Two Award Winners I Didn’t Finish

Two days after I gave up on Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, it won the Mann-Booker Prize, the first American novel to do so.

My general rule of thumb is that the books on the long list that don’t win the Man Booker Prize are generally much better reads than the winner is. I have not read the rest of the long list, so I can’t say if that rule holds true this time around, but my money is on yes.

I hope someone who made it through The Sellout can let me know if the rest of it, I only made it to page 50 or so, turned out to be a play on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or not. I had a feeling that it was going that way.

I had two problems with The Sellout.  First is the shear density of the writing.  Every line is packed as packed can be.  I felt like I the narrator was one of those fast talking comedians who go on long rants that leave the audience breathless from trying to concentrate on getting every reference so they don’t miss a single joke.  That’s great. For about seven minutes. But for an entire novel?

My second problem was with language.  I know full well what Mr. Beatty is up to and I know that this requires the use of certain terms, but I just can go there anymore, not even when it’s funny.  The Sellout is funny, by the way.  Earlier this year I gave up on Billy Flynn’s Long Half-time Walk because over the use of “faggot” in the dialogue.  This was totally natural dialogue, just how you would expect a group of young soldiers to talk when no one important was listening.  It wasn’t even all that homophobic in context, just casual homophobia, literally locker-room talk. But I don’t need that in my reading life anymore.

The Sellout has the same issue.  I gave it an honest go, but enough is enough.

Just before giving up on The Sellout I gave up on Nobel Prize winner author Patrick Modiano’s The Night Watch. Another satire, this time set in occupied France, The Night Watch features an over-the-top main character, a Jew who is gleefully collaborating with the Nazi occupiers.

Again, the writing is very dense.  Just about every line of the forty plus pages I read referenced some aspect of French culture, history or literature, tearing them all down.  I understood a few references but I suspect most non-French readers will have a very tough time with The Night Watch.  Page after page of multiple references I didn’t understand about people I’d never heard of before.  I suspect many French people find this challenging reading.

Which brings me to my second rule of thumb about award winning literature–Nobel Prize winners are always great writers, but their books are usually very difficult reading.  That was certainly the case with The Night Watch.  

9 thoughts on “Two Award Winners I Didn’t Finish

  1. After being disappointed so often with book group reads of award winners I tend to run a mile when I hear it is trendy and an award winner. All except the Pulitzer Prize winners. I don’t know why but most of those books seem to have held up over the test of time and I would love to be involved in a group challenge that reads all of them. I struggle with many Booker prize winners. Now they have opened it up to USA there are even more books to stuggle with.

    1. I think the Booker should have kept the U.S.A. out of the running. I liked that it pointed me towards non-U.S. books and authors. It’s a very reliable marker of quality, especially the short list.

  2. Great review . Quite agree with your comments about longlist / award winning novels. Literature – yes. Easy reads? No. Enjoyable? not necessarily.

  3. I was really hoping that Madeleine Thein would win the Booker. i really didn’t fancy The Sellout but now I have an author signed copy I feel I should read it. Part of me wonders whether the judges felt they should award this year’s prize to an American author to justify their change of rules in recent years.

    1. I think The Sellout is good, just not the book for me at this time. If I were in the right frame of mind for satire, I’d probably enjoy it. Voltaire’s Candide is one of my favorites.

  4. Having read the whole longlist, I don’t particularly object to The Sellout winning the Booker, although I didn’t like it much. But I thought this year’s list was pretty weak overall. I gave up on it the first time I tried to read it, partly for a lot of the same reasons you did. (I was also reading a mildewed copy that gave me a headache, which made it worse.) I can appreciate that Beatty was doing something smart and doing it well, but I found it boring.

    1. If it’s boring is he really doing it well? I agree that it was smart and he was “doing it well” but shouldn’t we be interested in reading on if that’s really the case. I could not put Candide down, for example. It’s not fair of me to keep coming back to Voltaire as a baseline for good satire, I know. But I do think it’s fair of us as readers to require our interest be maintained.

      1. In the case of The Sellout, I tend to defer to people who enjoy the kind of thing he’s doing. Because I so often find satire tedious, I was more quickly bored than other people would be. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a great book, but I’m also not convinced that my dislike of it wasn’t just about personal taste.

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