There is no doubt that Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which plays on age-old tropes and racial stereotypes, is an incredibly funny and unsettling novel. But should we call it satire—a genre defined primarily by its ridicule of someone’s vice or folly, undergirded by the author’s clear moral position?
The Sellout—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its February 18 gathering—follows a thorny sequence of events that culminates in a young Black man’s criminal trial at the Supreme Court for violating civil rights law, after he attempts to reconstruct the borders of his hometown, Dickens, which has been erased from all maps.
Even though the novel treats issues of race, identity, and place with humor and intrigue, it sometimes feels as if the novel itself resists this humor, just as its unnamed protagonist does. Consider, for example, the moment when Hominy, a D-list celebrity who spirals into a suicidal mood, utters his desire to become the protagonist’s slave. The protagonist does not simply acquiesce to his demands—there is resistance; there seems to be a moment of clarity, in which we understand that certain behaviors are unacceptable, not only because they are offensive and demeaning but also because they are so fantastically outrageous. And yet, Hominy’s persuasion turns him into a slave, and the novel continues, and we, the readers, accept this reality.
Satire, however, expresses a clear political and moral attitude, which Beatty does not necessarily do here (or in other parts of the book). Instead, he maintains an evenhanded representation of events, neither leading readers toward a good-or-bad binary nor suggesting how we are to think about his characters.
Beatty himself has said that he doesn’t think he is a writer of satire. In his estimation, making fun of something or outlining the more appalling aspects of life does not automatically make a work satirical. In fact, Beatty was mildly surprised that book critics clung to the terms of comedy to describe his novel and said he believed that doing so may have prevented them from grappling with the novel’s weightier themes.
So where does this leave us? Is The Sellout satire or is it not? In the aforementioned interview, Beatty says the word “tragicomic” is a more appropriate term. Nonetheless, the fact that The Sellout cannot necessarily be placed neatly into a genre speaks to the difficulty of narrating about race in an irreverent register.
Ultimately, I’d say it is up to you, dear reader, to wrestle with the tensions of genre and ponder how this affects your reading of The Sellout. But you don’t have to do this alone! To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Beatty, click here.
Paul Beatty talks about his favorite books, California storytelling, and more. Alta
LeVar Burton, who was the host of the PBS show Reading Rainbow, has been named the inaugural PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion for his commitments to literary advocacy. Publishers Weekly
Why do you think Paul Beatty titled his book The Sellout? Let’s interrogate the meaning of a sellout. Alta
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Amanda Gorman made headlines last month for being the youngest poet to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration. And last weekend, she became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl. HuffPost
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Stanford professor Chang-rae Lee’s sixth novel, My Year Abroad, follows a young Asian American man who gets swept up on an adventure across Asia with an entrepreneur. In a book review, writer Andrew LaVallee considers the arc of Lee’s career. New York Times
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