Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has been fêted by the literary world for nearly three decades. Yesterday the public showed their appreciation, voting it the greatest Booker Prize winner of them all.
The novel was selected from a long-list of 41 previous Booker winners, and had been the bookies' favourite on a shortlist of six nominated to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the prize.
Announcing the winner, Victoria Glendinning, the chairman of the judging panel that picked the shortlist, urged the organisers to allow the public to choose the Booker winner every year. This, she said, would encourage people to read more.
It is the third Booker Midnight's Children has picked up since it first won the award in 1981, having also been judged the Booker of Bookers for the award's 25th anniversary.
The shortlist this time included JM Coetzee's Disgrace, which came second, and Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. Both Coetzee and Carey have won two Bookers. Pat Barker's The Ghost Road, Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist and J G Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur were also in the running.
Rushdie's post-colonial story about the partition of India won 36 per cent of the vote. At least half the voting public was aged under 35 and more than a quarter of the 7,801 votes cast came from the US. Rushdie, 61, who was born in Mumbai but educated in England, is currently promoting his latest book in Chicago but sent a video message conveying his thanks to voters. His sons, Zafar and Milan, collected the trophy.
He said: "[I think of] how astonished my younger self writing Midnight's Children in the late-1970s would have been about this. It was written with such hope but not with the expectation that this book would still be interesting and relevant to people who were not even born when it was written."
His youngest son, Milan, 11, said while he was still to read his father's magnum opus, he was born just eight minutes before midnight, similar to the protagonist of the novel, who was born on the stroke of 12.
Mariella Frostrup, the television presenter and Booker judge, said the book had an "unputdownable" quality that appealed for its literary skill, and for being a "bloody great read".
Rushdie's second novel remains his most highly regarded but he is best known for his controversial 1988 work The Satanic Verses, which was seen by some Muslims as blasphemous and earned him a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. As a result he spent most of the 1990s in hiding.
Ms Glendinning revealed she had initially regarded the "best of" prize as a "boring" exercise but had been surprised by how interesting the judging had become. She failed to secure Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient a spot on the shortlist, but Midnight's Children and Disgrace were unanimous choices.
The judges defended the prize from critics who said it was merely a marketing exercise to boost book sales. Ms Frostrup said it gave a new generation of readers the chance to read extra-ordinary works of literature.
The prize is anticipated to once again drive up sales of Rushdie's novel. Janine Cook, fiction buyer for Waterstone's bookshop, said: "It still appeals to new readers – we've seen sales jump 500 per cent since the Booker of Booker shortlist was revealed."Reuse content