The well of culture has been poisoned with propaganda. It may not be as lethal as a literal well-poisoning but it is as sickening.
Culture is now, essentially, the liquid that happens to be flowing through the pipes of The Media. It is no longer grounded in, or determined by, local conditions (via community gatherings, bands, local art movements, word of mouth, samizdat and any other low-budget repositories or propagators of Culture). The Media are global tools of their various powerful owners, obviously, and though these many powerful owners each have agendas of their own, and are probably more often competitors and/or enemies than friends, their interests can generally be categorized as being divergent from the interests of the Serfs (that’s us) that The Media are used to influence. If the interests of some powerful co-owners of The Media harmonize politically, the harmony is an effort coordinated by Governing structures of Finance and the Intelligence Agencies.
Geopolitical exigencies supervene upon matters of Culture. It is difficult, now, to distinguish between the push to sell cultural merchandise (books/ films/ pop singles/ TV shows) and the push to normalize a particular worldview or burnish the status of a supposed “way of Life”. Certainly, in the context of a Cold War that is clearly heating up again (after the apparent Gorbachev-intermission of the 1990s), “America” is a concept, created and maintained by The Media, to represent Nobility/ Freedom/ Fun in opposition to the “Russia” concept’s complementary Corruption/ Oppression/ Gloom.
In the middle of the 20th century, the need to burnish the image of the “America” concept, at the height of the first Cold War, led to crucial Media support for the Civil Rights movement: “America” couldn’t very well win the hearts and minds of a planet expected to choose between Washington and Moscow (as ideological beacons and colonizers) if “America” still boasted racially-segregated lunch counters, water fountains, high schools, strip clubs and swimming pools. An interesting corollary: the temporary juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement began to lose steam, and roll rather alarmingly backwards downhill, almost exactly at the time that relations between Washington and Moscow seemed to thaw.
Now that Washington and Moscow are again glaring at one another through binoculars in very chilly air, and NATO’s misadventures in the “Middle East” are ramping up, “America” needs burnishing, again, and representatives from a wide range of Racial and Gender “minorities” will be the beneficiaries. Why is this? In short: spotlighting brown faces (and celebrating non-het sex orientations) seems to do wonders in softening the image of a Global Hegemony; it would seem to be difficult to invoke Nazi Blitzkrieg, regarding America’s use of overwhelming military superiority in the invasion and occupations of several countries, when a Black or Female President oversees the invasions. How Evil can an Empire be when it nominates a woman as its figurehead… right? It doesn’t matter how irredeemably co-opted and corrupted the Black figurehead-puppet-actors and the Female firgurehead-puppet-actors are because the audience isn’t paying close attention. The audience is over-medicated, under-rested, ears-deep in debt and primarily concerned with blockbusting movies about Super Heroes… the propaganda doesn’t have to be brilliant in order to work. It only needs to be relentless.
The difference between Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0 being that “NATO” is now, essentially, a synonym for “America” or “The West”. In other words, The Media busy burnishing “America” and/or “NATO” are not restricted to such organs or events as Hollywood, The New York Times, The Pulitzer Prize, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, et al. The Guardian, Stern, Die Zeit, Charlie Hebdo, The Nobel, The Booker, et al, are all part of the normalization and burnishing of a particular worldview and “way of life”.
I was reading some Lit Bloggy “Best Of” List, a few weeks back, and noted, in the comment thread, that a lady was rhapsodizing over Peter Matthiessen, the chiseled, patrician hunk who wrote “The Snow Leopard” and other stuff of limited interest. So, I thought: 40 years after the first time Matthiessen was outed as a CIA agent who “founded” the Paris Review as a propaganda organ to enrich the Cold War, and four or five years after the outing was confirmed as fact, most still don’t know, or don’t give a shit. Because I thought the revelation pretty much changed everything.
I suddenly realized that many poets and writers I had always believed that I had come to like as a natural extension of my own interests and preferences actually got lodged in my mind at the CIA’s behest. I mean, “Modernism” (and, therefore “Post Modernism”) may or may not have been created by US Gov, but it was promoted so heavily by US Gov that it pushed everything else off the menu for the entirety of my Formative Years as a reader. In other words, I’m as much of a construct as The Paris Review, literarily speaking, shaped by a hidden agenda that Matthiessen (reputedly, if one of his ex-wives can be trusted, a sort of psychopath who once swerved on the road in order to drive over a large turtle) was working to serve. Matthiessen and that self-effacingly patrician super-smoothie George Plimpton, who was much better at keeping it to himself (Matthiessen being the kind of jocky cocksman who probably couldn’t resist bragging, to the better looking debutantes, that he was CIA*).
I like how Matthiessen stares down the camera in this clip (professional liars often make a point of looking you in the eye while plying the trade, you know):
One would think that the casually definitive exposure of the Paris Review as a “former” (cough) front for the CIA would put that particular asset out to pasture, but, hey: waste not, want not! The Paris Review still has a name redolent of faded patrician cocksman glamour in the Lit World and there are still tiny brains out there to wash. I mean: maybe it’s a coincidence: but when arch-Islamophobe (and iffy stylist) Michel Houellebecq squatted over his Remington and grunted out the most Islamophobic chunk of Dystopian Sci Fi of the past 50 years (it puts Dune to shame), guess who translated it into English? Lorin Stein, Ed in Chief of The Paris Review! Or maybe that’s a coincidence (like the fact that Houellebecq’s nightmare of Burkas and hand-chopping was published, in Paris, mere hours before the Charlie Hebdo passion play of early 2015, assuring bestseller stats). Whatever. “Am I Islamophobic? Probably yes,” said Houellebecq. So anybody wanting to stir the book-reading public into a froth capable of green-lighting (say) the invasion of Syria would definitely want to get Houellebecq’s shitty books in all the sweaty little credulous hands out there. And so on.
Despite all that, I doubt seriously the Paris Review is going to be pulling off the kind of culture-wide deceptions it must have been shitting its pants, with glee, about in the 1960s and 1970s. Matthiessen himself managed to win all kinds of “prestigious” lit awards in those days, which is a little like the nephew, of the guy who runs the corner shop, winning the lottery on a regular basis… but he got away with it, with just the hint of a weathered smirk, at the end. And, as I said above: a couple of generations of us were well and truly duped. With the caveat that the experience taught a cranky few of us to read falsified elements of the Zeitgeist as though they’re comic books. With relative ease and for pleasure, almost.
Which leads me to last season’s announcements regarding the lucky few who were visited, this year, by the MacArthur Genius Grant Fairy: each one gets 625K in pre-collapse dollars for writing not-particularly brilliant stuff that radiates a simple message that conforms to parts, or all, of some Plutocrats’ agenda(s). As the alarmingly (perhaps sinisterly) interesting Daniel Brandt put it, way back in 1993:
Anyone who follows today’s academic debates on multiculturalism, and by happenstance is also familiar with the power-structure research that engaged students in the sixties and early seventies, is struck by that old truism: the only thing history teaches us is that no one learns from history. By now it’s even embarrassing, perhaps because of our soundbite culture. Not only must each generation painstakingly relearn, by trial and error, everything learned by the previous generation, but it’s beginning to appear that we have to relearn ourselves that which we knew a scant twenty years earlier. The debate over diversity is one example of this.
Researchers in the sixties discovered that the ruling elites of the West mastered the techniques of multiculturalism at the onset of the Cold War, and employed them time and again to counter the perceived threat from communism. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was funded first by the CIA and then, after this was exposed in 1967, by the Ford Foundation. CCF created magazines, published books, and conducted conferences throughout the world, in an effort to wean intellectuals to democratic liberalism.
We’re talking about “multiculturalism” , now, because the Artists and Writers among the 23 awardees of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant look like a Benetton Ad. Which should be fine by me because I look like a Benetton Ad. But we aren’t called “minorities” for no reason, so when groups which live in the relatively small slices of the population pie chart are extremely over-represented as beneficiaries of spectacular philanthropic largesse, it feels like social engineering. As a Writer of Color, I would have been immensely pleased if a Writer of Color of Genius had been included in this lottery… or, at the very least, a writer as solidly mediocre as Jonathan Franzen. Instead, the material is very meh. Just the stuff to win a “Genius” award in The Kingdom of Bullshit.
Two of the awardees, Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson, had books that came out, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, that I was aware of before 2016’s MacArthur announcement.
First, among the cultural debris of the more recent dumping grounds of Identity Lit, I found Nelson’s exhibitionist, post-90s, theory-porn-novel (written in intermittent academese) THE ARGONAUTS (excerpt):
Like much of Catherine Opie’s work, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), which features the bloody stick figures cut into her back, gains meaning in series, in context. Its crude drawing is in conversation with the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later. And both are in conversation with the heterogeneous lesbian households of Opie’s Domestic series (1995–98)—in which Harry appears, baby-faced—as well as with Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), taken a decade after Self-Portrait/Pervert. In Opie’s nursing self-portrait, she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses, her Pervert scar still visible, albeit ghosted, across her chest. The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.
This balance is admirable. It is also not always easy to maintain. In a recent interview, Opie says: “Between being a full-time professor and an artist and a mom and a partner, it’s not like I get to have that much time to go and explore and play [SM style]…. Also, all of a sudden when you’re taking care of a child, your brain doesn’t easily switch to ‘Oh, now I’m going to hurt somebody’”
There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder. As you ponder, however, note that a difficulty in shifting gears, or a struggle to find the time, is not the same thing as an ontological either/or.
That excerpt is from a novel, remember… not a TA’s blog post. Wherever Kathy Acker is, she probably still doesn’t make much money and she’s probably pissed. 625K in pre-collapse dollars, Kathy Acker! How does that make you feel? Kathy Acker, please note: the author doesn’t mutilate herself in this excerpt from an autobiographical text about loving a partner of “fluid” gendernicity, she reports on someone else’ self-mutilation. See how it’s done? It’s too easy to imagine Butthead chortling, at the end of this excerpt: “She said ontological.”
And here: two random excerpts from Rankine’s “Citizen”, a “lyric essay,” most of which appears as a diaristic litany of Race-y moments, in her life, that spoiled a bunch of Ms. Rankine’s various days as a Black Woman:
Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship , when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be the fatal flaw—your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the “all black people look the same” moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
Oh, the humanity. A reviewer in the NYRB writes:
Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America. Some of the incidents happen to the poet, some are reports from friends. Rankine writes almost exclusively in the second-person present, a tense that implicates as it includes, endowing events with a sense of immediacy and urgency.
“Micro-Aggressions” pretty much nails it. The most aptly-tepid word possible. Yawn. The MacArthur Fairy itself says:
In ‘Citizen,’ Rankine’s aesthetic evolution culminates in a powerful poetics, at once visual and documentary, as she brings to life a series of everyday occurrences tinged with racism directed toward African Americans: from slips of the tongue and suspicious looks, to empty seats on the train next to black men, to complaints about affirmative action.
Ouch… and here I am complaining about affirmative action.
Writers who can’t really write… grossly overweight models… transsexual infants… welcome to The Now. What kind of psycho-social Agenda is being shoved down our throats? And how is Massa Capitalism planning to use it?
Oh, and what is “Graywolf”? (emphases mine):
Graywolf has been winning for a while. Over the past few years, as publishing conglomerates merged, restructured, and grappled with Amazon, a midwestern press snuck in and found a genuinely new way forward for nonfiction. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams entered the Times best-seller list at No. 11, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a half-versified meditation on racism, stormed post-Ferguson America. Each has sold more than 60,000 copies, putting them in Graywolf’s all-time top five. Citizen just went back to press for a tenth time, putting it close to having 100,000 copies in print. That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight. It’s a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the “lyric essay” into a major cultural force.
The term lyric essay was popularized in the ’90s by the writer John D’Agata (a Graywolf author) to describe a hybrid form of nonfiction that accommodates verse, memoir, and criticism. But its origins go back at least as far as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, journalist-critics whose work is magnetically personal. Its present-day progeny is more diverse and more direct, answering to a very modern hunger for well-worded social arguments rooted in identity and experience. It’s a rapidly expanding niche, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay can turn painful confessions into powerful exhortations while — in a different mode — Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti can make universal claims out of private stories. On this shifting ground, Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.
The publisher’s very good 2014 wasn’t a fluke but a culmination (and its lyric-essay run continues with this year’s The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s deconstruction of both gender and genre). Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years. This year, it will exceed $2 million in sales for the first time. No other independent press, never mind a 41-year-old nonprofit, has come so far so fast. It didn’t happen by accident. [blog-owner’s commentary: YUP]
“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.
Scott Walker began hand-sewing poetry chapbooks in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1974. While picking up poets like Tess Gallagher and Jane Kenyon, Walker turned Graywolf Press into a nonprofit and relocated to the Twin Cities, home to a thriving philanthropic base (which also supports nonprofit presses Milkweed and Coffee House). But in the ’90s, a publishing slump hit Graywolf particularly hard; Walker resigned and his board eventually hired McCrae. At the time, she had zero experience in nonprofits — possibly to Graywolf’s benefit, because she chafed at the complacency to which nonprofits are prone. “There’s got to be a way in which you absolutely value Graywolf,” she says, “but like, come on, everybody! Other small presses are not the measure. Do you say, ‘For our size, we get more attention, so that’s it,’ or do you say, ‘Where can we go?’”
In 1999, McCrae won a $1 million grant by promising to take Graywolf to “yet another level.” [blog owner’s commentary: that’s usually all it takes, isn’t it?] A couple of years later, they raised another $1 million with a detailed capital plan: a grant for work in translation; a fund to increase author advances; a budget for travel to global book fairs; a New York city outpost; a “national council” of fund-raisers; and the Literary Nonfiction Prize that would launch Biss and Jamison. Just as important, Graywolf switched its distribution to prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “That signaled something,” says Jeff Shotts, Graywolf’s executive editor. “It put our books in the same conversation with Seamus Heaney.”
Graywolf reached its fund-raising goals, and just as McCrae was beginning to get impatient — “I remember thinking, Where’s the big hit?” — Graywolf’s initiatives came together to help create one: Per Petterson’s 2007 best-seller Out Stealing Horses. Acquired and promoted via Graywolf’s new global connections, listed beside giants in FSG’s catalogues, and hand-delivered on a visit to the New York Times, the Norwegian novel won the IMPAC Dublin award, scored a Times Book Review cover, and sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. Petterson has spurned corporate advances to remain with Graywolf ever since.
McCrae admits that they dug deeper than usual to keep him, but it was partly thanks to Petterson that advances have roughly doubled in ten years (as has the annual list). Graywolf can now sometimes pay $25,000 for a book — not much, unless you’re a young writer whose work defies conventional categories. And it’s exactly in the cracks between history, memoir, poetry, and criticism that Graywolf has lately thrived. When the NBCC nominated Citizen for awards in both poetry and criticism — unable to decide which it was — “it was fun to watch that debate,” says Jeffrey Lependorf, head of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. But at a larger press, “that’s a question that might have led to a marketing department putting the kibosh on it.”
Graywolf’s nonfiction hybrids don’t just defy publishing categories; they also offer subtler takes on issues like race (in Citizen) and gender (in The Argonauts) than some publishers might prefer. They are difficult to summarize in tweets. Yet Graywolf uses Twitter to great effect; it has more than twice the followers of FSG and almost as many as Knopf, which is six times its size. That’s a serious asset for a house with a surfeit of distinctive voices but a limited marketing budget. “You don’t have to pay for cyberspace,” says McCrae. “It’s equalizing in that way.”
The publisher’s oddest source of free publicity was its working with debut poet James Franco. The polymath gadfly name-checked Graywolf on Jimmy Fallon last year while promoting his collection, Directing Herbert White, which referenced his own short-film adaptation of poems by Frank Bidart. It was Bidart who brought Franco’s work to Graywolf’s attention. “It was a risk, sure, as a first book of poetry can be,” says Shotts, Franco’s editor, “and one written by someone under public scrutiny. Graywolf published it in a pretty subtle way. It was an opportunity to reach readers who don’t normally come to poetry.” He hastens to add that Franco was paid a standard poetry advance and has never donated to the house.
Celebrity poet aside, Graywolf tends to lead on trends or avoid them. “They obviously have to look at trends, but they can be a little more adventurous,” says Rick Simonson, the buyer for Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books. “I’ve watched the bigger houses plunge into things and back away. People in New York, if they were trying to sell me a book of essays, they’d say, ‘I know essays are a tough sell.’” Now that essays are selling at Graywolf, others are catching on.
So, to recap: a quaint little Indie press, like quaint little indie presses all over post-literate America, was on the verge of folding; the old Hippie who started it stepped down; a hip New Lady from the UK was flown in and: presto: 2 million bucks were donated (hear that, Agha Khan?), followed by a slew of awards and unprecedentedly fantastic sales in the ever-more-lucrative LYRIC ESSAY genre! If it weren’t such a solid business model, one admits, it might all look a wee bit suspicious.
And, wouldn’t you know it: many of the books on Graywolf’s roster skew toward topics that are consonant with 21st century Social Engineering. In fact (one shits you not) there is even a (a decidedly pro-vaccine) book about vaccines, called On Immunity: An Inoculation ! It came out at the height of the “anti-vaxxer” controversies. Hey, got any lyric-essay books about Global Warming….?
You could not, as Writers often say, make this shit up. Well, actually, you could and they did.
But I’ve invented a new term for writers like Ms Rankine and Ms Nelson and whoever else plays a role, “witting” or not (a distinction, by the way, that seemed crucial to the circle around the WASPy nucleus of the Paris Review, soon after the rumors started circulating). The new term is an acronym: PLIMP.
PSEUDO-LITERARY MOUTH PIECE
Wouldn’t George have given that one a horrified chuckle?
And now a shitty book by writer-of-color Paul Beatty has won The Booker prize (the first American writer to do so) after a year of the shitty book garnering uniformly (head-scratching) hyperbolic praise. If The Sellout is a good book, then every book I’ve ever read (and every book ever written) is a good book. Which can’t be true.
There was a heated debate over at The Millions, recently, regarding this shitty book and its Booker win. I caused the debate to heat up, in the first place, by registering my aimed-at-the-culture-itself complaint that Beatty’s poorly-written book has gotten unanimous raves from the largely Liberal White Lit Critter establishment for subtly sinister reasons. I diagnose the otherwise head-scratching uniformity of hyperbolic praise for Beatty’s sophomoric book as being all about Liberal White Condescension. The bar is very low. Is it also about burnishing NATO’s image in the run up to another attempt to get Duh Masses to green-light an invasion of Syria? Ie “look at how much we love our darkies! Even the darkies mildly critical of us! How can we be Nazis?” The two things… NATO-burnishing and Liberal White Condescension… can quite often and quite comfortably co-exist. Beatty’s case is complex: many of the condescending White Liberal readers and critics, who fell over each other, last year, in a mad stampede to celebrate his shitty-in-a-stale way book, can’t read very well and have no taste. They think TV is churning out masterpieces. They read and adored Hary Potter. They are efficiently dumbed-down and infinitely accepting. But there were good readers among the cheerleaders, good readers who only want one thing from Writers of Color and that thing is the opposite of Intellect. It’s not about mastery of the language or the mastery of anything. It’s not so much about making, it’s about being. Being of Color.
Just as the code word, for any Black male too old to appear to be a potential rapist, is (the Morgan-Freemanesque) “dignified”, the code-word for any Black who can speak or write with basic proficiency is “articulate” or “smart”. Sometimes (especially if the writer/comedian/ politician can provide Liberal Whites with a free pass to laugh, good-naturedly, at Black “foibles”) the code word is “genius”.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout descends from a long line of loosely-plotted, sloppily-written, slapsticky assaults on Black America through the flimsy targets of very old stereotypes (“watermelon” appears 15 x in the book, “chicken” : 10x) while pretending to be “satires on race”. Many of the most successful of these “satires” are Stand Up Comedy (go back and look at Eddy Murphy’s first big HBO stand up special, Delirious, with some critical distance: who is laughing at whose expense and why?) and some are movies (shudder: Tyler Perry) and many are books like Beatty’s, which is the latest in a (roughly century-long) tradition. Zora Neale Hurston was not the first Sellout to depict idiotic Negroes in the framework of the broad grit and “humor” of a flimsy book.
In fact, it was about a fourth of the way through Hurston’s “brilliant” and beloved Their Eyes Were Watching God, that I was inspired to fling that book, casually, across my bedroom one Saturday (I must have been 17 or 18). I came to the following passage (if anyone can remember the Sinclair filling station chain, with its green Brontosaurus logo, the “varmint” referred to in the following insulting passage is that very logo) and had had enough:
“Look at dat great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall’s fillin’ station—uh great big old scoundrel. He eats up all de folks outa de house and den eat de house.”
“Aw ’tain’t no sich a varmint nowhere dat kin eat no house! Dat’s uh lie. Ah wuz dere yiste’ddy and Ah ain’t seen nothin’ lak dat. Where is he?”
“Ah didn’t see him but Ah reckon he is in de back-yard some place. But dey got his picture out front dere. They was nailin’ it up when Ah come pass dere dis evenin’.”
“Well all right now, if he eats up houses how come he don’t eat up de fillin’ station?”
“Dat’s ’cause dey got him tied up so he can’t. Dey got uh great big picture tellin’ how many gallons of dat Sinclair high-compression gas he drink at one time and how he’s more’n uh million years old.”
“’Tain’t nothin’ no million years old!”
“De picture is right up dere where anybody kin see it. Dey can’t make de picture till dey see de thing, kin dey?”
“How dey goin’ to tell he’s uh million years old? Nobody wasn’t born dat fur back.”
“By de rings on his tail Ah reckon. Man, dese white folks got ways for tellin’ anything dey wants tuh know.”
“Well, where he been at all dis time, then?”
“Dey caught him over dere in Egypt. Seem lak he used tuh hang round dere and eat up dem Pharaohs’ tombstones. Dey got de picture of him doin’ it. Nature is high in uh varmint lak dat. Nature and salt. Dat’s whut makes up strong man lak Big John de Conquer. He was uh man wid salt in him. He could give uh flavor to anything.”
Yes, because the Black characters in that book have IQs of roughly 75, I suppose. Knee-slappingly funny stuff. Wiki says:
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel and the best known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The novel narrates main character Janie Crawford’s “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.”As a young woman, who is fair-skinned with long hair, she expects more out of life, but comes to realize she has to find out about life ‘fuh theyselves’ (for herself), just as people can only go-to-God for themselves. Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel was initially poorly received for its rejection of racial uplift literary prescriptions. Today, it has come to be regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women’s literature. TIME included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Yes: “the novel was initially poorly received” because the novel’s initial audience was largely comprised of literate Blacks who knew when they were being insulted. Those days are fading from view, no? With Liberal White/ Structuralist Feminist academics as her new target demo, Hurston can’t go wrong. Zadie Smith, who hasn’t the sense to do anything but go along with the huggy-hopey crowd that buys her books (she was the writer who wept tears of awe over BHO‘s ghostwritten boilerplate political autobiography) calls Their Eyes Were Watching God…
“A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.”
Zadie is referring to a book by a Black writer in which a Black character responds to the sound of thunder with“Big Massa draw him a chair upstairs,”… this was almost thirty years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted me a human’s legal status in my own country. I have never heard a Black of any age or nationality speak English that way. I’ve heard lots of bad grammar in my Life but nothing like that. What was Hurston’s goal there?
Such books now tend to be written in First Person Pidgin (mirroring, at a sub-grammatical distance, the sudden First Person Present Continuous Craze of the early-noughties), though variants, like Beatty’s, deploy a kind of jokey collegiate grandiloquence popularized (in the 1930s) by H. L. Mencken. The narrative style range of these books seems to toggle between Hoody Pidgin and Stilted (18th century British) Antiquarian (Percy Everett has done both, but he has matured, unlike Beatty, into a serious writer with some real chops). Beatty slips in enough sophomoric “fancy” stuff (references to Kafka, say ) to signal to the Liberal White readers that the Author is not quite as “stupid” as the “average Black”: a wink, if you will.
After a springtime’s worth of weekend surfing, Marpessa trusted me enough to accompany me to my high school prom. With a graduating class of one, it was an intimate two-person affair, chaperoned and chauffeured by my father. We went dancing at Dillons, an under-twenty-one pagoda tower of a disco as segregated as anything else in L.A. The first floor—New Wave. Second floor—Top-40 soul. Third floor —watered-down reggae. Fourth floor—banda, salsa, merengue, and a touch of bachata in a vain attempt to steal Latino clientele from Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard. My father refused to go above the second floor. Me and Marpessa took the opportunity to ditch him, hiking up the smelly stairwell to the third floor, where we shimmied to Jimmy Cliff and the I-Threes, and camped out in back behind speakers, downing mai tais and standing as close to Kristy McNichol’s crew as possible so that security wouldn’t fuck with us, thinking we were the teenage movie star’s token black friends. Then it was on to Coconut Teazers to see the Bangles, where Marpessa slurred whispered rumors that some guy named Prince was fucking the lead singer.
My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked. And nearly postponed my first kiss until who knows when, but an early-morning Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast later, we were in the back of the pickup, speeding down the 10 freeway, doing eighty miles per hour in the fast lane, using the bags of feed and seed for pillows as we alternated wrestling with our tongues and thumbs. Played Who Can Hit the Softest. Kissed. Puked. Then kissed again. “Don’t say ‘French,’” she cautioned. “Say swap spit or bust a slob. Otherwise, you sound inexperienced.”
My father, instead of keeping his eyes on the road, kept turning around, peering nosily through the little cab window, rolling his eyes at my breast-fondling technique, mocking the spastic way my head lolled uncontrollably when I kissed, and making the universal sign for “Fuck her already” by taking his hands off the wheel, forming a circular vagina with one hand, and sticking his index finger into it over and over again. For a man whose only evidence that he’d ever had sex with someone not enrolled in his class is possibly me, he sure was talking a lot of shit.
Between the bus and rides, the back of the pickup, the trips on horseback to the Baldwin Theater, it’s crazy how much of our relationship was spent in motion. Marpessa put her feet on the steering wheel and covered her face in a tattered copy of Kafka’s The Trial. Though I can’t say for sure, I’d like to think she was hiding a smile. Most couples have songs they call their own. We had books. Authors. Artists. Silent movies. On weekends we used to lie naked in the hayloft, flicking chicken feathers off one another’s back and leafing through L.A. Weekly. There’d be a retrospective of Gerhard Richter, David Hammons, Elizabeth Murray, or Basquiat at LACMA, and we’d tap the ad and say, “Hey, they’re exhibiting our oil on canvas.” We’d spend hours picking through the used-film bins at Amoeba Records on Sunset, hold up a copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and say, “Hey, they’re digitally remastering our movie,” then dry-hump in the Hong Kong movie section. But Kafka was our genius. We’d take turns reading Amerika and Parables out loud. Sometimes we’d read the books in incomprehensible German and do free-association translations. Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.
What is this nervous ramble of middlebrow cultural signifiers supposed to add to the experience of navigating this text… beyond maintaining a sense of random, pointless, unassimilated lists (did Beatty ever meet a forgotten scribble in a notebook he didn’t subsequently dump into a novel)? That passage is only there, in that form, to make sure that Liberal White Readers know that Paul Beatty went to college (why does Beatty care? That’s not his gimmick) … while the vulgar bits give him that “street cred”… I guess. Being hosed down with references doesn’t take me anywhere in the narrative or deepen my imaginative engagement with the characters; it’s the textural version of a post-vacation slide show that can only rush, rush, rush because of the sheer (unfiltered) number of slides we have to get through before the end of the numbing presentation.
“My ignorance of His Royal Badness almost got my ass kicked.”
And then what? Nothing. So why mention it? Shrug.
Beatty’s job was either to convince me that something actually happened involving human beings, there, or that a writer behind that scene had something more interesting to say and do than to bother trying to get me to suspend the reader’s disbelief. He failed at both.
“Sometimes we’d set the text to music and break-dance to the The Metamorphosis, slow-dance to Letters to Milena.”
Yup. Beatty has zero chops as a writer. He has an imagination… aka, The Car Keys… that’s about it.
With the most lauded Black writers expected (subconsciously) to be intellectually inferior to the most lauded White writers, and White Liberal critics lowering the bar, accordingly, on the judgment of Black texts, how will this hellish feedback loop reverse itself?
Ten years ago I wrote a story, called “The Black,” in which I took a sarcasm-laced swing at Gertrude Stein (lately exposed, incredibly, as a Vichy collaborator) and Richard Wright, one of the “elder statesman” of Black American Lit; I took a swing at Stein’s infuriatingly racist “Melanctha,” one third of “Three Lives,” and Wright’s repulsive apologia for it:
The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?
“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.
“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”
Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”
Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)
Here, read more Negroes from the Kapo Class (is any other kind allowed through the filter?) praise Stein’s ugly tract; this is as much about these Kapos knowing which side of their stale bread the dirty butter was on… as it is a great advertisement for brainwashing:
In the criticism of the racial stereotypes in “Melanctha” (on and off the record), little is ever made of the fact that since its publication in 1909, many black American writers have credited “Melanctha” with inaugurating a new era in the representation of black Americans by white writers. James Weldon Johnson stated that Gertrude Stein was the first white writer to treat African American characters as “normal members of the human family.” Eric Walrond reportedly told Leo Stein: “Gertrude was the only white person who had given real Negro psychology.” And Nella Larsen wrote in a letter to Stein, “I never cease to wonder how you came to write it and just why you and not some one of us should so accurately have caught the spirit of this race of mine.” Richard Wright adored “Melanctha” because it enabled him to hear English, “as Negroes spoke it: . . . melodious, tolling, rough, infectious . . . laughing, cutting. . . . And not only the words, but the winding psychological patterns that lay behind them!”8 Clarence Major has argued that earlier black characters created by both black and white writers possess “none of the humanity that Jeff and Melanctha obviously possess. In this sense Stein broke the white American literary tradition of portraying black characters as subhuman or as fools.”9 Given the story’s frankly crude racial stereotypes, such appreciative remarks from African American writers are surprising. But the ways in which Gertrude Stein synthesized material from her personal experience, European and American literary forms, and features of popular black American music may account for this high praise.
The author of the above-quoted essay published it in 2003, before the general acknowledgement of Stein’s cozy/bizarre relationship with the Third Reich in Occupied Paris (where Stein, very strangely as a Jew, thrived).
America is racist on many levels, in many registers: there’s the violent racism of the Klan in the downscale barn of the red end of the spectrum, and the “friendly” racism of Liberals at the upscale lounge of the opposite end (the downscale wing of the gentler end of racism being “Wiggers”, of course). White Liberals cherish “Black authenticity” as a blended abstraction of poverty, physical excellence, intellectual simplicity and raw emotions (with sex saturating the package), immutable as a natural law. Appropriating a virtual Black phallus in the form of a blues legend, basketball star or a rapper is a standard rite of passage for the White Liberal American male. But there’s no way to comfortably appropriate a genuine Black intellectual as a virtual phallic prosthesis (too complicated/ not macho enough/ inauthentic) so what is the use for one? Well: they are good for being lightning rod tokens at otherwise-mega-white Right-wing institutions but Liberal Whites ain’t interested.
Paul Beatty, who is not dumb (though his books are), knows on which side of the stale bread to find his dirty butter. He gives the Liberal White Reader exactly what he/she already expects to find (all of these books are the Same Book, after all) and they love him for it.
At the beginning of The Sellout we are expected to wade through a dense jumble of not-super-original riffs (or slides), observations and Google artifacts. A better (half-decent writer) could shape the following material into something maybe half as long, with twice the focus and power (containing even an actual laugh or two):
Most times cops expect to be thanked. Whether they’ve just given you directions to the post office, beaten your ass in the backseat of the patrol car, or, in my case, uncuffed you, returned your weed, drug paraphernalia, and provided you with the traditional Supreme Court quill. But this one has had a look of pity on her face, ever since this morning, when she and her posse met me atop the Supreme Court’s vaunted forty-fourth stair. Under a pediment inscribed with the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, squinting into the morning sun, windbreakers dotted with the dandruff of fallen cherry blossoms, blocking my entrance into the building. We all knew that this was a charade, a last-minute meaningless show of power by the state. The only one not in on the joke was the cocker spaniel. His retractable leash whirring behind him, he bounded up to me, excitedly sniffed my shoes and my pant legs, nuzzled my crotch with his wet snot-encrusted nose, then obediently sat down beside me, his tail proudly pounding the ground. I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign. So I clear my pipe with two loud raps on the mahogany table. Brush and blow the gummy resin onto the floor, stuff the bowl with homegrown, and like a firing squad commander lighting a deserter’s last cigarette, the lady cop obligingly flicks her BIC and sparks me up. I refuse the blindfold and take the most glorious toke ever taken in the history of pot smoking. Call every racially profiled, abortion-denied, flag-burning, Fifth Amendment taker and tell them to demand a retrial, because I’m getting high in the highest court in the land. The officers stare at me in amazement. I’m the Scopes monkey, the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life. I can hear the cocker spaniel whimpering in the corridor, pawing at the door, as I blow an A-bomb mushroom-cloud-sized plume of smoke into the faces that line the giant friezes on the ceiling. Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon—these veined Spanish marble incantations of democracy and fair play—Muhammad, Napoleon, Charlemagne, and some buffed ancient Greek frat boy in a toga stand above me, casting their stony judgmental gazes down upon me. I wonder if they looked at the Scottsboro Boys and Al Gore, Jr., with the same disdain.
Only Confucius looks chill. The sporty Chinese satin robe with the big sleeves, kung fu shoes, Shaolin sifu beard and mustache. I hold the pipe high overhead and offer him a hit; the longest journey starts with a single puff …
“That ‘longest journey’ shit is Lao-tzu,” he says.
“All you motherfucking philosopher-poets sound alike to me,” I say.
It’s a trip being the latest in the long line of landmark race-related cases. I suppose the constitutional scholars and cultural paleontologists will argue over my place on the historical timeline. Carbon-date my pipe and determine whether I’m a direct descendant of Dred Scott, that colored conundrum who, as a slave living in a free state, was man enough for his wife and kids, man enough to sue his master for his freedom, but not man enough for the Constitution, because in the eyes of the Court he was simply property: a black biped “with no rights the white man was bound to respect.” They’ll pore over the legal briefs and thumb through the antebellum vellum and try to determine whether or not the outcome of this case confirms or overturns Plessy v. Ferguson. They’ll scour the plantations, the projects, and the Tudor suburban subdivision affirmative-action palaces, digging up backyards looking for remnants of the ghosts of discrimination past in the fossilized dice and domino bones, brush the dust off the petrified rights and writs buried in bound legal volumes, and pronounce me as “unforeseen hip-hop generation precedent” in the vein of Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell, the gap-toothed rapper who fought for his right to party and parody the white man the way he’d done us for years. Though if I’d been on the other side of the bench, I would’ve snatched the fountain pen from Chief Justice Rehnquist’s hand and written the lone dissenting opinion, stating categorically that “any wack rapper whose signature tune is ‘Me So Horny’ has no rights the white man, or any other B-boy worth his suede Pumas, was bound to respect.”
The smoke burns the inside of my throat. “Equal Justice Under Law!” I shout to no one in particular, a testament to both the potency of the weed and my lightweight constitution. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, places that are poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, the homies have a saying—I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. It’s a maxim, an oft-repeated rap lyric, a last-ditch rock and hard place algorithm that on the surface is about faith in the system but in reality means shoot first, put your trust in the public defender, and be thankful you still have your health. I’m not all that streetwise, but to my knowledge there’s no appellate court corollary. I’ve never heard a corner store roughneck take a sip of malt liquor and say, “I’d rather be reviewed by nine than arbitrated by one.” People have fought and died trying to get some of that “Equal Justice Under Law” advertised so blithely on the outside of this building, but innocent or guilty, most offenders never make it this far. Their courtroom appeals rarely go beyond a mother’s tearful call for the Good Lord’s mercy or a second mortgage on grandma’s house. And if I believed in such slogans, I’d have to say I’ve had more than my share of justice, but I don’t. When people feel the need to adorn a building or a compound with an “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a “Biggest Little City in the World,” or “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it’s a sign of insecurity, a contrived excuse for taking up our finite space and time. Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the Shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up, I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if we only had a motto. A pithy Liberté, egalité, fraternité we could post over squeaky wrought iron gateways, embroider onto kitchen wall hangings and ceremonial bunting. It, like the best of African-American folklore and hairstyles, would have to be simple, yet profound. Noble, and yet somehow egalitarian. A calling card for an entire race that was raceless on the surface, but quietly understood by those in the know to be very, very black. I don’t know where young boys come up with such notions, but when your friends all refer to their parents by their first names, there’s the sense that something isn’t quite right. And wouldn’t it be nice, in these times of constant conniption and crisis, for broken Negro families to gather around the hearth, gaze upon the mantelpiece, and take comfort in the uplifting words inscribed on a set of lovingly handcrafted commemorative plates or limited-edition gold coins purchased from a late-night infomercial on an already maxed-out credit card? Other ethnicities have mottos. “Unconquered and unconquerable” is the calling card of the Chickasaw nation, though it doesn’t apply to the casino gaming tables or having fought with Confederates in the Civil War. Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To Protect and to Serve. These are more than just greetings and trite sayings. They are reenergizing codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to other like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto. Don’t believe me? You know that dark-haired guy in human resources? The one who acts white, talks white, but doesn’t quite look right? Go up to him. Ask him why Mexican goalkeepers play so recklessly or if the food at the taco truck parked outside is really safe to eat. Go ahead. Ask him. Prod him. Rub the back of his flat indio skull and see if he doesn’t turn around with the pronunciamiento ¡Por La Raza—todo! ¡Fuera de La Raza—nada! (For the race, everything! Outside the race, nothing!)”
If this were a High School assignment I’d advise the intermittently-precocious teen who handed it in that the “cherry blossoms as dandruff” metaphor doesn’t really work on the scale of a cop’s shoulder (find something better), that the “snot-encrusted” snout of the cocker spaniel is a classic case of useless over-description (which adds to the verbosity problem, throwing off the text’s rhythm ) and that the sentence “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign” would profit immensely (in sense and “humor”) from being chopped to a manageable “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.” (Try substituting the word “loitering” with “discrimination”, there, Paul: better? A little funnier? Word choice is all.) But even that improved version of the riff could only be funny if you’d happened to read it in the early 1960s. Watermelons… Hitler… each “joke” as dated as it can be.
I’d also warn the teen author to lay off the Google Erudition; not that I wouldn’t think he was already vaguely acquainted with Lao Tzu or a racist Italian saying or two; it’s just that a novel isn’t, ideally, the proper receptacle for all the neat stuff a writer can’t quite bear to throw away. The passage I cite isn’t quite two pages long and is among the first the reader will encounter of the book; it’s like wading through rusty, dusty junk in a very poorly organized Racialist Thrift Shop. Fred Sanford’s (look him up) Thrift Shop of Racialist Clichés. A super-compressed (and depressing) experience of second-rate writing; please point to one original ha ha “joke” in all that. Point to one riff that hasn’t already been done to death, I’d say, to the precocious teen. Not to crush him/her but to inspire her/him to do better.
But, ah: bad news: the author isn’t a precocious teen who needs to learn a little writerly discipline and work on his rhythm and the precision of his sentences for a few years, he’s a man in his fifties and The Sellout is his tenth book (fourth novel). Paul Beatty is a writer in his fifties who stitched together this crappy, amateurish book and (hold on to your hat) he teaches at Columbia University. They’re not really charging (or paying him) for his courses, are they?
After fifteen minutes of mountingly-incredulous Googling, I found one dead-on review , of The Sellout, that didn’t make me feel as though I was running in circles around an episode of The Twilight Zone:
“…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.”
I commented (excerpt):
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?
On the other hand…
“Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game.” Good Reads
“Outrageous, hilarious and profound.” Simon Schama, Financial Times
“The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.” Guardian
“The most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read.” New York Times
‘I was banned from reading in bed because I was laughing so much.’- Olivia Williams, Man Booker Judge 2016
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent.’- The Times
‘An outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans…The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War…Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides, while never losing sight of the fundamental issue: America’s racism and the legacy of slavery. Intelligent and entertaining.’- Telegraph
‘Both riotously experimental and touching…erudite…and viscerally engaging…Exceptional comic writing makes the skeletal plotting work…Beatty’s inspiring new novel about the impossibility of “post-racial” anything in America is much more than “scathing” – it is constructive.’- Times Literary Supplement
‘There’s satire and then there’s satire, and without question Paul Beatty’s caustic third novel, The Sellout, definitely falls into the latter category…brutally honest and very funny’.- Independent
‘Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides…Intelligent…entertaining…exhilarating’.- Daily Telegraph
‘Beatty is an original and irreverent talent’.- Times
‘The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get.’ – Guardian
‘[A] howl-a-passage assault on the pieties of race debates in America…outrageous, hilarious and profound…It takes a whole other level of sheer audacity to expose atrocious things through the play of wit. Beatty plays for high stakes – but he wins. His brilliant, beautiful and weirdly poignant book knocks the stuffing out of right-thinking solemnities and he delivers droll wisdoms besides which the most elevated rants…pale into ponderous sententiousness…Juiciness stains every lovely page of Beatty’s mad, marvellous, toothsome book.’ – Financial Times
‘Brilliant. Amazing. Like demented angels wrote it.’- Sarah Silverman
‘[An] outrageous, riff-strewn satire on race in America…[The Sellout] combines effervescent comedy and stinging critique, but its most arresting quality is the lively humanity of its characters.’ – The New Yorker
‘Hilariously caustic.’ – Rolling Stone
‘Scarysmart…A hell of a ride.’ – Newsweek
‘[The Sellout] is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century…It is a bruising novel that readers will likely never forget.’ – Los Angeles Times
‘I am glad that I read this insane book alone, with no one watching, because I fell apart with envy, hysterics, and flat-out awe. Is there a more fiercely brilliant and scathingly hilarious American novelist than Paul Beatty?’ – Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet
‘Let’s get this out of the way: The Sellout is a work of genius, a satirical opus on race in 21st-century America.’ – O, The Oprah Magazine
‘‘[The Sellout] may end up being the smartest, funniest, and most important novel of 2016.’ – Flavorwire
‘Had we been granted a chunk of pages in this magazine to extol the virtues of Paul Beatty’s uproarious new novel, The Sellout, we could’ve easily and gladly filled them – much as Beatty floods his 288-page racial satire with blistering comic flourishes.’ – Penthouse
‘The Sellout isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century…[It] is a comic masterpiece, but it’s much more than just that-it’s one of the smartest and most honest reflections on race and identity in America in a very long time.’- NPR.org
‘Beatty creates a wicked satire that pokes fun at all that is sacred to life in the United States…His story is full of the unexpected, resulting in absurd and hilarious drama.’ – Library Journal
‘As Mark Twain so ably showed us, America…is rich with material worthy of ridicule. But where is today’s Twain? The answer is Paul Beatty…Beatty has written a wild new book, an uproariously funny, deliciously profane and ferociously intelligent send-up of so much of our culture.’ – San Francisco Chronicle
‘An exuberant parade of forbidden words and twisted stereotypes…It’s incendiary fun with very serious undertones.’ – New York magazine, “Vulture” blog
‘Timely, phantasmagoric, and deliriously funny.’ – Barnes & Noble Review
‘[An] audacious, diabolical trickster-god of a novel…[A] damn-near-instant classic.’ – Bookforum
‘Beatty is funny as hell…Behind all the humor, however, Beatty asks important questions about racism and identity. The Sellout is a knock-out punch.’ – Shelf Awareness
‘[Beatty] is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet …[A] daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.’ – Kirkus
‘Beatty, author of the deservedly highly praised The White Boy Shuffle (1996), here outdoes himself and possibly everybody else in a send-up of race, popular culture, and politics in today’s America . . . Beatty hits on all cylinders in a darkly funny, dead-on-target, elegantly written satire . . . [The Sellout] is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and, in the way of the great ones, profoundly thought provoking. A major contribution.’ – Booklist (starred review)
‘Paul Beatty has always been one of smartest, funniest, gutsiest writers in America, but The Sellout sets a new standard. It’s a spectacular explosion of comic daring, cultural provocation, brilliant, hilarious prose, and genuine heart.’ – Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
‘A brutally fun read, but don’t misunderstand it as unserious…Beatty delivers brilliant humour with a caustic bite, and parts can be uncomfortable to sit through…But it was unlike anything else I’d read before, at once side-splitting and thought-provoking. It’s a book that forcibly ejects you out of your comfort zone, and once you’re there, you’re going to want to linger a while.’- The Atlantic
‘It will make you laugh, but most of all it will make you think.’ – Sunday Times
‘Beatty’s towering talent proves there’s no subject, no matter how infuriatingly unjust, how outrageously sorrowful, which can’t be made to glitter like gold in the hands of a brilliant writer.’ – Big Issue
‘Beatty impresses hugely in this mischievous and caustic satire, which buzzes with inventiveness and iconoclasm.’- Sunday Herald
‘Beatty takes very little entirely seriously in this zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today.’ – Shiny New Books
‘[The Sellout] is the most lacerating American satire in years, fearless in the way that it takes apart our sacred cows and shared delusions. It responds to America’s tortured relationship with race in the past and the present with the mockery it deserves, sprinkling jokes steeped in tragedy throughout.’ – Guardian
‘The first 100 pages of [Paul Beatty’s] new novel, The Sellout, are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt…The riffs don’t stop coming in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel…[It] puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up.’ – Dwight Garner, New York Times
‘Swiftian satire of the highest order…Giddy, scathing and dazzling.’ – Wall Street Journal
Strange, eh? Beyond the fact that the intellectual standards of the average, book-skimming American have plummeted since the middlebrow heyday of the 1970s (when Wallace, Michener, Wouk and Hailey plodded the Earth), to praise such iffy-to-crappy writing so hyperbolically must be a function of very, very low expectations.Even the middling readers who embraced James Frey’s atrocious hoax-memoir A Million Little Pieces didn’t all call Frey some kind of genius… they liked the book because the degradation in its pages spoke to them; they embraced Frey because Frey was the self-proclaimed anti-genius of The Real (ironically). Google “James Frey + Genius” and compare/contrast.
In what world, other than the one informed by the low expectations of Liberal White Condescension, is The Sellout a Swiftian satire of the highest order?
One of the biggest (and nastiest: I remember it well) cultural events of the mid-’90s was the publication of Hernstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”. Its essential(ist) premise: Blacks are the congenital underclass in America not because they’ve (we’ve) been the victims of segregation, discrimination and the ongoing experience of being viscerally Othered away from the assimilation that every other group has managed to commence, at its own pace, since the early 1900s: nope: it’s because we are, according to the cooked statistics of the eugenic pseudo science the book champions, part of the dumb tail of the “bell curve” of IQ distribution, representing the doomed 20% of the population with an IQ range of 75-90. A typical nugget from the book:
“The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”
Which is not dissimilar to Hillary Clinton’s leaked purported email message (or rough draft of a speech):
“Some groups of people are almost always highly successful given only half of a chance (Jews*, Hindus/Sikhs and Chinese people, for example), while others (Muslims, blacks** and Roma***, for instance) fare badly almost irrespective of circumstances. The biggest group of humanity can be found somewhere between these two extremes – the perennial overachievers and the professional never-do-wells.”
According to Wiki, “Fifty-two professors, most of them researchers in intelligence and related fields, signed an opinion statement titled “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” endorsing a number of the views presented in The Bell Curve.” The book still has passionate defenders to this day and not because it was the first to suggest that Blacks are dumber, on average, by nature. That particular meme is a cultural legacy and, as a founding meme of prosperous America, The Shining City upon a Hill, lodged deep in the subconscious of the Liberal Worldview, it’s a subtle retrovirus that surfaces in odd places and in unexpected moments. A big chunk of the concept of the “Authentic Negro” has to do with the forbidden topography of The Hood making “lower IQs”, crime and stringently-narrowed cultural options energizingly-dangerous and sexy; it’s the foundational Goldilocks myth feeding America’s Racialist Id: Blacks are a little too Dumb and Jews are a little too Smart and Whites are Just Right.
Like fish in water, most Americans are happily oblivious to the feel and meaning of the ambient Racism. It just is. A 50-ish Black American teacher at Columbia University writes a secondhand Stand Up routine masquerading as a novel, a book a high school kid could have written, and White Liberals call it a work of genius. Insulting?
What’s all the fuss about? ask the fish.
*Bearing in mind that we can’t possibly keep track of which project/illusion belongs to which intelligence outfit, “CIA” is a generically-useful term like “cancer”