The sense of a happy ending – Barnes wins the Booker

He's made the shortlist three times before, but finally the novelist has taken the prize

Julian Barnes may once have denounced the Man Booker Prize as "posh bingo" but he had no qualms about accepting its £50,000 jackpot yesterday, after three unsuccessful attempts to claim the most prestigious award in British fiction.

The judges took just 31 minutes to decide on the 65-year-old author – the bookies' favourite – a call likely to appease the prize's critics, who this year have damned it for apparently favouring "readability" over high-quality work.

"We thought it was a book that, though short, was incredibly concentrated and crammed into this space a great deal of information which we don't get on the first reading," said judging chair Dame Stella Rimington. "One of the things the book does is talk about the human kind." She added that it "has the markings of a classic of English literature", saying it was "exquisitely written" and "subtly plotted".

It is Barnes's 11th novel, and tells the story of Tony Webster – an ageing, somewhat unreliable narrator – who is forced to recall the circumstances surrounding a school friend's suicide. As the book progresses Tony is reunited with a former girlfriend, who prompts him to remember long-forgotten details from his twenties. The narrative, rich in metaphor regarding the reversal of time and brooding in its consideration of death, concludes with a twist.

The book is Barnes's first novel for six years, and the first since the 2008 death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to whom it is dedicated.

Some critics have questioned whether it is Barnes's best work, with The Independent's review saying its inclusion on the Booker shortlist was "open to debate". Equally, the news comes after controversy surrounding the judges' citation of "readability" as a key reason for inclusion on the shortlist. Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said earlier this week that this "opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true".

Regarding the row, Dame Stella said yesterday: "We were talking about readability and quality. We were always looking for quality as well. You can have more than one adjective when talking about books." She added that she had gone through "many crises" in her long life, against which the Booker row did not really compare.

Despite gripes within the literary community, 2011 has had the best-selling shortlist in the prize's history, with sales up 127 per cent year-on-year. The winning novel, at 150 pages one of the briefest to have ever won, will be greeted warmly by consumers. However the accolade of "shortest-ever winner" goes to Penelope Fitzgerald's 141-page work Offshore, which won in 1979.

The other shortlisted books were Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie, a picaresque tale of a young boy hunting for a Komodo dragon; AD Miller's thriller set in Russia, Snowdrops; Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, which enters the mind of an 11-year-old Ghanaian who sees the dead body of a friend; Patrick deWitt's Western The Sisters Brothers; and Esi Edugyan's tale of a jazz band in war-time Paris and Berlin, Half Blood Blues.

Barnes was previously shortlisted for Arthur and George (2005), England, England (1998) and Flaubert's Parrot (1984). The other judges were authors Susan Hill and Chris Mullin, and journalists Matthew d'Ancona and Gaby Wood.

Extract: Barnes's prize-winning novel

I'm retired now. I have a flat with my possessions. I keep up with a few drinking pals and have some women friends – platonic, of course. (And they're not part of the story either.) I'm a member of the local history society, though less excited than some about what metal detectors unearth. A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out and it's good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.

And that's life, isn't it? Some achievements and some disappointments... Maybe in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.