English author and four-time nominee Julian Barnes, who once dismissed the Man Booker Prize for fiction as “posh bingo”, is favoured to win it on Tuesday with his novel “The Sense of an Ending”.
The annual award to a writer in English from the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe is a major event in the publishing calendar, significantly boosting publicity and sales for shortlisted and winning works.
It is also an opportunity for Britain’s “literati” to air their grievances about writers who have or have not been nominated and question the ability the judging panels to choose the right winner.
That criticism has been unusually loud this year, prompting chair of judges Stella Rimington to hit back at critics who have accused the award of populism and launched a rival award, The Literature Prize.
The board of the new prize, whose spokesman is literary agent Andrew Kidd, said in a statement that the Booker “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.”
Leo Robson, critic for the New Statesman magazine, recently wrote: “If things continue as they are, it isn’t hard to imagine a time when the (Man Booker) prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them.”
Rimington, a former British spy chief who turned to novel writing, put up a robust defence of this year’s judges in a recent newspaper interview.
“As somebody interested in literary criticism, it’s pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me,” she told the Guardian newspaper.
“They live in such an insular world they can’t stand their domain being intruded upon.”
Ion Trewin, administrator of the Man Booker Prize, weighed into the debate on Monday with an article in the Daily Telegraph.
He said that who ever wins the coveted prize at a glitzy dinner in London on Tuesday, will have passed “the severest of critical tests.”
Trewin also brushed off the sniping surrounding this year’s award as a minor distraction.
“Do I detect sour grapes in some of those who support the possibility of a new literary prize, said to be a rival to the Man Booker?”
If the winner is Barnes, as bookmakers predict, he may have mixed feelings.
A Man Booker Prize means a cheque for 50,000 pounds, a flurry of media attention and, perhaps most importantly, a major boost in sales.
But he has been critical of the award in the past, likening it to “posh bingo” and berating judges for being “inflated by their brief celebrity”.
Before 2011, he was shortlisted in 1984 (“Flaubert’s Parrot”), 1998 (“England, England”) and 2005 (“Arthur and George”).
This year’s contender, The Sense of an Ending, is sufficiently short to be described in one review as a “novella”, and tells the story of Tony in a meditation on memory and regret.
It is 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”).