MEDIA: ZEITGEIST - Whitbread Book of the Year prize wafts fresh air into the unventilated literary arena, Friday, 09 January 2004 12:00AM

The Whitbread Prize may not be the most prestigious literary award, nor the biggest in crude cash terms (the overall winner gets £25,000 and the Man Booker leapfrogged it to £50,000 a couple of years back) but it's certainly the most interesting.

That's because (quite cutely, from a PR point of view) it comes in two stages. Stage one came earlier this week when winners were announced in five primary categories - novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children's.

Each category winner takes a not-to-be-sneezed-at £5,000. The overall winner, to be announced at the obligatory posh do later on this month, is selected from among the category winners.

So, unlike the Booker, a bloated, pretentious or downright obscure literary novel doesn't necessarily win. In other words, it's a breath of fresh air - past winners, for instance, include Philip Pullman for a (nominally) children's book, The Amber Spyglass.

The prize: Whitbread Book of the Year

The wonga: £25,000

The time: 27 January 2004

The place: The Brewery, London EC1

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