Paul Beatty is the first American winner of the Man Booker Prize in its 48-year history, giving Oneworld its second consecutive win of the award.
The decision - which also gives the prize to a black author for the second year running - defied the bookies' predictions and represented a massive coup for independent Oneworld, in the face of behemoth Penguin Random House that between imprints Jonathan Cape and Hamish Hamilton had three authors in the running.
Chair of the judges Amanda Foreman hailed The Sellout "a novel for our times". She said the judges were unanimous in their decision made at a four-hour long meeting last night (25th October).
The Sellout, Beatty's playful fourth novel, and already winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, is a searing racial satire set on the outskirts of a fictional LA, in which its African-American narrator proposes to reinstate slavery and segregation to "right another wrong" following the death of his controversial sociologist father in a police shoot-out.
Foreman said the novel "plunges into the heart of contemporary American society, with an absolutely savage wit, of the kind I haven't seen since Swift or Twain; [it] both manages to slay every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow; and while making us laugh also makes us wince, it is both funny and painful at the same time, and it is really a novel for our times."
She added: "I think that fiction should not be comfortable. I think the truth isn't pretty and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. But that is why the novel works. While you're being nailed you're being tickled.".
The £50,000 award was presented to the winner by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at a ceremony and black-tie dinner in London’s Guildhall.
Beatty, a 54-year-old New York resident, born in Los Angeles, told the audience in an emotional acceptance speech: "I can't tell you guys how long the journey this has been for me. Sarah my agent [Sarah Chalfant of The Wylie Agency] has known me for 20 years, at least. I don't want to get all dramatic, [say] 'writing saved my life' or anything like that but, writing's given me a life.”
2016 is the third year the prize has been open to writers of any nationality. Before 2014 only writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth could be entered for the prize. Its expansion to include all English-language authors has caused some concern it could invite dominance from US authors and risked losing its characteristic flavour at the expense of Commonwealth authors, a point aired by Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate this autumn. The shortlist this year was split between two British, two US and two Canadian writers.
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said the jury had rejected a number of US novels which had been successful in America but were not deemed to be so magnificant by the judges when read in the UK, and she praised Beatty's book for its universality. "The book will land differently in different places, what is extraordinary about [Beatty's] book is that it landed here with a very strong resonance."
The shortlisted authors were together praised by Foreman as a "wonderful" group and "something we are really proud of", adding: "All six will be read and relished." Each will each receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book.
Beatty's novel overcame competition from bookies favourite Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books), tipped most likely to win at odds of 7/2 from William Hill, as well as from “the people’s favourite" His Bloody Project by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet. Macrae Burnet’s second novel was this year's sales frontrunner, having shifted 34,222 copies – more than any of the other shortlisted titles this year – in defiance of its underdog status for being published by small Scottish independent Contraband.
Second favourite Deborah Levy (11/4), shortlisted for a second time for Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton), was the only real “household name” on the shortlist, a point Foreman addressed in September calling the group “household names of the future”.
Frances Gertler, web editor at Foyles bookshops, commented of the winner: "Brave and funny, it takes a bit of getting into but once there, you don’t want to leave. A smart satire with a memorable narrator.” Katharine Fry, trade buying manager at Blackwell’s, called the book "a great surprise winner that will get a worthy boost in sales", saying it had "earned its place front of store in our shops in the run up to Christmas."