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Dame Stella Rimington’s speech From the Man Booker Prize 2011

Dame Stella Rimington’s speech From the Man Booker Prize 2011


Dame Stella Rimington, Chair of Judges, 2011 Man Booker Prize

October 18 2011, 9.40pm.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Well - I thought the intelligence world was the place for intrigue - but that was before I met the publishing world.

Since our shortlist was announced we've seen black propaganda, de-stabilisation operations, plots and double agents - worthy of the KGB at its height.

My colleague Gaby Wood was asked on the World at One last week whether we felt scarred by all this. No, we don't and I hope our shortlist authors don't either. Fascinated, bemused, entertained might better describe our feelings.

You might think from the nervous excitement, that this year's judges were proposing the banning of books - a new Index- instead of awarding a prize. People are still free to write their novels how they please, and publishers to put them into the shops. But others are also free to decide what they like.

Being a Man Booker judge forces you to think about ‘Best', because that's the only criterion for judging that you are given. What in the opinion of the judges is the best novel of the 138, this year, that turn up on your doorstep.

In such a diverse form as the novel there is nothing firm to hang on to help you make that judgement. You can talk about plotting, characters, writing style, relevance, research. But, at the end of the day, inevitably, it comes down to personal response - the personal response of 5 very different people to the books they have in front of them.

The Man Booker prize has developed a massive international following, and can make someone's career, and favourably affect their bank balance - as well as that of their publisher. So of course, the judging process arouses huge interest and gets everyone talking and writing about books. Which is all great for the intellectual life of the country.

It means that judging it is a big responsibility and must be taken seriously and we've done that. But there's no way round the fact that there are no right or wrong answers.

This year I have attracted some opprobrium by mentioning the dread word ‘readability' - taken by some to mean that we were prioritizing easy reading against quality, or, as some put it, that we were dumbing down. That was certainly not our intention and I don't believe that's what we've done. But it does raise the interesting question - what's a novel for? For me it's to be read.

Read, enjoyed, marvelled at, thought about and even learned from. But definitely enjoyed, because it's true of most people - that if they don't enjoy a book, they'll put it down unread. People enjoy very different things, of course, but I'm delighted that our shortlist has sold so well - and that very many people are telling us that they're enjoying reading the books.

But for some, the sales seem to be a cause for anxiety. So clearly they must think a novel is for something different.

The debate our shortlist has created takes me back to when I was a student of English Literature at Edinburgh University in the ‘50s. It was just a few years after F R Leavis had published ‘The Great Tradition', in which he set out his criteria for the great novel: ‘a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life and a marked moral intensity' - what's wrong with that?

But his book began with the startling statement ‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad' and that caused howls of dissent and derision and opened a generation of literary debate and dispute.

Academics and critics argued on the radio - we took our entertainment much more seriously in those days when most of us didn't have televisions - and of course they argued and debated in the Universities and we undergraduates enthusiastically joined in. Literary debates in those days were serious stuff. Rude, yes, Leavis certainly wasn't averse to personal insults of those he disagreed with, but with content.

Thinking about this and my youthful studies, I went back to a yellowing paperback of Alexander Pope's poems I bought in 1955. I'd marked a passage in The Essay on Criticism in which Pope says of critics:

"Some ne'er advance a judgement of their own,

But catch the spreading notion of the Town;

They reason and conclude by precedent,

And own stale nonsense which they ne'er invent.

Some judge of authors' names not works, and then

Nor praise nor blame the writings, but the men."

I could go on ...but I won't. I'm sure you get the point.

If our shortlist starts a new debate about the nature of the novel, what's a novel for, are novels relevant in today's world, we would be delighted. Much better that than merely patronizing the judges, insulting the shortlisted authors, or writing lists of books you would have chosen if you had been the sole judge. All that, to me, is dumbing down.

So, as proposing new prizes seems to be the fashion this year, I have a new prize of my own to suggest. What about a prize for the most original and thought provoking literary criticism around the Man Booker prize. Perhaps John Aisbitt and his colleagues at Man would like to consider sponsoring that as well.

Before I make the announcement that everyone is waiting for, I want to thank my fellow judges, Matthew d'Ancona, author, journalist, editor and former fellow of All Souls; Susan Hill, author of many fiction and non-fiction works and winner of a number of prestigious prizes; Chris Mullin, journalist, politician, diarist - not at all the grey man he likes to pretend to be; and Gaby Wood, journalist, author and talented editor of the Telegraph books pages.

I thank them for their hours of work, their unfailing good humour and their good judgement and common sense. Thanks to them, we've reached a conclusion, No-one has gone off in a huff - quite the contrary - we have become firm friends.

And then there's Ion Trewin, the Literary Director of the Prize. If, at about this time of the year, he sidles up to you and taps you on the shoulder and says "psst... Do you want to be a judge." Say ‘yes' because though it's hard work and not likely to be reputation-enhancing, it is very enjoyable.

So thank you Ion for your unfailingly good advice when asked and your silence when not. Never by a twitch of those magnificent whiskers did he indicate any opinion of us, of the quality of our debate or of our choices. But he's a true friend to a Chair of Judges.

Thanks also to the Colman Gettyites. Dotti Irving and her PR team who have got us to the right place at the right time and compelled us to do our duty by the media. Final thanks goes to the authors whose work we've read over the last ten months or so. We've been sad to have to leave so many behind, though some have found a place on our Top Secret worst novel of the year list - but there's a 30 year rule on that, so don't hope to see it any time soon.

Especially, of course, we thank those six authors who made it to the shortlist all of whom are here tonight. Your books delighted, interested and involved us. They are all very different and we've had a hard time choosing one. But we have made or choice and It is my pleasure to announce that the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize is The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes."

Dame Stella Rimington

Chair of Judges, 2011 Man Booker Prize

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Dame Stella Rimington’s Speech From The Man Booker Prize 2011
Dame Stella Rimington’s Speech From The Man Booker Prize 2011