In a rout of established literary figures, the judges excluded works by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rose Tremain and Barry Unsworth.
The first-time novelist Andrew O'Hagan and the former winner J M Coetzee are among the six shortlisted authors for the prestigious pounds 21,000 prize. They are joined by Michael Frayn, Anita Desai, Ahdaf Soueif and Colm Toibin.
It had been widely expected that this year's prize would, in sporting terms, feature a head-to-head battle between the heavyweight Indian-born writers Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie, a past winner. Both are understood to have been near the shortlist, as was Barry Unsworth. But the judges chose a list that includes some writers with very little public profile.
Certainly Rushdie and Seth had admirers on the judging panel. The chairman, Gerald Kaufman MP, is on record as saying that Seth's previous novel, A Suitable Boy - the longest single-volume English-language novel - is his "book of the century".
And his fellow judge Professor John Sutherland, when submitting a newspaper review of Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, sent an accompanying note saying: "Herewith the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize."
Mr Kaufman said yesterday: "While there were quite a number of novels of high quality, the judges found at least 10 to be of major stature. This made the final choice particularly difficult, and each of those 10 books was carefully and strongly discussed until the list had been refined down to six."
He added: "The panel consists of Mr Kaufman; Natasha Walter, a columnist at The Independent and author; the novelist Shena Mackay; John Sutherland, professor of English at University College, London; and the literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin.
The eventual winner will be named at a dinner at London's Guildhall on Monday 25 October, with a live broadcast of the announcement on Channel 4.
Secker & Warburg
JM Coetzee: a former winner of the Booker Prize, is Professor of General Literature at the University of Cape Town
Refusing to apologise after an impulsive affair with a student, David Lurie, a 52-year-old professor in Cape Town, seeks refuge on his daughter's farm where a savage attack brings into relief the faults in their relationship
"A subtle, multi-layered story, as much concerned with politics as it is with the itch of male flesh. Coetzee's prose is chaste and lyrical without being self- conscious."
Chatto & Windus
Anita Desai: twice shortlisted for the Booker, she teaches in America and divides her time between India, Massachussetts and Cambridge
It contrasts a close-knit Indian household, with the life the younger son finds when he spends the summer in Massachusetts with the Patton family and their freezer full of meat that nobody wants to eat
"Subtext and context are reduced to a minimum, prose stripped to essentials but all the more luminous for its bareness; a combination of savagery and compassion."
Faber & Faber
Michael Frayn: former journalist and a prolific playwright
It pitches from gallery to museum to library delivering an extended lesson in iconography and aesthetics
"Its learning becomes a fascinating alternative climate into which you plunge in respite from the hectic narrative."
Faber & Faber
Andrew O'Hagan: born in Glasgow, he is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books. This is his first novel
It tells the story of Hugh Bawn, dreamer, socialist and man of the people, as he lies on his deathbed on the eighteenth floor watching the flats he built coming down. His grandson, Jamie, comes home to watch over his dying mentor
"Andrew O'Hagan offers a vision of memorial and contemporary time comparable to Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Scots Quair trilogy."
THE MAP OF LOVE
Ahdaf Soueif: born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England. She is the author of three other books and lives in London
It is the turn of the century. The widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne meets Sharif Pash al-Barudi, an Egyptian nationalist in Cairo. She represents the antithesis of everything he stands for but they fall in love and marry
"Soueif is at her most eloquent on the subject of her homeland, her prose rich with historical detail and debate. Ultimately, Egypt emerges as the true heroine of this novel."
THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP
Colm Toibin: born in Ireland, he is the co-author, with Carmen Callil, of The Modern Library which was published this year
Set in modern day Ireland, The Blackwater Lightship tells the tale of three women, Dora Devereaux, her daughter Lily and grand-daughter Helen. They arrive at an uneasy peace with each other after years of strife
"The Blackwater Lightship is a mature, philosophical work which moves stylishly between dialogue, introspection and objective narration in a manner reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse."