There was much opposition to the shortlist for this year's Man Booker prize and some went as far as to suggest an alternative award that would recognise serious literary fiction, impervious to considerations of popularity and sales figures. But while there is seldom a year when the Man Booker prize has not raised literary hackles, it has never led to direct action – until now.
A group of prizewinning authors and literary aficionados announced the launch of a new book prize yesterday that would capture the original – and lost – spirit of the Booker and may 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 revealed that several other former Booker winners had expressed "behind the scenes support".
The prize, which will announce its long-list next year, will include American writers in the competition. The Booker does not consider US authors.
This year's Booker has seen particular outrage at the exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst's book, The Stranger's Child, which was long-listed but made it no further. Three debut novelists were chosen among the six-strong list, whose winner is announced next week. But in advance of that, Mitchell, whose last novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet was long-listed for the Man Booker last year, welcomed the new prize. He said: "I think unequivocally that the Literature Prize will be a good thing. Booker magic dust helped me in my early career and I'm grateful to it, but surely the more showcases we have for quality fiction, the better. I think 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 advisory board of The Literature Prize released a statement of intent which directly sited the Booker prize. "The prize will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition," it said. "For many years, this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly Man Booker) prize. But as numerous statements by that prize's administrators and this year's judges illustrate, 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."
Andrew Kidd, the former publisher of Picador who is now a literary agent and spokesman for the new prize, said it was not set up in direct response to this year's Man Booker shortlist, though it would take on the founding spirit of Booker. "There had been conversations before the shortlist over the shifting priorities of the Man Booker prize. We are not pitting ourselves against it. What we feel is that there has been a groundswell of people who feel that these priorities have shifted, which have left a gap in the prize landscape."
But Ion Trewin, the administrator of the Man Booker prize, said: "I have always said that readability and artistic achievement should go hand in hand." The judging process of The Literature Prize will based partly on the French model of having a permanent set of judges. In this case, they would select an academy of experts who would become revolving, semi-permanent judges, to maintain consistency. Its founders are still establishing funding and prize money is expected to be on a par with the Man Booker and Costa prizes.