Every other year, the Man Booker International Prize celebrates the careers of celebrated authors - rather than simply their latest books. Since its inception in 2005, the Ł60,000 (Dh355,145) prize has been given to Albanian novelist and poet Ismail Kadare, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and Canadian short-story legend Alice Munro, and has swiftly become one of the most intriguing and prestigious awards on the literary circuit.
And now, one of the most controversial.
On Wednesday, John Le Carré was announced as one of the 13 writers to have made it on to the Finalists' List - no mean feat when it contains such luminaries as the revered American novelist Philip Roth, peerless children's author Philip Pullman and the reclusive but brilliant storyteller Anne Tyler. And Le Carré, famous for the espionage thrillers The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did indeed admit in a statement issued through his publishers that he was "enormously flattered to be named". But there was a problem. Le Carré just doesn't "do" literary prizes. His website lists his reasons: Le Carré speaks of a "profound contempt for the system - I mean, a total alienation from it. I wrote, not least in my early years, to escape institutional life, and the last thing I was going to do was allow myself to become the pawn of a new institution."
So, on the very same day he was being feted by one of the judges for his "technical mastery as a dramatic storyteller", he asked for his name to be withdrawn.
That Le Carré has a chip on his shoulder should come as no surprise. It's the lot of genre fiction authors - particularly those who dabble in thrillers involving spies - to bemoan the fact that awards shortlists overlook crowd-pleasing, best-selling novels in favour of more esoteric literary fiction. Le Carré is no different, and for years he has asked his publishers not to submit his novels for possible inclusion.
Publishers are not involved in the Man Booker International Prize, however. The longlist is simply the result of long conversations between three judges (Carmen Callil, Justin Cartwright and chairman Rick Gekoski) who can choose whom they like. Such discussions have been, as Gekoski admitted in The Guardian this week, "wide-ranging, sharp, and sometimes abrasive". Revealingly, Gekoski also said they had been "delighted to ignore supposed genre categories, like 'thriller' or 'children's book'".
All of which meant Gekoski quickly declined Le Carré's request to withdraw. "John Le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list," he said. "We are disappointed that he wants to withdraw from further consideration because we are great admirers of his work."
Unless the judges are deliberately obtuse, it seems unlikely that Le Carré will now go on to win. But you can excuse them for feeling disappointed that despite their refreshingly broad and diverse approach to the longlist, one of the authors who would have possibly had much to gain from the exposure (Le Carré readership is, to put it politely, ageing with him) is so publicly dismissing it.
Maybe he thinks it's another sop - just another prize he won't win. And it's true that any of the 13 novelists on this list would be worthy victors. It's great to see the rich depictions of the Middle East in the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's work make the cut, and the family sagas that have characterised the career of the Indian/Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry deserve even wider attention. But it seems clear from the transparent judging process - Gekoski has blogged extensively on just how they came to pick the 13 - that whoever wins will do so because they are, as he puts it, "deserving of recognition" rather than because they wrote in a preconceived literary style.
Still, perhaps Gekoski should have known better than to include the spy-turned-novelist. In the late 1980s Le Carré turned down an offer of a Commander of the Order of the British Empire put forward by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom's New Year's Honours List, not entirely enamoured by its suggestion that he had joined the establishment. Yes, Le Carré was being true to his principles and politics as a staunch socialist. But a CBE is hardly the bestowal of a feudal lordship.
One suspects, then, that winning the Man Booker International Prize - with all the attendant praise and entitlement - horrifies Le Carré just as much. By that rationale it would be quite funny to award it to him anyway, just to see what he'd do with the money. As Le Carré approaches his 80th birthday, maybe it's time he took his own advice, and came in from the cold.
- The Man Booker International Prize winner will be announced at the Sydney Writers' Festival on May 18. For more information, visit www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/man-booker-international.
Follow us on Twitter and keep up to date with the latest in arts and lifestyle news at twitter.com/LifeNationalUAE