Ballard fights Booker winner

Whitbread Prize: Marianne Macdonald assesses this year's shortlist, while Boyd Tonkin, `The Independent's' new literary editor, offers publishers and aspiring novelists a cautionary tale on the insidious perils of hype

The man who wrote Crash, the book which David Cronenberg has made into one the year's most controversial films, has been shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year award.

Crash was JG Ballard's exploration of people who take sexual pleasure from car crashes. His latest novel, Cocaine Nights, which delves into the motives behind pyromania, could win the Whitbread's biggest prize, pounds 21,000 for Book of the Year.

One of six novels, it is running alongside Last Orders by Graham Swift, which last month won the Booker Prize. Beryl Bainbridge has also been shortlisted, as she was for this year's Booker, for her retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, Every Man For Himself. Ms Bainbridge has never won the Booker Prize, although she has won the Whitbread prize before, in 1977.

The other contenders are Fay Weldon for Worst Fears, Patrick McGrath for Asylum, and Neil Bartlett for Mr Clive and Mr Page. All three are unexpected choices by the judges chaired by Geordie Greig, literary editor of the Sunday Times.

The Book of the Year is chosen from the top four in four categories: novel, first novel, poetry and biography - which has prompted criticism that the judging is like comparing apples and pears.

This year, the first novels are Seamus Deane's hotly tipped Reading In The Dark - also shortlisted for the Booker - Georgina Hammick's The Arizona Game, Mary Morrissy's Mother Of Pearl and John Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure.

The poetry award will go to Seamus Heaney, who last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature, for The Spirit Level, UA Fanthorpe for Safe As Houses, Alice Oswald for The Thing In The Gap Stone Stile, Christopher Reid for Expanded Universes or Pauline Stainer for The Wound-Dresser's Dream.

The biography contenders are Rosemary Ashton's life of George Eliot, Flora Fraser's Queen Caroline, James Knowlson's Samuel Beckett and Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer.

The four category winners, who will each win pounds 2,000, will be announced on 6 January; the overall winner on 21 January.

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