It has insults, rivalries and bitter accusations. The battle for Britain's most prestigious literary award is proving to be a page-turner.
Five judges, led by a former British spymaster, are meeting Tuesday to choose the winner of the Booker Prize for fiction, which brings a 50,000 pound ($82,000) purse, a big sales boost for the victor _ and, this year, a big dose of acrimony. The winner of the hotly contested prize will be announced precisely at 2048 GMT, after a dinner at London's 15th-century Guildhall.
The batch of six finalists for the prize, open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the 54-nation Commonwealth of former British colonies, is the best-selling in Booker history. Though only Britain's Julian Barnes is an A-list literary name, the novels' pacy plots and varied settings _ from Gold Rush-era America to 19th-century London to prewar Berlin _ have appealed to readers.
"We've got two first novels, two Canadians and a novelist from the north of England with their first breakthrough," said prize organizer Ion Trewin. "It's a very unusual list."
The shortlist's sales success should please the judging panel headed by Stella Rimington, a former chief of the MI5 intelligence agency and the author of several spy thrillers. She said this year's finalists had been chosen for readability.
"We want people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them," she said _ a comment that dismayed critics who accuse the judges of putting populism over quality.
Barnes' memory-haunted novel "The Sense of an Ending," about a man facing up to his past, is the bookies' favorite to win the prize, attracting half of all bets laid through bookmaker William Hill.
The 65-year-old writer, who once called the Booker Prize "posh bingo," has been nominated three times previously _ for "Flaubert's Parrot," "England, England" and "Arthur and George" _ but has never won.
He faces competition from British debut novelists Stephen Kelman _ whose "Pigeon English," partly inspired by the notorious murder of a 10-year-old boy in south London in 2000, is told from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy plunged into a perilous new life in London _ and A.D. Miller, a former journalist for The Economist magazine whose "Snowdrops" is set in a seductive and dangerous Moscow that's chilling in more ways than one.
The other contenders are "The Sisters Brothers," a tragicomic tale of sibling assassins in the 19th-century American West by Canada's Patrick deWitt; 19th-century adventure saga "Jamrach's Menagerie" by Britain's Carol Birch; and "Half Blood Blues," a story of jazz and betrayal in Nazi-era Berlin and Paris by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan.
The shortlist has drawn criticism for excluding some of the year's most critically lauded books, including "On Canaan's Side" by Ireland's Sebastian Barry and "The Stranger's Child" by Britain's Alan Hollinghurst.
Andrew Motion, Britain's former poet laureate, said it was "extraordinary" that writers like Hollinghurst and Graham Swift _ both previous Booker winners _ weren't among the finalists. Alex Clark, literary editor of The Observer newspaper, accused the judging panel of "self-congratulatory philistinism."
And a group of writers, publishers and agents has announced it is setting up a rival award that hopes to supplant the Booker as English literature's premier prize.
Literary agent Andrew Kidd, spokesman for the new Literature Prize, said the goal was to create an award "where the single criterion is excellence rather than other factors."
The new prize will be open to any English-language writer whose work has been published in Britain _ unlike the Booker, which does not allow American entrants.
"Some writing aspires to entertain, some aspires to art," said Kidd. "As pretentious as some may find that distinction, there are prizes for excellence in every other discipline."
Trewin said that "most of the people who make the accusations haven't read the books."
"The judges have read 138 books over the last seven months. None of the critics have read that number," he said.
And Rimington said literary critics who knock the Booker are being "pathetic."
"They live in such an insular world they can't stand their domain being intruded upon," she told The Guardian newspaper.
The prize was founded in 1969 and is officially called the Man Booker Prize after its sponsor, financial services conglomerate Man Group PLC.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless