Book prizes prove they have the popular touch

Another day, another shortlist. There are around 300 book prizes in the UK and Ireland, so it is a rare dawn that does not tell us a little about the nation's reading habits - or at least about the preferences of publishers, authors and book prize judges.

Yesterday was the turn of the pounds 23,000 Whitbread Prize. It always enjoys cocking a snook at older brother Booker. So, authors surprisingly left off the Booker shortlist - Ian McEwan and John Banville - found their way on to the Whitbread list.

Melvin Burgess's novel Junk, about drug addiction in Bristol, was shortlisted for the children's book category, guaranteeing the necessary controversy upon which book prize publicity depends. (And in case that doesn't work, the judges have come up with an all-male shortlist in the best novel category, taking on literary correctness and giving producers of late night television arts programmes an easy debating point.

Best novel? Best children's book? This is an all-embracing prize isn't it? The answer is yes. The judges must weigh up not only best novel and best kids' book, but also best biography and best collection of poems, and decide an overall winner.

Is this intellectually feasible? Can Wordsworth be compared and contrasted with Dickens? Can this year's judges really decide between Ted Hughes and McEwan, who appear in the novel and poetry categories? Book prizes may have to be different from each other. But this is taking difference to a perplexing extreme.The comparison of unlike with unlike is worrying. But the other accusation always aimed at book prizes - that they bear little relation to what "real people" actually read - may not hold water.

Yesterday also saw the publication of an international survey of 5,000 people in 191 countries by The Good Book Guide. Most popular novel turned out to be The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day was second, and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient third - all books that have been made into films, which is probably not insignificant. Fourth was Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Love In The Time Of Cholera and fifth Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.

Jung Chang and Nelson Mandela were one and two in the biography section. Only in children's books (Roald Dahl) and science (Stephen Hawking) did home grown authors top the charts.

The world's readers of English language books are not, it seems, choosing English authors in the main. But they are choosing books that have either won or been shortlisted for literary prizes. For all the knocking of these largely artificial events, they turn out to have more of an influence on public taste than is usually reckoned.

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