MEDIA: ZEITGEIST - Whitbread Book of the Year prize wafts fresh air into the unventilated literary arena

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