Staunch Short Story and Flash Fiction judge Esther Huntington-Whitely examines the place of Staunch Book Prize in today’s political and critical climate.
The Staunch Book Prize and Politics of Writing Fiction About Gendered Violence in a Post-MeToo Era
The Staunch Book Prize, launched in 2018 by British writer Bridget Lawless, is a literary prize ‘awarded to a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’ (Staunch Book Prize). Although Staunch has firmly stated that these criteria are merely for entering their prize, rather than a gagging order on thriller novels altogether, there has been an inevitable backlash against what some people feel is a denouncement of crime fiction featuring violence against women. Writing about gendered violence, especially in a genre traditionally defined by conflict, is always going to be complicated. On one hand, stories can be constructive in drawing attention to significant societal issues; on the other, situating such a sensitive topic within narratives intended to shock and disturb is problematic in that it disregards the pervasive reality of the problem in the real world. Interventions such as this prize ensure that literary discourse remains accessible to everyone, which in turn perpetuates productive discussions about what is best for readership. Particularly in a post-MeToo era, characterised by an endless re-imagining of the boundaries of gender and sexuality, the Staunch Prize is a testament to literature’s power and its corresponding responsibility to hold up a mirror to society.
The field of contemporary literature is a structured space which brings together different industries in an interdependent collaboration of interests; the literary prize is an essential agent and organisation situated within this landscape. In The Economy of Prestige, James English writes: ‘Cultural prizes represent an external imposition on the world of art rather than an expression of its own energies’ (2). It could be argued that, despite claims to the contrary, Staunch is actively regulating thriller fiction by critiquing the genre and rewarding authors who step outside the literary confines set by their predecessors. However, if it is true that literature is deliberately created with the intention of increasing its eligibility for awards, then the concern is not so much around niche prizes that want to steer the narrative in a particular direction, but with the kind of fiction that continues to win mainstream prizes despite its controversial subject matter. When literature that writes carelessly about gendered violence is consistently rewarded, without consideration of potential alternatives, it advocates that this is what the literary world favours and in turn will lead to others following suit. Furthermore, not only are there already numerous other prizes without these specific requirements- the International Thriller Writers Awards to name just one- but the majority of esteemed writers in this genre are still male. Last year, when The Sunday Times picked ‘the 100 best crime novels and thrillers since 1945’, only 28 of the authors were female. The archetype of thriller fiction, including the underrepresentation of women, both being portrayed in and producing this literature, renders the Staunch Prize imperative to overcoming literature’s obsession with representing gendered violence as entertainment.
The commodification of literature in the current capitalist economy means it is virtually impossible to escape the equation of creativity with commercial value. Writers need to write (and publishers need to publish) fiction that is guaranteed to sell; even the more independent and progressive publishing houses need to stay afloat in an industry that often prioritises profit over talent. Thriller fiction cannot always afford – financially or politically- to take risks with its subject matter, especially when it goes against the conventions of the genre, so it remains inundated with the kind of violence that has proven popular in the past. This is why prizes are paramount to the progression of literature; they hold symbolic capital and offer cultural prestige which is in many ways more important than an economic reward. Although Staunch’s prize money is not particularly substantial- the winner receives £1000 (in comparison, the Nobel Prize in Literature rewards £880,000)- it prompts an essential conversation about what the industry values most in literature and thereby encourages people to reconsider what they are reading and writing about. Just as the Women’s Prize for Fiction is not detrimental to male authorship, or the Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme is not excluding white writers, the Staunch Prize is not an impediment to the thriller genre. Instead, it is offering an alternative for literary success that is not automatically tied up in an author’s ability to ‘thrill’ their audience by any means necessary and at the expense of artistic nuance and sensitivity. As Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New York Times, ‘whatever the names on the plaques and medals, the real winner, in the end, is culture itself’- a reminder that literary prizes are, above all, still about literature.
While Staunch may be situated alongside, rather than in opposition to, the historical practices of thriller fiction, its emergence would suggest that many believe there needs to be a cultural reckoning of how, why, and when gendered violence is written into fiction. Taking into account that 20 per cent of women have experienced some type of sexual assault in their lifetime (Rape Crisis), authors have a responsibility to acknowledge that it is more than possible that someone reading their work is a victim of the same violence they have chosen to write about. The fact that there is a noticeable discrepancy between the way thriller novels portray gendered violence and how it occurs in the real world suggests that this is not always the case. For example, approximately 90 per cent of people who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence, yet the depiction of sexual violence in thriller fiction is almost always at the hands of a stranger. While this certainly does happen and definitely needs to be addressed, focussing on the most extreme acts of violation perpetrated by unknown serial predators does a disservice to the thousands of women who have experienced insidious and often continuous forms of assault, abuse, and harassment at the hands of people they know and in environments where they expect to be safe. Sensationalised accounts of gendered violence prioritise the shock factor of fantasy over the seriousness of this offence, undermining the justice that needs to be achieved, both in literature and reality. Especially considering the appalling lack of redress for victims under the current legal system- in 2019-20, only 1,439 suspects in cases where rape had been alleged were convicted in England and Wales (Shaw)- fiction must not falsify a process which rarely ends in closure or deliverance from suffering. It is not difficult to guess why writers might depersonalise representations of sexual violence, omitting the experience that one in five of the women they know are likely to have gone through, but if literature is truly interested in reflecting and thereby challenging society, this ease must not be indulged.
There is a difference between concentrating on a subject in literature as a way to draw attention to its pervasiveness in society, and simply using it as a literary device. The fundamental problem with thriller fiction is that female characters often ‘have to be raped before they can be empowered, or become casual collateral to pump up the plot’ (Staunch Book Prize), which is a form of dehumanisation consistently normalised and subtly embedded into much contemporary popular culture. This is similar to the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope in superhero comic-books, which is when violence is used against female characters as a plot device or to add complexity to a character. Roxane Gay discusses the necessity of prioritising a victim’s humanity over the perpetrator’s depravity: ‘We need to find new ways […] of rewriting that restore the actual violence to these crimes and make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities’. Gay’s debut novel An Untamed State depicts sexual violence in a way that effectively critiques rape culture without exploiting the subject. As a survivor of this same experience, she understands what is at stake when illuminating other people’s realities through an imagined narrative. Perceptive descriptions of assault also ‘requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body: restoring, that is, the violence – the physical, sexual violation’ (Higgins and Silver 4). Thriller novels that fixate on the abstract concept of violence risk desensitising the reader to the tangible consequences of it. As Laura Tanner writes in Intimate Violence: ‘the distance and detachment of a reader who must leave his or her body behind in order to enter imaginatively into the scene of violence make it possible for representations of violence to obscure the material dynamics of bodily violation, erasing not only the victim’s body but his or her pain’ (53). Staunch is just one component in the ongoing debate about how, if at all, gendered violence should be written into fiction, on which there are many different perspectives.
Authors, celebrities, and ordinary people alike have pledged their support for the Staunch Prize, praising its noble goals in addressing a prevalent issue they too had acknowledged in the thriller genre. On their website, Staunch asserts that ‘people from around the globe contact us to say that a prize like this is long overdue – and that they’d given up on thrillers altogether – until now’ (Staunch Book Prize). Evidently, there is a demand for the alternative narratives that this prize wishes to promote, reflected in its success since it was launched. Samantha Harvey, who won the prize in 2019 for her novel The Western Wind, recognises the necessity of what Staunch is looking to achieve: ‘the violent crimes in most books are against women, and if that’s just being done as a default position, unthinkingly, because that’s “just what we do” and how we get readers – because in some troubling way that’s what people prefer to read about – I think that does need to be challenged’ (Staunch Book Prize). This year’s winner, appropriately announced on The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, was Attica Locke for her book Heaven, My Home. This novel is set in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States; a reality more horrifying and indeed intertwined – Trump has 26 sexual assault allegations against him (Levine and El-Faizy)- with the perpetration of gendered violence. Despite the fact that this prize, ‘wouldn’t touch The Handmaid’s Tale with a ten-foot pole’ (Dalcher), Margaret Atwood has tweeted in support of it, showing definitively that Staunch is not intended as a personal indictment against authors who do choose to write about sexual violence. Positive reactions to this prize confirm that literature is ready for this cultural shift, even if it means compromising some of the principal traditions of the genre.
However, objections and resentments seem to have dominated media coverage of the prize, reflecting a certain bias among the literary community- after all, nobody wants to be told what they should write about. The predominant criticism of Staunch is that ‘women read and write crime fiction as a way to understand real experience’ (Welsh) and that it provides catharsis and solidarity throughout an otherwise devastating and isolating experience. While it may be true that, ‘after suffering a trauma, some people find it consoling and empowering to read, or write, about fictional characters who have survived similar experiences’ (Hannah), there are some distinct problems with this attitude. Not only do these readers already have a wide plethora of novels to choose from in the literary canon but, as discussed earlier, fiction about sexual violence more often than not does not accurately reflect reality. Staunch is giving voice to those who are systematically excluded from participating in the genre, the ‘many survivors who find novels about rape, stalking, sexual assault, and physical or psychological violence in which a woman is the victim, to be triggering, depressing, unbearable and unreadable’ (Staunch Book Prize). Some thriller novelists themselves have actively expressed their disapproval of this award. Val McDermid, whose novel A Place of Execution critiques the violence that Staunch would exclude, declares that for ‘as long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’. Yet, the fact that this book won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the 2001 Dilys Award, was shortlisted for both the Gold Dagger and the Edgar Award and was chosen by The New York Times as one of the most notable books of the year, makes it difficult to empathise with her argument that the Staunch Prize will prohibit literary accomplishment. By rewarding thriller novels that do not include violence against women, Staunch is demonstrating that there are other ways of experiencing this fiction, which creates a more inclusive genre for both readers and writers.
The fact that the Staunch Prize is situated within an industry not free from gendered violence makes this debate even more crucial. Inequality and lack of diversity, combined with the insidious culture of sexual misconduct that seems to pervade every commercial sector, establish the publishing industry as the perfect breeding grounds for the type of gendered violence that the thriller genre rarely addresses. In a post-MeToo world, it would be irresponsible to overlook the irony that fiction which graphically depicts gendered violence is sometimes published, and indeed written by, people who perpetuate a misogynistic and often dangerous workplace environment. Although publishing is known as one of the few industries dominated by women – A Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey showed that 75 per cent of the industry were cis woman in 2019 – this is not reflected at an executive level, nor does it guarantee that female employees are free from sexism within corporations. In a book of essays about the MeToo Movement, film producer Jesse Berdinka writes, ‘slowly, you start to realize that there is no level that you can get to at the company where it will stop.’ While he is referring specifically to ‘The Bully Culture of the Weinstein’s’ in Hollywood, rather than the publishing industry in Britain, a culture of male dominance and female belittlement still prevails ‘even though women are the backbone of the industry’ (Feijao). In a 2017 survey by The Bookseller, which collected data from 388 respondents, 54 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men said they have experienced abuse or experienced harassment within the book industry. Yet, more often than not, victims will ‘remain silent because in a society where gender inequality still exists, we know speaking out could cost us the advancement we’ve worked hard to get, the reputation we’ve built, the credibility we carry’ (Caruso). Staunch is confronting the fact that, for as long as rape survivors in the real-world struggle to be heard and believed (including those within the literary industry itself), fictitious depictions of gendered violence must be careful in what they represent.
Ultimately, the Staunch Book Prize is compelling not only in the books it wishes to promote or the authors it seeks to champion but also because of the significance it ascribes to literature in being able to reflect reality so effectively that there continues to be a debate surrounding the best way to do so. Whether or not one agrees with the actual premise of this award, the fact that it is considered necessary by so many on the one hand but has received an abundance of criticism on the other, confirms that there is still an ongoing conversation surrounding the representation of gendered violence in the thriller genre. Within the field of contemporary literature (where it sometimes feels that the only thing anyone can agree on is that no one agrees on anything) a prize such as this was guaranteed to cause contention. However, all the different groups and individuals who have a stake in the book industry – whether this is writers, editors, publishers – must acknowledge this one irrefutable fact: the world is changing all the time and with it, literature too must adapt or risk being left behind in a world that increasingly no longer depends on it. From individually unlearning collective societal conditioning and confronting internal prejudice, to collectively embracing difference and diversity, literature remains an important aspect in enabling this progression. The Staunch Book Prize is just one example of how it might be able to do this.
‘Sexual harassment reported by over half in trade survey.’ The Bookseller, 10 Nov. 2017, https://www.thebookseller.com/news/sexual-harassment-reported-over-half-trade-survey-671276.
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@MargaretAtwood. ‘Want to win the Staunch Prize? Write a thriller where no woman is sexually exploited, raped or murdered.’ Twitter, 31 Jan. 2018, https://twitter.com/MargaretAtwood/status/958592801419288578?s=20.
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Gay, Roxane. ‘The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.’ The Rumpus, 10 Mar. 2011, https://therumpus.net/2011/03/the-careless-language-of-sexual-violence/.
Hannah, Sophie. ‘A prize for thrillers with no violence against women? That’s not progressive’. The Guardian, 31 Jan. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/31/staunch-prize-thrillers-no-violence-against-women-sophie-hannah.
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Mendelsohn, Daniel, and Szalai, Jennifer. ‘Whom or What Are Literary Prizes For?’, The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/books/review/whom-or-what-are-literary-prizes-for.html.
Shaw, Danny. ‘Rape convictions fall to record low in England and Wales.’ BBC, 30 July 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53588705.
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Welsh, Kaite. ‘I can’t write about a world without rape – because I don’t live in one.’ The Guardian, 5 July 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2019/jul/05/i-cant-write-about-a-world-without-rape-kaite-welsh-staunch.
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