/ 18 October 2011

Insults and rivalries ahead of Booker Prize announcement

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 on Tuesday to choose the winner of the Booker Prize for fiction, which brings a 50000 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 2048GMT, according to publicists.

The batch of six finalists 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.

That 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 accused 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’ favourite 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 debut novelists Stephen Kelman — whose Pigeon English is told from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy plunged into a perilous new life in London — and AD Miller, a former journalist whose Snowdrops is set in a 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, spokesperson 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 American-free Booker, which is open only to authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies.

“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.”

But 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. — AP