IT WILL be chosen from a hotly-debated list spanning more than half a century and feature some of the biggest names in modern literature.
Six years after her death, one of Dame Muriel Spark’s best-known novels will go up against fellow Scot James Kelman’s first best-seller for the unofficial title of “book of the last century”.
The Mandelbaum Gate, which was published by the Edinburgh author in 1965 – four years after The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie – is shortlisted alongside Glasgow writer Kelman’s 1989 work, A Disaffection.
The two books have been chosen after six months of intense debate and election-style “hustings” at Edinburgh University. Also chosen are works by Graham Greene, Cormac Mc-Carthy, Caryl Phillips and Angela Carter, in a contest to find the best winner yet of the James Tait Black prize, Britain’s oldest literary award, which the university instigated in 1919.
All the authors are previous winners of the prize, which was set up by the publisher’s widow, Janet Coats, to commemorate his love of writing. Presented each year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it is the only major British book award judged by scholars and postgraduate students.
Separate awards are given for the best fiction book and best biography published each year. However the “best-ever” list has been drawn from only the fiction list, with the winner to be announced in December.
The most recent work is McCarthy’s best-seller The Road, published six years ago, while the oldest is The Heart of the Matter by Greene, published in 1948.
The special “best of the best” award is part of celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of the study of English literature at the university.
Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, William Golding, John Le Carre, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan, DH Lawrence and EM Forster are among the previous winners.
Greg Walker, regius professor of literature and chairman of the annual prizes, said he was surprised more modern novels had not made the shortlist.
“What it shows is that although styles of writing have changed over the years, some of these classic books have not fallen out of fashion.
“We started off with the list of all the previous fiction winners and whittled it down over those six months, mainly through hustings events, when people would argue for their personal choice.
“If I had been a betting man I would have thought the likes of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or [Smith’s] White Teeth would have made the list. I was also sure A Passage to India would be on there.”
A 25-strong panel, expected to include best-selling authors such as Ian Rankin and Alan Warner, will select the final winner.
The Mandelbaum Gate focuses on a half-Jewish Catholic convert, who risks her safety on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A Disaffection is about a young teacher who grows increasingly frustrated with the state education system.
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