By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - English author and bookmakers' favorite Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for fiction on Tuesday, despite once dismissing the coveted award as "posh bingo."
The 65-year-old triumphed with "The Sense of an Ending," which at 150 pages was described by one review as a "novella."
It was his fourth time on the Booker shortlist -- Barnes was previously nominated for "Flaubert's Parrot" in 1984, "England, England" in 1998 and "Arthur and George" in 2005.
Stella Rimington, a former British spy chief who chaired the panel of judges this year, told reporters:
"We thought that it was a book which, though short, was incredibly concentrated and crammed into this very short space a great deal of information you don't get out of a first reading.
"It's one of these books, a very readable book, if I may use that word, but readable not only once but twice and even three times."
Ion Trewin, administrator of the prize, said it was not the shortest work to have won the Booker. That honor goes to Penelope Fitzgerald's "Offshore" which came it at 132 pages in 1979.
Rimington and her judges came under fire in recent weeks for stressing the importance of "readability" when judging the winner, a term interpreted by some as dumbing down one of English-language fiction's top accolades.
Writers from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe are eligible.
The sniping in the narrow world of British "literati" even led to a rival award being set up to champion what its backers said was a more high-brow approach to writing.
A VERY LITERARY SPAT
Rimington defended her stance, arguing that entertainment and literary criticism were not mutually exclusive.
"We were not talking about only readability as some of you seem to have thought," she told a press conference before a glitzy dinner and awards ceremony at London's medieval Guildhall.
"We were talking about readability and quality. You can have more than one adjective when you are talking about books."
Asked whether she had been bothered by the media debate in the run-up to the announcement, she replied:
"I've had a long life in various different careers, and I've been through many crises of one kind or another (against) which this one pales, I must say.
"We've been very interested by the discussion, I must say," she added. "We've followed it sometimes with great glee and amusement but certainly the fact that it's been in the headlines is very gratifying."
The Sense of an Ending, published by Random House imprint Jonathan Cape, tells the story of Tony, a seemingly ordinary man who discovers that his memories are not as reliable as he thought.
Rimington said the five-strong panel of judges was initially split over Barnes, but ended up in the same place.
"I can tell you there was no blood on the red carpet, nobody went off in a huff and we all ended up firm friends and happy with the result."
Barnes may have mixed feelings about finally winning the Booker.
The win means a cheque for 50,000 pounds ($80,000), a flurry of media attention and, perhaps most importantly, a major boost in sales.
But the author has been critical of the award in the past, likening it to "posh bingo" and berating judges for being "inflated by their brief celebrity."
This year he was up against Carol Birch for "Jamrach's Menagerie," Canadian authors Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan for "The Sisters Brothers" and "Half Blood Blues" respectively, and debut British novelists Stephen Kelman ("Pigeon English") and A.D. Miller ("Snowdrops").
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)