Hughes's gripping and heartfelt account of his marriage to Sylvia Plath now stands a chance of achieving an unprecedented clean sweep of Britain's poetic honours. His penultimate collection, Tales from Ovid, last year won the overall Whitbread Book of the Year award, worth pounds 23,000.
The shortlists for the Whitbread awards also offer another chance of literary glory to The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills, the south London bus driver who last month reached the final stages of the Booker Prize. His book resurfaces in Whitbread's first novel category, although the general fiction shortlist gives no consolation to Beryl Bainbridge. Her novel Master Georgie, which missed the Booker last week by a whisker after a split vote favoured Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, fails to appear on the list of three. It includes Justin Cartwright's satirical view of Middle America, Leading the Cheers, and highly praised works by Barbara Trapido and the Belfast-born Ronan Bennett.
In the 1970s, while a student at Queen's University, Bennett was falsely accused of shooting a policeman. He mounted his own defence and was acquitted at trial. In 1990, he collaborated on Stolen Years by Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four. The Catastrophist, set largely in the Congo, is his third novel.
Poetry has dominated the last two Whitbread competitions, with Hughes's victory at the start of this year preceded by a win for Seamus Heaney in January 1997. This year, again, it looks one of the strongest categories.
Hughes faces impressive challenges from Paul Farley, the young Liverpool- born poet, and from Philip Gross, whose new work traces the course of his daughter's struggle with anorexia. The Whitbread category winners (who win pounds 2,000) will be announced on 13 January and will then compete for the Book of the Year Award (and a further pounds 21,000) on 26 January.
Award shortlists, 1998:
First Novel: Magnus Mills, The Restraint of Beasts (Flamingo); Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland (Faber); Luke Sutherland, Jelly Roll (Anchor), Gavin Kramer, Shopping (Fourth Estate).
Novel: Ronan Bennett, The Catastrophist (Headline Review); Justin Cartwright, Leading the Cheers (Sceptre); Barbara Trapido, The Travelling Hornplayer (Hamish Hamilton).
Poetry: Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters (Faber); Philip Gross, The Wasting Game (Bloodaxe); Paul Farley, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (Picador).
Biography: John Bayley, Iris: memoir of Iris Murdoch (Duckworth); Amanda Foreman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins); Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936 (Penguin Press).
Children: J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Bloomsbury); James Riordan, Sweet Clarinet (Oxford); David Almond, Skellig (Signature); Robert Swindells, Abomination (Doubleday).
A Week in Books: page 15 of the Weekend Review.