'It's pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me' … Stella Rimington. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Since Stella Rimington and her fellow Man Booker prize judges announced their shortlist, they have been savaged by the literary establishment. Here the former MI5 chief turned thriller writer bites back.
By Stuart Jeffries
‘What I cannot tolerate is personal abuse,” says Dame Stella Rimington, fixing me with the piercing green eyes that made Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky come over all unnecessary during the cold war.
The former MI5 chief turned spy-thriller writer and Man Booker prize jury chairman who, for the last hour, has been a study in question-deflating diplomacy, is angry. “As somebody interested in literary criticism [her degree from Edinburgh was in English literature], it’s pathetic that so-called literary critics are abusing my judges and me. They live in such an insular world they can’t stand their domain being intruded upon.”
It’s hard to understand why she’s so cross – surely hissed denunciations, counter-denunciations and deals done behind closed doors during her 40-year career as a spy were ideal training for judging Britain’s leading literary prize. And surely the media flaying of Booker judges’ credentials is such an annual ritual that no one with a thick skin would be troubled by it.
Rimington is responding to headlines such as: “This year’s Booker judges don’t inspire confidence” and “Booker prize crisis”. The furore started last month when she announced the shortlist of six for the Booker, whose winner will be announced on 18 October. What kind of barbarians, critics fumed, could have omitted Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child? It was the critics’ favourite and, more significantly, William Hill’s. What was she thinking of?
“We didn’t choose it,” shrugs Rimington. “I got called homophobic for not choosing Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher [whose King of the Badgers also didn’t make the cut]. I didn’t know Hensher was homosexual and if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Rimington was savaged thus by New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer, Leo Robson: “An able and intelligent woman – but you wouldn’t ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington’s status as a novelist doesn’t much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight’s Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late it Was, How Late?”