The judges' apparent tilt towards ‘readability' has miffed a section of the who's who badly enough to start a prize of their own.

British novelist Julian Barnes once accused the Man Booker Prize judges of being “inflated by their brief celebrity” and described the prize itself as “posh bingo.” The cause of his ire was the fact that he had been shortlisted three times but never awarded the prize while allegedly “lesser” writers hogged the glory.

This year, again, Mr. Barnes is on the shortlist and if the bookies have got it right his time might have finally come and that elusive £50,000 cheque could be his when the Prize is announced on October 18. But, ironically, what should have been his finest hour after such a long wait has been clouded by an ill-tempered row over the quality of this year's selection.

Mutiny in the air

There is “mutiny in the air,” as The Times put it, with the jury facing accusations of “dumbing down” the prize by favouring a notion of “readability” over artistic achievement. Questions have also been raised about the judges' competence, especially its chairperson Stella Rimington, a former head of MI5, after she said that she wanted readers to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.”

This was seen as a swipe at London's powerful literary elite that is often accused of being “patronising” towards ordinary readers by telling them: “whether you like them or not, these are the best books of the year.” The row has prompted a group of high-profile writers, literary agents and critics to launch a rival prize , grandly called “The Literature Prize” whose “sole aim” would be to “celebrate the very best novels published in our time” — a brief once “fulfilled by the Booker Prize.”

Meanwhile, this year's list has been criticised for being “thin” both on names — there being no big figures except Mr. Barnes — and literary strength. None of the six books in contention, among which are two “first” novels, has caused much excitement and there is a view that the shortlist was deliberately designed to satisfy book clubs and filmmakers.

Philip Hensher, a former Booker judge, suggested that there had been a “deliberate move away from highbrow and literary fiction to more populist” fare.

Even Mr. Barnes's novel, The Sense of an Ending, a meditation on nature of memory and relationships narrated by a man as he looks back on his life, has left some critics underwhelmed and there is a view that some of the books for which he was previously shortlisted but not awarded were, in fact, better.

There is fury over the exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child which was seen as a frontrunner when it appeared on the long-list. It was inexplicably excluded from the shortlist despite being hailed variously as a “masterclass” in the art of novel writing and “probably the best novel” of the year.

“If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn't win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world,” was the breathless verdict of one critic.

Judges have defended their choice saying they had let go many novels in order to offer a broader mix.

“We were sorry to lose some great books. But, when push came to shove, we quickly agreed that these six very different titles were the best,” Ms Rimington said.

Critics have their own theory. They believe the jury is simply not fit for the job. Besides Ms Rimington whose literary credentials are based on a string of thrillers and her autobiography, it includes a former Labour MP, Chris Mullin; novelist Susan Hill; and journalists Gaby Wood and Matthew d'Ancona.

In a withering attack, the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson wrote off the entire panel as not being “up to the job.”

“Even the most legitimate of the judges for this year's prize, Susan Hill, a judge back in 1975 (together with Angus Wilson, Roy Fuller and Peter Ackroyd), is somewhat questionable,” he commented in an article headed “This year's Booker judges don't inspire much confidence.”

But his most savage judgement was reserved for Ms Rimington.

“Take the chair, Dame Stella Rimington. An able and intelligent woman — but you wouldn't ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington's status as a novelist doesn't much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight's Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late It Was, How Late?”, he asked.

Ms Rimington hit back saying that it was “pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me.”

“They live in such an insular world they can't stand their domain being intruded upon,” she said in a Guardian interview arguing that “people weirder than me have chaired the Booker.”

‘Huffing and puffing'

Her fellow-judge Mr. Mullin retorted that all the “huffing and puffing” by the London literati was down to the fact that the panel didn't pick up its favourite writers. “The London literati greeted our shortlist with a great huffing and puffing and accusations of dumbing down. One can't help feeling that the indignation which greeted our shortlist was prompted in part by the fact that . . . we had failed to follow the advice of those who know best,” he wrote.

Comparisons have been made with the Booker's “golden age” when the juries boasted of “giants” like Cyril Connolly, George Steiner and Elizabeth Bowen. But it is pertinent to point out that even then controversies relentlessly dogged the prize. The fact is that the history of the Booker Prize is littered with controversial choices often made by some of the most eminent literary figures. The latest row is, in a sense, in the “best” Booker tradition.

The Shortlist

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan

Pigeon English - Stephen, Kelman

Snowdrops - A.D. Miller

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