Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker prize, becoming the first American to win the award since it was opened up to authors outside the Commonwealth in 2013. Most won’t yet have heard of the 54-year-old author of The Sellout, a satire of US racial politics. Because if one thing united this year’s shortlist, it was the lack of literary celebrity.
As the Man Booker website itself commented, of the six authors shortlisted, only Levy had even been heard of before in Booker circles. All were on the list on the literary merit of their books. But celebrity such as the Booker changes all this.
Literature is generally held to be the opposite of popular culture, something that requires solitude and sustained engagement with words and ideas beyond the everyday. So its relationship with celebrity, that most visual and ephemeral of phenomena, is in some ways unique.
It is certainly true that even a very famous writer is unlikely to pack out a football stadium, although the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, coupled with his signature failure to acknowledge it, must make the literary establishment check their assumptions about both literature and celebrity. But what is peculiar about literary celebrity is that it is not about “the literary” at all. It is about our obsessions with the biographical person.
Enter the author. Following the announcement of any major literary prize in the UK and Europe, the immediate focus falls on the author’s biography. In the case of Elena Ferrante, as we have recently seen, this public hunger for the personal can suppress pretty much everything else, including the actual writing. Although Ferrante’s efforts to keep her private person out of the public eye are as extreme as the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti’s distasteful obsession with tracking her down, her dislike of the celebrity machine is shared by the many other authors who also try to shift attention back to their books.
Beatty clung to his after the first awkward minutes during which he foundered on the podium after winning the prize, clearly uncomfortable with having to share his immediate thoughts and emotions with the international media. “Maybe I should talk about the book a bit,” he suggested. But his book will not hide him now. Herta Müller’s claim that it was her books that won the Nobel Prize in 2009 could not do anything to stop speculation about her hairstyle and choice of dress doing the rounds in the international broadsheets.
Beatty will also have to get used to the invariable discussion of the cash, and whether it is really desirable for one author to hit the jackpot at the exclusion of everybody else. Mention of money sullies the literary for some.
All of this could be uncomfortable for Beatty, who told the Booker dinner guests of how he cried with joy in front of readers in Detroit some years back when he read aloud from his work for the first time. He had realised just how perfectly it replicated the language in his head. This touching tale from an author who loves his craft made up for his being, in his own words, “woefully underprepared” for speaking as a celebrity at the gala dinner.
Not so the publishers, who have been working up to this for months and will now take every opportunity they can to push their product with shiny stickers and prime displays, just as the laws of celebrity require. Beatty should expect to have numerous meetings with numerous publicists lined up to expedite sales at home and abroad. He may start to feel a little bit like Beyoncé. Unlike Beyoncé, however, literary celebrity doesn’t travel. This could be his writerly salvation.
Although the English-speaking book market is huge and highly influential, it is still just one geographically-bounded market, and not a very cohesive one at that.
Julian Barnes has a strong following in the UK. But he is not such a big deal in the US, where he is (justifiably) described as particularly British. Jonathan Franzen is an A-list literary celebrity in New York, and he’s pretty famous in the UK, but the further east he travels, the more he is in need of mediators. While still a well-known face in Germany, he mainly goes there to bird watch.
Travelling back the other way, Joël Dicker’s French blockbuster The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair sold 2m copies in Europe, but bombed in the US. Just 13,000 of Penguin’s 125,000 copies sold on its much trumpeted launch, and reviews quickly turned negative. Routinely accosted in his home town of Geneva, he is safe in New York.
Can Beatty take some comfort from these regional quirks that accompany even bestsellers? “I love being lost,” he quipped on the stage as he searched for words. “It’s the only way I get anywhere.” He has been found for English readers, but once his book starts to travel to other places, there are no guarantees that the same piece of writing will arrive as set off. There could be an escape route here.
Readerships are diverse, knowledge and expectations are different, and the more mediators are needed (translators, foreign-language editors, international rights departments), the more the book becomes detached from its biographical author. Some famous authors make it on a global stage, for sure. But there is often remarkably little left of the original author by then.
So here’s a plan for Beatty. He can take the money and settle down to write somewhere where English is not the primary language. He doesn’t have to deny the literary establishment entirely like Bob Dylan, but he could look to put more of the rest of the world on the literary map. Not by selling books there, but by writing them. That would be another kind of sellout – one that might just make people stop and think.