Violence against women is everywhere; in our lives, and as a vastly overused trope on our screens and in our books. It is exhausting for women and non binary people to face this onslaught of violence in such an integrated way in popular culture. It is for this very reason that Bridget Lawless, a screenwriter and author of educational materials on violence, has set up the ‘Staunch Prize’, a literary award for thriller novels in which the only criteria is that no woman in the novel is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered. The Student spoke to Bridget to discuss why now’s the time to tackle this literary trope that has long existed in fiction, from Iphigenia to Robert Galbraith.
Bridget funded the £2,000 prize herself, because she was increasingly horrified by how many TV dramas and films feature the rape (and murder) of women. “As a screenwriter, and a member of the British academy, I found myself not voting for any of those films at the BAFTAs. But it was a passive, private protest as no one else knew.”
This time last year, #MeToo kicked off as revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women became public, and, as a screenwriter, Bridget is aware of the proliferation of crime fiction featuring women as victims of stalking, rape and murder. Over the years, she says, it’s got much more graphic and gratuitous. “As books are source material for much of the drama that ends up on TV and in films, a book prize drawing attention to that seemed about the size of thing I could manage to set up.”
In naming the prize, she came up with ‘The Staunch Prize’ because ‘staunch’ means strong, particularly under pressure. It also means firmly adhering to something – for example, people are often said to have staunchly-held beliefs. “Me and my team have those! And finally, it’s used to describe stopping something – such as a flow of blood, rumours, etc. We were hoping to staunch the flood of fiction that features women as victims of violence in popular culture.”
The inaugural prize has a very precise criteria as it considers only thriller novels which feature no violence towards women. The reaction from the literary world and beyond was mixed. Bridget says “a huge number of people sent messages of support, thanks and congratulation, saying it was about time, and thank God, and at last! Some people were sceptical – quite patronisingly so – as if I would never manage to pull it off. But crime writers were on the whole (though not at all exclusively) negative. Obviously they make a living from writing novels where women feature frequently as the victim, so are going to be defensive. But we were accused of censorship, trying to silence women, trying to prevent people from writing about women’s experiences, and my favourite, that the Staunch Book Prize is ‘the most unfeminist thing imaginable.’ That just made me laugh out loud.”
Bridget wouldn’t divulge how many books were entered into the prize, but said despite the scepticism it was a “huge number of entries.” She was joined on the judging panel by the actor and writer Doon Mackichan, the literary agent Piers Blofeld, and the editor Elaine Richard. They whittled them down to a shortlist of six novels which included Khurrum Rahman’s East of Hounslow and Anna Porter’s The Appraisal. “We’d heard anecdotally that publishers wouldn’t go near us for fear of the wrath of their star crime writers. But in the end, publishers entered a lot of novels, and our shortlist contained novels from two major houses and three indies.”
Ironically, many popular crime writers are women, from the late P.D. James to Val McDermid, Manda Scott, Denise Mina. Bridget says to find out why so many female crime writers write plots with women as victims, we’d have to ask them. “And I think you’d get different answers. From the attacks on Staunch, writers have said things like, ‘it [violence] reflects women’s experiences,’ ‘it’s empowering as a rape victim to write about a woman getting revenge,’ ‘it happens so I write about it,’ ‘it’s what publishers want,’ ‘that’s where the money is.’ This translates as; it’s an honest representation, it’s cathartic, it’s realistic, it’s business, I do it for money!”
But Bridget takes issue with all those points, save the last about earning a living from writing. For her, crime fiction reflects a huge exaggeration of violence to women. She argues that “there are very few serial killers in real life. Most women are raped and/or murdered by men known to them. Rape is massively under-reported, shamefully rarely prosecuted and convictions are even more scarce. Crime stories focus on the work of the clever detectives and the unravelling of mysteries to solve a case. They don’t reflect most women’s experience of stalking, assault, rape or murder.”
The prize was awarded on the 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to a male Australian writer, Jock Serong for his novel On the Java Ridge.
Taking on his country’s refugee policy, the thriller sees a group of Australians on holiday in Indonesia rescue shipwrecked refugees from stormy waters. The judges praised it as a “a truly exceptional thriller by a very skilful writer who handles the material of a difficult story particularly well. It’s a topical, relevant story about something we all kind of know about, but from a safe distance.”
Despite mixed responses from defensive crime writers, the very fact that a prize of this nature has been created is revealing in of itself. Most importantly, The Staunch Prize highlights the overwhelming volume of violent content in crime writing. It is not to say that violence against women does not exist, nor that it cannot be written about in a sensitive and powerful way. It is a clear reminder to authors to reflect upon why they are resorting to these topics, and to consider what message they are sending to crime fiction readers.
The Staunch Prize is now seeking sponsors for next year’s award.
Image: Gellinger via Pixabay.