JM Coetzee in line for Man Booker hat-trick

The South African writer and twice Booker prize winner, JM Coetzee, could make literary history if he wins a third time with his ficitional memoir, which was today selected on the annual award shortlist. No other Booker winner has performed a hat-trick in the prize’s 41-year history.

His novel features in a shortlist dominated by some of the literary world’s most revered figures including the bookmaker’s favourite, Hilary Mantel, as well as AS Byatt.

Jim Naughtie, the journalist and chair of the judges who revealed the selection, today praised the high quality of writing on a shortlist of multi-award winning authors and said that in former years some works which had to be eliminated by the judges at this stage would have made it onto the shortlist, such was the calibre of contenders vying for the £50,000 award. He said the final decision had been an "intense" one with difficult choices made over the final two books.

"Yes, in former years, some of the (13 longlisted) books would have made it on the shortlist. We had a formidable longlist. The last stage of the shortlist where we had seven or eight books was like chipping off the last bit of granite. It was very, very hard. I can honestly say I am looking forward to reading all six books again," he said.

Coetzee, a Nobel laureate who previously won the Booker for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999, has been nominated for Summertime, based in the 1970s. Byatt, who won the prize for Possession in 1990, is this time up for her turn of the 20th century epic, The Children’s Book; Sarah Waters, who has been shortlisted twice before, has been selected with her post-war British ghost story, The Little Stranger; and Adam Foulds, who was widely rumoured to have come close to winning last year’s Costa prize with his first book of poems, The Broken Word, is up with his first novel about the 19th century poet, John Clare, called The Quickening Maze. Mantel, whose work has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, is the bookmaker’s favourite to win with Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, the sixth selected novel which is set in the Nazi era, is considered to be the only "surprise" choice on the list.

Two of the highest profile absentees included Irishmen Colm Toibin and William Trevor, both previous Booker prize nominees who were predicted to have breezed onto the shortlist.

Naughtie observed that the list was comprised of books of "historical fiction" ranging from the times of Henry VIII to post-war Britain and Nazi Czechoslovakia but said that that had been coincidental.

"We were certainly not promoting various forms of historical fiction so it was unconscious on our part. But it is interesting to consider that the fiction on the list does not take place in the present day, and it’s an interesting question to ponder why," said Naughtie.

The shortlist was very different from last year’s selection which included two debut novelists, one of whom, Aravind Adiga, won with The White Tiger.

Meanwhile, the longlisted book Me Cheeta, a spoof autobiography of a chimpanzee turned Hollywood star on the Tarzan movies, written by the debut author James Lever, was praised by Naughtie as a "brilliant piece of invention". He would not be drawn on whether it had been among the final two contenders which did not make it on the shortlist.

It had been the rank outsider but outsiders have proven the establishment wrong in previous years: Adiga was considered the wildcard last year. DBC Pierre who won the prize with Vernon God Little in 2003, and Yann Martel, with The Life of Pi, in 2002, were similarly regarded as outsiders.

The prize has changed the fortunes of some previous winners, whose books have rocketed into the bestseller charts as a result. The winner will be revealed next month.