From Before I Go to Sleep to The Girl on the Train, the trope of the woman in danger from a man has powered novel after novel to the top of the book charts. But claiming that violence against women in fiction has reached “a ridiculous high”, a new prize is being launched for the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”.
Founded by the author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless, the Staunch book prizewill open to entries next month, with the winner to be announced on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Lawless, who is funding the £2,000 prize pot herself, will be joined on the judging panel by the actor and writer Doon Mackichan, who wrote and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the increase of violence against women on television, Body Count Rising.
“It’s way past time for something more original,” Lawless writes on the prize’s website. “As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high, the Staunch book prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old cliches – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously).”
Lawless said she was moved to launch the prize after seeing the number of films featuring rape as a plot device at last year’s Baftas. She is entitled to vote in the awards, but this year abstained, writing in the Guardian that it was not clear if the films in the running were free from the accusations of sexual abuse that have swept Hollywood in the wake of claims made against the film producer Harvey Weinstein.
“I thought, I can do one small thing. I thought I’d start with books. They are a source for so much material, and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help,” she said. “There are so many books in which women are raped or murdered for an investigator or hero to show off his skills … This is about writers coming up with stories that don’t need to rely on sexual violence … Is there no other story?”
The Staunch book prize will disqualify any work that does not meet its criteria of no woman in the story being “beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. It is open to stories across the thriller genre – crime, psychological, comedy and mysteries – and to traditionally published, self-published and not-yet-published works.
“I’m certainly not alone in getting increasingly fed up and disgusted with fictional depictions of violence happening to women in books, films and television. It echoes, exaggerates, fetishises and normalises what happens to women in the real world. But I know there are writers creating thrilling and complex work without going there,” she writes on the prize’s website.
The crime novelist Andrew Taylor said: “It has to be good in principle that someone’s drawing attention to crime fiction, on page and screen, that uses women-as-victims-of-violence as … a sort of literary monosodium glutamate: ie, as a gratuitous and fundamentally nasty flavour enhancer lacking moral or artistic purpose.
“That said, it’s hard to see how anyone could cope with the practicalities of administering such a prize, or even define its terms of reference without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Fellow crime novelist Val McDermid agreed. “My take on writing about violence against women is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. 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.”
McDermid said that it was “entirely possible to write about this without being exploitative or gratuitous”, although many authors do not. “I agree that there is a lot of fiction – not just crime novels and thrillers – that seems almost to glory in a kind of pornography of violence, and I deplore that as a woman and as a writer,” she said. “But that’s not generally the sort of book that wins awards. To impose a blanket ban on any writing that deals with this seems to me to be self-defeating.”
McDermid said that she, along with “many other crime writers, particularly women”, had created “strong female characters with agency who provide a powerful counter-image to the ‘woman as victim’ trope”.
“Women writers get asked all the time, ‘How does it feel as a woman to write about women as victims of violence?’ Male writers are never asked this question. Go figure,” she said. “Although men are as likely to be murder victims as women, the nature of the crimes is different. Men die in fights; drink, drugs and gangs are usually at the heart of it. Woman die because they are women, often at the hands of the men in their lives … There’s very often a sexual element to the murder of women, which begs all sorts of questions about power and misogyny and psychological oppression. Frankly, random knife crime doesn’t make for very interesting fiction. More sinister crimes that involve relationships between the victim and the perpetrator inevitably make for a more involving read.”
Lawless acknowledged that not all thrillers depicting crimes against women are gratuitous or exploitative. “Of course, there are [good thrillers tackling this topic] but they are not for this prize,” she said. “How we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there. That battle is far from won, but there is definitely a climate change. People are fed up with it. Here’s my alternative.”