A group of prizewinning authors and literary aficionados have launched a new book prize which they claim will capture the original spirit of the Booker and become its most formidable rival.
Among supporters of The Literature Prize are former Booker winners Pat Barker and John Banville, and the twice shortlisted David Mitchell, as well as Mark Haddon and Jackie Kay. A source said several other former Booker winners had expressed support.
The award's advisory board said it would reward the best in quality fiction – a role fulfiled by the Booker prize until it shifted its criteria, it claimed. The prize, which will announce its first longlist next year, will include American writers – unlike the Booker which extends its reach across Commonwealth countries but shuns US authors.
There is seldom a year when the Booker does not raised literary hackles, but it never led to direct action until now.
There was fierce opposition to this year's shortlist and some went as far as to suggest an alternative prize that would recognise serious literary fiction, impervious to considerations of popularity and sales figures. There was particular outrage at the exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst's book, The Stranger's Child, which was longlisted but made it no further. Two debut novelists were among the six-strong shortlist, with the winner to be announced next week.
Mitchell whose last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, was longlisted for the Booker in 2010, welcomed the new prize.
"I think unequivocally that the Literature Prize will be a good thing," the author said. "It's undeniable that in recent years the Booker shortlist has emphasised accessibility over artistry – to follow this trend was a stated intention of this year's judging panel – and that's fine, of course. But Anglophone culture also needs an arena where the adjective 'challenging' isn't a dirty word, and I'm supporting the Literature Prize because it promises to create such an arena."
The new award's advisory board said in a statement: "The prize will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition. For many years, this brief was fulfiled by the Booker (latterly Man Booker) prize.
"But... it now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement. We believe... that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and to celebrate the very best novels published in our time."