Dan's the Man: Downton Abbey star takes his seat among the Booker judges

Panel defend choice of 29-year-old actor amidst controversy over 'dumbing down' of prize

As the dashing Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, he coped admirably with being catapulted into a closed world with its own peculiar airs and graces and undercurrents of in-fighting.

Now the actor Dan Stevens will have to prove himself to the highest echelons of Britain's literary establishment, after he was named as the surprise member of next year's Man Booker Prize judging panel. The 29-year-old actor was revealed as one of the five-strong judging team for the 2012 prize yesterday, joining two academics, Dinah Birch and Bharat Tandon, and broadcaster and historian Amanda Foreman.

They will be led by Times Literary Supplement editor Sir Peter Stothard, who yesterday defended the choice of an actor above another judge with more obvious credentials in the world of literature. He said: "I am very pleased to have him on the panel. It helps to have someone from outside the literary world, it is important to get the right balance. You need a range of different skills but it is important that everyone understands what criticism can do. It is different to opinion.

"It is important...to use critical argument to compare different kinds of books. We have two of the finest literary critics in Britain on the panel and we have some great minds besides."

Stevens' degree in English Literature from Cambridge University was listed as one of his qualifications for joining the judging panel yesterday. A statement from Man Booker also pointed out his work as a "prolific narrator of audio books" whose readings of Wolf Hall and War Horse were short-listed for "audiobook of the year 2010".

He is also not the first actor to appear on the panel. Imogen Stubbs was a judge in 2007 and Joanna Lumley in 1985.

The 2012 prize comes against a backdrop of controversy over the prize. Criticisms that Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child was omitted from the 2011 shortlist prompted the-then chairwoman Dame Stella Rimington to say she wanted people "to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them". This did little to combat the charge that the prize was dumbing down with a rival, The Literature Prize, established by literary agent Andrew Kidd with the aim of returning to the Booker's original spirit of "quality and ambition".

Yesterday, Sir Peter dismissed the debate over the relative importance of works' "readability" and literary mastery, calling it a "false choice".

Whatever critics may say one thing, Mr Stevens might do well to remember the words of Ms Lumley after her time as judge. "The so-called bitchy world of acting was a Brownie's tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing," she said.

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