexperience with literary quality.

  43. StAug October 27, 2016 at 8:18 am


    I’ll have to blame the imprecision of the language of my comments if you think I think the flaws of The Sellout are “political”. I think it’s a very poorly-written book and that Beatty is a mediocre writer. I think The Sellout has been anointed for praise for political reasons.

  44. StAug October 27, 2016 at 8:27 am


    Aha: I know where you got the idea that I think The Sellout’s flaws are political: upthread you wondered about The Sellout’s reception among Blacks and I pointed to Black Agenda Report’s aversion to Ta Nehisi Coates’ position as a preferred writer of color. What I meant by that is that Beatty’s position, like Coates’, can be seen, possibly, as that of another Writer of Color who made it through The Filter for suspect reasons. There’s a Kapo Class theory about all that, you know. But that’s quite apart from my critique of The Sellout on a structural level.

  45. Colette Jones October 27, 2016 at 10:40 am

    You still seem to be saying that black people don’t like the book and white people do. I just don’t see evidence of that and I always (always) resist that type of generalisation.

  46. StAug October 27, 2016 at 10:59 am


    I didn’t say that; I pointed out that a more radical site like Black Agenda Report is leery/weary of the Kapo Class of White-appointed/anointed Black “leaders” and spokes-models, among whose company T. Coates is often placed (along with, say, Jesse Jackson, “Skip” Gates and Al Sharpton)… and that I can see the possibility that Beatty is being groomed for such a position. Which is, again, external to my critique of The Sellout as a slipshod attempt at novel-writing. The connection between the two positions being that when a book that poorly-written wins a high-profile Lit award (and gets so much hype, even before that), the natural question is: Why?

    Speaking on a purely statistical level, in any case, whether or not the target demo for The Sellout is overwhelmingly White (which it most probably is), that represents a very, very small fragment of the population. So my hypothetical comment couldn’t have been about “White people,” as a general category, any more than a comment about Country Music, Donald Trump, Wicca, Extreme Sports or Nascar could.

  47. David October 27, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    StAug, thanks for the clarification. That makes sense. I am reminded of controversies about how the Oscars tend to overlook black films except period pieces about the civil rights movement or slavery. The critique is that liberal white audiences like to celebrate films that are critical of the past, but not as keen on films about the present. So 12 Years A Slave wins for Best Picture but Straight Outta Compton only gets nominated for Best Screenplay (which was written by 3 white people). Political motivations to overlook artistic flaws can explain the positive response to a less than stellar work.
    I went looking for reviews and noticed that The New Your Times had a review by Kevin Young, a black poet and essayist. His review was very positive, but, as you point out, the fact that he is black does not preclude political reasons for either not noticing or choosing to overlook literary flaws. The more discussion of the book I read the more I think I probably would not like it, but the more curious I get to check for myself. I’m stuck in a Catch-22. I hear Beatty is an admirer of Heller, so he might enjoy that.

  48. StAug October 27, 2016 at 3:21 pm


    Yep! The uniformly hyperbolic praise The Sellout got, from the very beginning, would even have been a red flag for a much better book. I’d advise buying The Sellout, reading it carefully, and being very sure of your reasons for not liking it (if, in fact, you don’t)… so you can speak with authority should you decide to take to the comment threads with a vengeance! You won’t be alone.


    PS Re: 12 Years a Slave: I think McQueen’s an interesting Artist and a pretty good Director and I hope (expect) to see a masterpiece out of him as he matures. He’s certainly better than most of his contemporaries and seems to be guided by the genuine need to create worthy material… unlike so many (cough)…!

  49. Trevor Berrett October 27, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I’m in the same position as David. I have a copy of the book but haven’t read it and am not sure it’s for me. But the more I read the more I want to know where I fall.

    Thanks so much for the engaging comments, StAug, and for the engaging prods David.

  50. StAug October 27, 2016 at 5:32 pm


    It’s been a great chat for me, man! I’m glad it wasn’t tedious for you

  51. Greg October 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you StAug and David for this educating exchange. I learned a lot about the consequences of my liberal bias….I discovered so much about myself that I wasn’t aware of!

  52. StAug October 30, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Hey Greg!

    Can’t quite tell if this is lethally-cool sarcasm on your part; if so, you are a master of the form and I salute you! If not: glad to be of service! (laugh)

  53. Greg October 30, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    No, I was being sincere StAug….for example, I had no idea that Ta-Nehisi Coates is criticized in some circles….please don’t tell me Hilton Als is too?

  54. StAug October 31, 2016 at 4:23 am


    Yes: it’s inevitable, when you have a more or less congenital underclass, that when a few specimens of the underclass make it to a position of visibility, these anointed specimens will be under suspicion for making it through The Filter… especially if they express themselves in print for a living. A basketball player can make it through without compromising, because, after all, it’s the physical attributes that work in his favor… no one needs to know what an athlete thinks about anything… but what kind of attributes must be working in your favor if you’re an intellectual and the system oppressing your class/race decides to oppress you a lot less than most? So that’s the reverse-side-view (the view from the bottom) of the logic of Occupation; Occupiers/ Colonizers always hire a Kapo class of Acceptables (the opposite of Clinton’s “Deplorables”) to keep things running smoothly in the camp. Maybe Coates is a Kapo (which is not to say he’d know it if he were; the standard term is “useful idiot”).

    The mistake would be in thinking that only a blatant arse-kisser of the regime could become anointed; the regime (any regime) will be smart enough to anoint a few sassy Kapos (the controlled opposition), too: this serves to burnish the image of the regime and give the illusion that the system is accountable to the will of the people. What you won’t find, generally, even among “critics” who make it through The Filter to positions of high visibility, are opinions attacking *fundamental* tenets of the system/ regime. For example, it’s okay to make a loud noise whenever some “rogue” squadron of NATO or US troops goes totally nuts in Iraq or Afghanistan, raping and killing for sport (as opposed to doing it in a professional manner)… but it’s obviously verboten to ask the big questions: What are “we” even doing in Iraq/ Afghanistan/ Libya (et al) in the first place? Isn’t “our” presence a war crime, already, by default?

    Think of any successful regime/system as a structure held together, cleverly, by the force of its own internal pressures (as with the Clinton/ Trump battle or supreme court controversies etc). Radicals who have figured that one out realize that the best strategy is to get people to simply *stop believing*… to withdraw their support (the necessary internal pressure) by totally opting out; “boycott”, in a word. This is why the system/regime prefers the Ta-Nehisi Coates type of mildly “angry” talking head who will encourage “engagement” and who will make a non-starter like “reparations” (all it takes is for one Rightwinger to point out that “the Welfare State” already paid “reparations” to the tune of x-amount of billions) his harmless hobby horse. Because that will keep the discussion of (eg) POTUS’ illegal, immoral, techno-fascist extra-judicial murder-Drone program off the table.

    Also, to go into some parapolitical depth: every time “The People” produce a genuine leader (MX, or MLK), you’ll notice that something happens to that leader and she/he is replaced by a bizarre ersatz like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. You’ll also notice that a supposed “badass” “radical” like Huey Newton will make it all the way through the 1960’s and 1970’s alive and well and not even doing hard time… whereas a genuinely dangerous leader like Fred Hampton will never make it to see his 25th birthday. So, there are your genuine radicals/ dissidents/ folk-leaders (an endangered species) on the one hand… and the camera-ready version (with lucrative publishing contracts) on the other.

    The regime/ system has set up an amazing Simulation for us to live in, but if you look closely, you can see it flicker and warp.

  55. David October 31, 2016 at 10:31 am

    In today’s episode of “Be Careful What You Wish For”….
    I just checked my mail and there was a mysterious package from the UK. At first I had no idea what it might be and then I remembered that in early September I took up Chris on his offer to send his copy of The Sellout to anyone who wanted it on the condition that they read it and submit a review of it here. So it looks like I will be reading the book after all!
    Chris, I’ll thank you now for the book just in case I hate it so much I forget to do it later. But who knows? Maybe the Man Booker committee did get it right. I’d love to be able to bait Trevor into joining me in reading the book now, but I’ll leave that up to him.
    Ok. Here I go….

  56. Trevor Berrett October 31, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    I did pull out my copy the other day, David. We’ll see!

  57. StAug October 31, 2016 at 1:25 pm


    Good luck! May you have a better experience than I did…!

  58. Greg October 31, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you so much StAug for teaching me what is truly happening here between the ESTABLISHMENT and the UNDERCLASS!

    And your lesson of “not believing” being the best weapon against the ESTABLISHMENT is so accurate!….I have lived it first hand here in Canada on the French / English border. After our heated language wars from the 80s and 90s, many of the French minority have completely divorced themselves emotionally from the rest of Canada. Thus, today they continue using our money, services and our passport, but they peacefully and ‘matter of factly’ don’t consider themselves Canadian at all….and lastly, Quebec has won more privileges than any other province in Canada.

    Wasn’t BREXIT kinda like this?….and do you think StAug there is a good chance that Trump can win next week by having disenfranchised people who don’t like to take polls show up and shake up the status quo?

  59. StAug October 31, 2016 at 7:28 pm


    Fascinating! I had a good friend from Montreal speak of those language wars… never in enough detail to suit me, though. I can see that happening in Germany in about thirty years…

    Re: Brexit: I’ll be shocked if They don’t roll that one back. (Which reminds me: it’s time to check on Iceland and see if they’re still arresting bankers and prospering… a really inspiring story when that started happening a while back).

    Re: Trump: I wouldn’t get too excited about the liberatory potential of Trump… he still feels like a backfiring (boomeranging?) pantomime they’d hoped to use to scare voters back toward the horrifying Billary. Nobody who would/could actually *change* things will get anywhere close to a nomination… that’s the point of the system (and you must admit it’s genius, pre-selecting two candidates with back room deals and calling that “democracy”! Hilarious! ). I think Don’s a psycho and Billary is a psycho with an exceedingly bloody track-record. Though I hate to be a downer. When BHO was elected, I went to buy a kebab at a Turkish place down the street and the guy making my sandwich said, in broken German, “So, Obama will fix it, yes?” and I shook my head and shrugged and he… didn’t look happy. Probably thought I was a total asshole. I should’ve just thumbs-upped the guy and made him happy for a day.

  60. Greg November 1, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Thanks again StAug for another informative and entertaining post! You have made me think more about Germany, England and Iceland……and you bring up a great question at the end: Should we let others be happy with their illusions? Hmm…….

  61. StAug November 1, 2016 at 11:23 am


    A real pleasure talking with you!

  62. David January 12, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    Last fall, in the initial discussion of Chris’ review here, he offered to send his copy of The Sellout to anyone who wanted it on the condition that the person write a review of the book for this site. I accepted the offer and so two months ago I received Chris’ copy of the book in the mail. It took me until Christmas break to get around to giving it my attention, but here I am now with my review, for whatever it might be worth. If I had to summarize my impression of the book in a single line I would say that it is far from worthy of being considered for book awards, as it was, but that it also is not entirely without value. Faint praise? Perhaps so, but still sincerely meant.
    The prologue to the novel is about twenty pages long. It is more monologue than really part of the story proper. Beatty employs the common device of starting near the end before jumping back to the beginning of the story and explaining how we got here. The narrator has been brought before the Supreme Court of the United States charged with reintroducing segregation and slavery. That he is also a black man makes the situation especially peculiar. Other than telling us this, the prologue has little else to say about the story. It is more a stream of semi-observations that are, I think, supposed to be amusing, but that really don’t amount to much.
    For example, he mentions Justice Clarence Thomas a number of times (although not by name – no actual people who populate the book are ever named). He references the fact that Thomas was famously accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, that Thomas never speaks during Court hearings, and that some have thought he has more often than not just looked to Justice Scalia for direction about what to think about cases they hear. These are familiar observations, so when Beatty makes them they have me thinking, “Yes? And…?” but there never is an “and”. It seems like Beatty is hoping that, like a naughty school child saying something it is impolite to say, just mentioning these facts about Thomas is enough to get a laugh from his reader so he need not be troubled to actually make a comment about it himself. This is a technique employed by less talented stand-up comics who, having said “How about that Donald Trump?” and getting a laugh, have nothing more to say so just move on.
    Worse than this, the prologue sets up what should be the end of the story that never comes. We know from the prologue that the narrator’s case is being heard by the Supreme Court and the rest of the book tells us how he got there, but in the end we never find out what the court’s decision is or how that decision has any consequences for the lives of the characters we meet or the country as a whole. It is as if Beatty either forgot that he had created a story that culminates in the Supreme Court hearings or he didn’t know what to do once he got there, so just stopped writing. On the whole, the prologue is a bit too much of a slog to read and offers little that contributes to the narrative, so a reader will not lose much to just skip over it.
    Readers and reviewers of the book have typically viewed it as a satire and that does seem to me to be its intent, but to be a proper satire it has to have something to say about its subject. What, if anything, Beatty has to say in this novel is never really clear. We can see how this problem manifests itself by looking at one of the main ideas explored in the book: slavery. Hominy, an older black man, decides that when the narrator saves his life that he should now become the narrator’s slave. This proposal seems funny as absurdist humour and it plays on the ideas that if you save a life you become responsible for that life and that saving someone’s life is a debt that cannot ever be repaid. But does Hominy’s willingness, or rather his enthusiasm, to become a slave tell us anything about slavery as it was practiced in America? Does it tell us something about the lives of black men today in America? Or about older black men in particular? Or is it just meant to be funny because it is absurd and nothing more? If the latter, then it is not satire at all, just comedy. There must be something more to it for it to be satire, but there is no clearly identified target here, so it cannot be viewed as satire. As comedy, it does strike me as a funny idea, but it’s more a chuckle than a belly laugh. And in the context of a novel that seems to want to be a commentary about race, it is hard to accept it as a simple comic situation without being quite aware that in reality slavery, far from being funny, is the source of the racial situation today the rest of the book seems to want to say something about.
    A second idea explored in the book is segregation, which is reintroduced through the school. There is some irony about making the school racially exclusive causing it to be seen as more desirable when there is no real good reason to value it so highly. We also are told that segregation improved the results of the students in the school. This could be another example of ironic or absurdist humour except for one problem: There is some truth to this phenomenon. Many people have argued that girls do better in school when placed in an all-girls school, that boys do better in an all-boys school, and, yes, that black kids do better in an all-black school than a racially mixed one. There are serious arguments made by serious educators for segregated schools, so when Beatty presents a school that gets better results after it is segregated it is not clearly satire at all rather than the logical outcome of a particular view of education. If there is any humour at all here, it is not clear what it is. If Beatty is trying to make some sort of commentary here about segregation, then it is also not clear what that is. Surely his presentation will not persuade people who think segregated schools are not better for kids to change their minds, as not much of an argument is made for how this happened. But there is no real joke here and nothing is really revealed or criticised about schools or segregation. So Beatty’s point here, if there really is one, is not at all clear.
    Another element to reintroducing segregation in the novel is the redrawing of the boundary of Dickens. The narrator decides that to restore civic pride that the boundary of Dickens should be made clear. The boundary line has literally been taken off the map, so he decides to paint a line on the ground that marks where Dickens begins and ends. This rather silly idea becomes popular, other people help in painting the line, and by making it clear to people where Dickens is in a visible way, it helps restore some civic pride. Of the various things the narrator does in the novel, this was the one that seemed the most successful. My hometown, Halifax Nova Scotia, used to have a region of town that was called “Africville”. It was an all-black community that, when it existed, was just outside of the main part of the city. But in the 1960s Africville was leveled and the residents forcibly removed in order to build a bridge across Halifax Harbour. The memory of the injustice that was done to Africville and the memory of Africville itself is kept alive to this day by the people who once lived there and their descendants. They still have an annual gathering in a park that was built on the land that their community was located. So the idea of wanting a literal reminder of where the boundaries of that community once was and even painting it on the ground strikes me as something that, at first glance, seems absurd, but when fully considered has some real power. But even at that, it still seems that the significance of the painting the line on the ground is not something that Beatty really says much about, so it’s not clear to what extent he sees it as really significant and so to what extent he intends satire and not just a quirky, funny part of the plot.
    The funniest part of the novel and the best example of satire is given to us in the character of Foy Cheshire and his attempts to literally rewrite history by rewriting and retitling then republishing famous novels to make them more politically acceptable. He tells us he “took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece [Huckleberry Finn]. Where the repugnant ‘n-word’ occurs, I replaced it with ‘warrior’ and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer.’… I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” There are a number of other examples given of Cheshire’s retitling and rewriting classic novels. What he is doing is, without doubt, ridiculous and the presentation of him is funny. But this is not really an original idea. Beatty is borrowing heavily from reality here. In 2011 there was a real controversy over a new publication of Huckleberry Finn where the word “nigger” was replaced with “slave”. The idea that Cheshire wants to sanitize classic novels is not an original one and while the jokes Beatty comes up with for the new alternate titles of them are funny, he (again) does not seem to have much more to say about this other than that it is a silly way to respond to problems of prejudice. He has done a little more here by way of commentary than he did with mentions of Clarence Thomas in the prologue, but not much more.
    It feels to me that the reaction to The Sellout by people who have had high praise for it really just comes from knowing that Beatty is trying to be satirical, agreeing with him that there are significant problems with race relations in the United States today, and then just assuming that some commentary that they agree with was made and it was done in a way that is clever and funny. But I don’t see where Beatty ever really goes so far as to say much of anything on any of these issues. So overall, the book was quite disappointing. It did make me laugh a number of times and I liked the characters of Hominy and Foy Cheshire, but there is not a lot about the book to really recommend it. Less still to recommend that it be awarded any major literary prizes.

  63. Chris Phillips January 12, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Great that you kept your side of the bargain David! I’m especially grateful as it actually cost me slightly more to post the damn thing to Canada than it did to buy in the first place…

    I have noticed that since The Sellout won the Booker it’s barely been mentioned anywhere. I browsed through several of the kind of end of year ‘books I loved in 2016’ type features that the papers on both sides of the pond like to produce and nobody mentioned it. Forgotten already apparently. In my view it deserved to be.

  64. StAug January 13, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Perhaps we can start an *Honesty in Book-Reviewing* movement…? Because the gap between our perceptions of The Sellout and the nearly-uniformly-hyperbolic praise it got, from the press, is worthy of suspicion, to say the least. How many of the reviewers even read more than ten pages of it before declaring it a “Swiftian masterpiece”…?

  65. David January 13, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    Chris, sorry that it cost you so much to send it, but despite my view of the book I am glad I read it, so thanks. I don’t know if it is normal for chatter about a book to die out like this, but I would have thought that given that the issue of race relations in the US is not going away at all from public conversations that people not talking about the book could be an indication that they don’t see it as being very relevant to those discussions either. Although, to be fair, talk about all things Trump really is dominating political discussions now.
    StAug, I don’t doubt that other reviewers read the book or the sincerity of their praise. I just think they were praising the book for what they hoped and wanted it to be rather than what it was. In some ways the way the book was written gave a perfect opportunity for readers to project onto it their own thoughts and concerns about race, so they might not have even noticed the book said so little itself. Or maybe they didn’t want to seem out of step criticizing the well-intended book about racism. Hard to say. I’d say that Beatty’s ambitions were more Vonneguttian than Swiftian, but either way the masters can rest easy. Their thrones remain secure.

  66. StAug January 14, 2017 at 3:45 am


    “I just think they were praising the book for what they hoped and wanted it to be rather than what it was.”

    There’s definitely an element of that to it, yes! That plus the bandwagon effect. I remember being bewildered over the towering hype-wave that hit for Frey’s crudely-written “A Million Little Pieces”: it sort of blew my mind that the “controversy” was centered on whether or not the narrative was “true” rather than being centered on the fact that writing that bad got itself a contract and sold so many units. Caring for Lit (its health, its reach) can be trying! Laugh

  67. maddie January 19, 2017 at 8:32 am

    this is an interesting thread. Chris, shallow as it may seem but I bought & read this book only after it won the Booker prize and raving reviews;) and I am so very glad that I have I read it. For someone who lives almost seven seas away from ‘Dickens’ and who is not black, American or even native English speaker, the story could not be more familiar! yes prologue was pain to get through and yes there were so many cultural references I had no idea what Beatty was on about but I have found the core story strangely universal. world is full of permanently damaged men (and women) and crumbling communities. For me what made this book special – and worth reading- is, it is just so timely and his lucidity among surrounding absurdity is just a bonus. Time will tell.

  68. charlieupamountain March 15, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Having just had the excruciating experience of reading The Sellout for my book club I am delighted to find all these comments… I had only read the plaudits and was beginning to wonder what I had missed.

  69. Greg April 14, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you Chris and David for your thorough reviews. I just finished the book and your intelligent thoughts have added immensely to my experience!

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