Zadie and Ali Smith do battle in Orange shortlist

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The Independent Culture

A Richard and Judy bestseller will battle it out against four books by British authors and a first novel from Australia for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

The History of Love by the American author Nicole Krauss has already proved a popular as well as a critical success, with extra help from its selection for the Channel 4 duo's book club.

Also among the six books shortlisted for the 2006 award for women's fiction yesterday were the two Smiths - Ali and Zadie - with The Accidental and On Beauty, respectively.

They are joined on the shortlist by two more formidable British writers - Sarah Waters with The Night Watch and Hilary Mantel, whose Beyond Black, was long-listed for the Booker last year alongside Smiths A and Z - but unlike them did not progress to the final vote.

The last contender is a first novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany, who was inspired to write by her experiences as one of Australia's few female park rangers.

The broadcaster Martha Kearney, who chairs the judging panel, said: "We have been very lucky as some of the country's finest writers have excellent books out this year, and that is reflected in our choice. But we were guided by the quality of the books rather than the fact they were big names.

"I don't think there was anybody left feeling these were the wrong choices. But there were some great books bubbling under, such as Disobedience [by Naomi Alderman] and Prep [by Curtis Sittenfeld] that I hope lots of people will still find from the long list."

The range of subjects and characters was striking, she added. "There can be a certain view of 'women's writing' but the central characters in these six books couldn't be more varied."

Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters have been all shortlisted for the Orange Prize before. Kate Mosse, the prize's co-founder, said the influence they had had on British writing in the past 10 years was impressive. "Look at how much they have all achieved with relatively small bodies of work. You can't remember a time now when Zadie and Ali and Sarah weren't very important writers," she said.

Like Kearney, Mosse was pleased that at least one first novel had reached the finals, maintaining the prize's tradition of digging out works which might otherwise be overlooked. But she said it was also important not to ignore "heavyweights" simply because they had already been spotted by other prizes. "There is a great pressure when books receive a lot of attention to feel they don't need you any more, but that is not the point of this prize. The point is to chose the books the judges really want to celebrate," she said.

The judges this year are the comedienne and novelist Jenny Éclair, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, the columnist and novelist India Knight and the novelist and children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson, with Kearney as chair. The £30,000 prize, which was won last year by Lionel Shriver for We Need To Talk About Kevin, will be presented on 6 June.

* The shortlist for the 2006 Ondaatje Prize of £10,000 was also announced yesterday by the Royal Society of Literature. The contenders are: Scenes from Comus by Geoffrey Hill, Findings by Kathleen Jamie, The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna, Nature Cure by Richard Mabey and The People's Act of Love by James Meek.

The shortlist

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The story of a young teenager, Alma Singer, and an elderly man, Leo Gursky, whose lives are bound together by a book which he wrote 60 years earlier but had presumed lost, which she has taken as her inspiration.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Alison Hart, an overweight medium, takes on flint-hearted Colette as an assistant to organise her tours. But Colette never quite tunes into the psychic trade, while Alison is taunted by the spirits of men from her past.

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Young Astrid and her family - her mother, a writer, her stepfather, a philandering academic, and her brother, traumatised by an incident at school - are holidaying in Norfolk when a mysterious stranger turns up with radical consequences for them all.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The battle of ideas and personalities between a white working-class academic, Howard Belsey, and his conservative rival, Monty Kipps, and their families - of which two members enjoy a brief relationship - on an American college campus.

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

In 1934 on the Australian government's touring "Better Farming Train", which brings expert advice to workers on the land, a love affair develops between a soil scientist, Robert Pettergree, and a young seamstress, Jean.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The story of four Londoners, three women and a young man, in the shabby and austere 1940s, whose lives and secrets connect. Their stories are told backwards to show how people become what they are.