In the Critics this week | 30 August 2013

Laura Miller on <em>Downton Abbey</em>, Felix Martin on economics, Ed Smith on the role of genetics in sport and much more.

To kick us off in the critics this week, Laura Miller explores the allure of Downton Abbey across the pond, after ITV’s quintessentially British hit became the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US earlier this year. She explains that while for us it’s the “equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty”, for the Americans it is the perfect blend of familiarity and peculiarity. The period is alien: “For Americans, the interlocking, class-defined relationships in a British country house in the early twentieth century are intriguingly particular” and so “the geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downtown Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality”. But yet, according to Miller, many characters map very neatly onto American high school stock characters. Miller concludes that Downton enrages many in the UK for its depiction of painfully true class divisions that last a lifetime, but for the Americans it is the more frivolous and short-lived high school era that comes to mind and this is the key to its success.

Economics is the order of the week for Felix Martin in his review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change, by Edmund Phelps. In his review of Scarcity, Martin puts forwards the pros and cons of behavioural economics and is ultimately impressed by the book, concluding that the authors don’t claim to have all the answers but that “they style their book as an ‘invitation to read about a science in the making’ and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics."

Mass Flourishing presents a very different economic thesis, rejecting the psychologists in favour or historians. Although Martin notes that the book “might not be to everyone’s taste” and that on first reading the thesis sounds somewhat “simplistic and historically naive”, he concludes that, although uncertain at first, “the more [he] read, the more [his] expectations were confounded and the more [he] found [himself] thinking that its basic thesis had a great deal of truth to it.” He only hopes that the economics curriculum catches up with these valuable works.

Ed Smith reviews David Epstein’s book The Sport Gene: What makes the Perfect Athlete in a very interesting discussion whether it’s talent or hard work that makes an athlete successful. He notes that modern athletes eschew the word “talent” and instead are determined to make it seem that they have achieved everything “purely through exertion and suffering”. But Smith is persuaded by Epstein’s premise that top athletes have a genetic disposition that marks them out from the rest of us; but each sportsperson is different and so homogenisation of training routines is ultimately fruitless. Instead, as everyone has a different optimal training routine, “coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believe that they know best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error”.

In music, Kate Mossman unpicks Arctic Monkey’s latest album, AM. Although she hails lead singer Alex Turner as “one of the great lyricists of the twenty-first century”, it is musically that she deems this album to pack its punches as “any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production” in a record that on occasion pleases Mossman so much she “wants to turn [her] iPod up enough to damage [her] ears”.

Helen Lewis discusses the impact and broader significance the of the word “vagina” in her review of The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History by Emma Rees. She agrees wholeheartedly with Rees’ condemnation of “all the cutesy little-girlisms beloved of advertisers” and concludes that “the word ‘vagina’ is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not to be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation, but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.”

Also in the critics this week:

  • Philip Maughan gives his view on Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, a photography exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery
  • Rachel Cooke passes judgement on What Remains, the new BBC Sunday night detective series
  • Antonia Quirke reviews BBC Radio 3’s The Albertopolis of the South
  • Ryan Gibley is impressed by Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty, despite his “very-very-noisily-with-whooping-and-crashing” approach
  • Claire Lowdon reviews Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English
  • Michael Brooks discusses organ transplants and compatibility in his view on Daniel M Davis’ The Compatibility Gene
  • Olivia Lanig analyses Tim Dee’s Four Fields
  • Leo Robson gives his view on both Alfred Hayes’ My Face for the World to See and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

To get hold of a copy of the magazine, visit your local W H Smiths or go to


Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood