ONCE A YEAR, something over a quarter of a million elegantly dressed Frenchwomen buy their husbands a book for Christmas. The way they do it is to sweep into the local bookstore and say, "Donnez- moi le Goncourt!" They don't know the title or the author's name, or so the legend goes in Paris. The husband may never read the book. But if it has won the Prix Goncourt, that is good enough for them. To win that most prestigious of French literary prizes, it is said, can add as many as 400,000 copies to the sales of a French best-selling novel, and the other top French literary prizes -- the Femina, the Renaudot and the others -- are similarly crucial to a book's sales.

It used to be that there were no literary prizes worth the name in Britain, but in the last few years the award habit has caught on. Last July, for instance, a total of over s43,000 ($55,000 plus) was given away by the novelist Doris Lessing in what was called Britain's "biggest ever literary prize giving."

The big one at that July gathering was the new Betty Trask award, worth s17,500 ($23,500) for a first novel by an author under 35 years old, "of a romantic or traditional nature." There was a romantic story behind the prize itself: it was made possible by a little old lady, Betty Trask, who lived in rural Somerset, and wrote unsuccessful romantic novels all her life, and lo! and behold, left several hundred thousand dollars that no one remotely suspected she had, to found the prize.

Some of the literary establishment were pretty snooty about giving such a comparatively big prize -- British literary prizes traditionally have been counted in hundreds rather than thousands of pounds -- for something so down-market.

But the two novels that shared first prize in this inaugural Trask award, Winter Journey by Ronald Frame and Cold Showers by Claire Nonhebel, were not penny dreadfuls in the Mills & Boon tradition, in which heroes shower burning kisses on the upturned foreheads of their pure fiancees. As Doris Lessing put it, if Charlotte Bronte had been in for the prize, she would have won. "I don't see why people have to be so bitchy about them," she added, though no one could call Miss Lessing's work either romantic or traditional.

All of which helps to explain why the organizers of the premier British fiction award, the Booker prize, which we owe to the generosity, not of a little old lady but of a large multinational enterprise (Booker McConnell), should have had to look to their laurels. They have increased the prize money from s10,000 ($13,000) to s15,000. To judge from both the quality of the novels entered, and the publicity this year's contest is already getting, they needn't have bothered.

Not that winning the Booker adds anything like the number of sales on to a British novel as winning the Goncourt does in France. Still, the commercial attractions are real enough, and the leading British fiction publishers fight hard, lobby hard, and -- it is whispered -- twist a few arms if they get the chance, to help their books win.

According to Philippa Harrison, managing director of Michael Joseph who publish around 40 books a year, a first novel by an unknown writer will sell about 2,000 copies in Britain in hardback. If there is a well-publicized race for the Booker, each of the contenders will sell around 20,000. And the winner will sell 40,000 in hardback, and then pick up good money for the paperback rights. By New York standards, it is not The Thorn Birds. But it is worth having.

Naturally, with so much in sales riding on how much publicity the Booker can get, the organizers spin the competition out. After several weeks of fanfare in the trade press, and a certain amount of speculation in the regular newspapers' book pages, the short list for this year's Booker prize has just been announced.

Alphabetically, they are: J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, published by Gollancz; Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot (Cape); Anita Brookner's Hotel Du Lac, (also Cape); In Custody, by Anita Desai (Heinemann); and David Lodge's A Small World (Secker & Warburg).

David Lodge is a critic and professor whose first book, Changing Times, a ribald tale of what happens when a British academic does a job exchange with a counter- cultural Californian, sold heavily in paperback; his second novel, How Far Can You Go?, was equally funny, but a serious exploration of the dislocation caused by changing Catholic teaching. His new book, Small World, a jet-age farce on the theme of romance, is his funniest so far.

Anita Brookner is also an academic: in fact, the first woman ever to hold the Slade chair in fine art at Cambridge. She is an expert on French 18th-century painting. Julian Barnes is a TV critic for The Observer, while Anita Desai is a full-time novelist.

The book tipped to win is J.G. Ballard's remarkable Empire of the Sun, a child's-eye view of the Japanese capture and occupation of Shanghai in World War II. Presumably it is largely autobiographical, since Ballard himself, already admired as an original writer of science fiction, was interned in a Shanghai concentration camp by the Japanese as a boy like the hero of his elegantly written and moving tale.

By some mysterious operation of that rule that makes Time and Newsweek come out with the same cover story as often as not, there is another Shanghai novel heading towards the best-seller lists this fall: Shanghai is by Christopher New, an Englishman who lives in Hong Kong. Michael Sissons of A.D. Peters, who has been emerging for some years now as the heavyweight among London agents, has just sold the rights to James Silberman at Summit for $75,000.

Some of the books that didn't make the Booker short list are as interesting as some of those that did. Almost all the tipsters were predicting that this year there would be a father and son entry: Kingsley Amis' Stanley and the Women, and his son Martin Amis' Money. Amis Jr.'s book is about the United States, as is another highly fancied runner the judges have rejected, William Boyd's Stars and Bars.

This is no golden age of British fiction, indeed. But looking at the novels published this year, there are a lot of talented and serious writers working here just the same, among them Michael Moorcock, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Angela Carter, all of whom have produced books this year that have been highly praised.

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that the best-seller lists here are crammed with experimental novels or sensitive sagas. The top best sellers in London, just as in the United States, are health and beauty books, computer books, and fiction blockbusters of the most commercial kind (Jeffrey Archer, Leon Uris).

There is one striking exception. Sitting at number three on the booksellers' best-seller list is the book which looks like being the 1984 equivalent of the Diary of an Edwardian Country Lady, though to my mind it is an incomparably more original and more pleasing book.

It is called Fellwalking with Wainwright, and it is a compendium of spectacular photographs of the mountains ("fells," from an old Norse word, are mountains in the North of England) in the English Lake District, with text and sketch maps in his own incomparable style by the writer who always calls himself "A Wainwright," never revealing the first name, which, he says, has been an embarrassment all his life.

Wainwright has been a growing cult among those of us who love to hike or climb in the Lakes since his first "pictorial guide" came out in 1952. Since then he has illustrated up to half a dozen different ways to the summit of dozens of fells, and by his own peculiar method.

He draws the fells in pen and ink, describing the snags and hazards of the mountain paths in careful longhand underneath. Most of the time the text is practical, telling you to turn right after the second sheepfold and beware the boggy ground to the right. Sometimes it is hilariously funny, and sometimes, when he expands about the views from the high tops, it is lyrical. The books are produced from photographic reproductions of his penmanship.

For 30 years the identity and the first name of Wainwright have been one of the better-kept secrets in the Lake District, where everyone knows everyone. Now, in his middle seventies, finding himself a best- seller, to the great surprise of his publisher, Philippa Harrison, who thought the book would have at best a local sale, he has let down his guard. He has revealed that he is the retired city treasurer of a small Lakeland town called Kendal.

He has agreed to be photographed on top of a mountain that would defeat most people in their forties, let alone seventies. And he has let slip that embarassing first name. It is, he has been ashamed to admit all his life, Alfred.