Beryl Bainbridge leads this year's six-strong shortlist with Every Man For Himself, her acclaimed fictionalised account of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
But other strong contenders on a list well received by critics are Graham Swift and Margaret Atwood, second favourites to win with Last Orders and Alias Grace respectively. Both have been shortlisted before.
The other three in the running are Shena Mackay for The Orchard On Fire, Rohinton Mistry for A Fine Balance and Derry-born Seamus Deane in a surprise inclusion for his first novel Reading In The Dark.
Unusually, the shortlist contains an equal number of men and women and the full possible complement of books.
Last year, the judges could not agree on a sixth - speculated to have been Martin Amis's The Information - and only put up five.
This year, debate centred around the absence of Ben Elton's bestselling satire on Hollywood film violence, Popcorn, which had made the long list and been highly praised by one of the judges, A N Wilson.
But it was eventually rejected during a three-and-a-half hour meeting of the Booker's five judges at London's Savile Club.
The novelist Jonathan Coe, who sat on the panel, said: "Popcorn was put forward and discussed at great length and very vigorously. It was on our long list and had strong advocates.
"But it was in a pool of a dozen from which we had to make a painful reduction. Some of the books which were most hotly discussed did not make it on to the list. The ones with the least dispute were the ones which are on the shortlist.
"The bottom line is `Which one did you enjoy reading the most?' Entertainment and pleasure were very high on our list when considering these books."
Another notable exclusion was A S Byatt, who won the 1990 Booker with Possession but whose Babel Tower failed to make the long list.
David Malouf's The Conversations At Curlow Creek; John Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure, and a novel by another former Booker winner, Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors were also not on the list.
The pounds 20,000 prize will be awarded on 29 October at a dinner to be filmed live by BBC2. Last year it went to Pat Barker's The Ghost Road.
Carmen Callil, the publisher, writer and broadcaster, chaired the judges who also included Ian Jack, editor of Granta, and A L Kennedy, the author.
She said: "It has been a wonderful year for fiction. There were at least 10 novels we argued about.
"We compromised as little as possible and still felt that we had made the right choice."
A short history of the five contenders for top publishing award
Last Orders Subject Vic, Ray and Lennie, drinking friends and army colleagues, set off with Vince to throw the ashes of Jack Dodds, stepfather of Vince, off the end of Margate Pier. Critics' view "Graham Swift, like Julian Barnes, gives his readers greater pleasure with every book. Last Orders recalls, but also improves upon, his earlier works." - The Daily Telegraph
"Confirms its author as one of his generation's finest, with an imagination of rare immediacy and vitality." - The Times Previous successes
Waterland, shortlisted for the Booker prize Background Son of a civil servant, he decided to be a writer in his mid-teens. He used his English degree at Cambridge to learn to write and published his first novel aged 31, followed by Waterland two years later. Now 47, he lives in Wandsworth Odds 3-1
Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace Subject Based on the life of the "celebrated" Grace Marks, convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in 1843 aged 16. Critics' view "Atwood has pushed the art to its extremes and the result is devastating.
This, surely, is as far as a novel can go." - The Independent on Sunday.
"Alias Grace is the author's gift to the dispossessed and the tradition- ally silent" - The Times. Previous successes The Handmaid's Tale, Booker-shortlist and film. Background Studied American 19th- century literature at Harvard. Began her literary career as feminist poet; early novels also dwelt on the indignities inflicted on women by men. Lives in Toronto Odds 3-1
Beryl Bainbridge: Every Man For Himself Subject The sinking of the Titanic Critics' view "Here is a writer who knows precisely what she is doing and who does it with unemphatic but exhilarating pan-ache" - The Indep- endent
"A narrative both spark-ling and deep, sprinkled with surprising images ofstar-burst and ice-fracture" - The Sunday Times Previous successes
Won the Whitbread Prize with Injury Time. Background Born 1934 in Liverpool, began her career as an actress. Established her reputation as a novelist in the 1970s with The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, and Young Adolf. Odds 5-2
Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance Subject Two Hindu tailors and a Parsi student share a Bombay flat with a widow in the dark years of internal emergency in India in the 1970s. Critics' view "The intensity of Mistry's outrage as he contemplates the maulings of the vulnerable by the vile compels you into appalled assent" - The Sunday Times.
"Heavy going' is how I would have to describe this novel. It is not just very long, but very slow." The Sunday Telegraph. Previous successes
Booker shortlist for Such A Long Journey. Background Born in Bombay in 1952, has lived in Canada since 1975. Odds 5-1
Shena Mackay: The Orchard On Fire Subject Set in England during coronation year. Percy and Betty Harlency have swapped their Streatham gin palace for a Stonebridge teashop, but their young daughter is at risk Critics' view "Contains the terrible knowledge of human fallibility and its consequences, and yet for- gives it with a profound and tender moment of affirmation. Wonderful" - The Times
"Its themes are beautifully constructed ... the beguiling atmosphere of a Fifties childhood lingers on" - The Independent Previous successes Background Dunedin and The Laughing Academy.
Born in Edinburgh, she is author of two novellas, three short story collections and six novels. Odds 5-1
Reading In The Dark Subject Growing up Catholic in Londonderry in the 1940s and 1950s. Critics' view "Reading in the Dark is consistently felicitous in effect and compelling in atmosphere. But it's not optimistic" - The Independent
"Desperately sad to read, and almost impossible to put down" - The Independent on Sunday
"Worked and beautiful prose" - Daily Telegraph Previous successes This is his first novel Background Born in Londonderry in 1940, he went to school with Seamus Heaney. Has published a number of works of criticism and poetry and is general editor of Field Day, an Anthology of Irish Writing. Teaches at University of Notre Dame, Chicago. Odds 6-1Reuse content