Bridget Lawless has always felt strongly about violence against women—on the page, on the screen and in real life. Now the author and screenwriter, who also writes educational materials about violence for teachers and students, is putting forward a pot of money from her own pocket to serve as the winnings for a brand new award that recognizes creative output from thriller writers that does not rely on violence against women.
The Staunch Book Prize gives a nod and £2,000 to “the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered,” according to the description on the prize 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 clichés,” the description continues. In particular, she believes “female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously)” really don’t need to appear in every story. “That doesn’t mean we’re just looking for thrillers that feature men in jeopardy, but stories in which female characters don’t have to be raped before they can be empowered, or become casual collateral to pump up the plot.”
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The new Staunch Book Prize will recognize a thriller that does not involve violence against women. It will go “the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”
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The prize will be open for nominations from February 22 through July 15 and a winner will be announced on November 25, which is not coincidentally the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Lawless will judge along with literary agent Piers Blofeld and the writer, actor and comedian Doon Mackichan, who presented the documentary Body Count Rising on BBC Radio 4. They’ll consider thrillers of various kinds (including psychological, philosophical, crime, mystery, political, historical and religious) that were released by a publisher, were self-published or have not yet been published.
After a fall filled with sexual misconduct, harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and a slew of other men in Hollywood and other industries, including media, food, comedy and politics, Lawless wanted to do something to keep the conversation going. “This seemed something I could handle the scale of,” she told Newsweek in a phone call on Friday.
Violence against women is “is a trope, a repetitive form of writing,” particularly in thrillers, she explained, and it’s hardly new. But she believes things have gotten worse in recent years. “It’s almost become a badge of daring, to write more graphically and explicitly of trauma and injuries before they die,” she said. “Once you start becoming very graphic in the detail of description,” she added, “It becomes a little voyeuristic. It’s disrespectful, undignified, when you linger on torture scenes and people dying slowly in agony.”
Lawless has heard from friends, readers and other writers who’ve expressed gratitude and relief about the prospect of finding more thrillers that don’t involve violent abuses of women. But there’s also been a backlash, which Lawless claims has come only from other writers in the genre, who she thinks are feeling personally attacked.
“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,” crime novelist Val McDermid told The Guardian. “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 added. “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.”
But Lawless was adamant that she is in no way trying to impose a ban or censor anyone. Writers can continue to do what they do regardless of her prize, which is only intended to seek out alternatives—from what she hopes will be a diverse swath of authors—and demonstrate that it’s possible to write a fantastic thriller without relying on storylines steeped in violence against women.
“When women are so frequently the victims of these stories, it jars against what women are doing in the real world,” she said, where they are working “to be taken seriously as equals and not as victims.”
The announcement of the prize comes just a few weeks after Lawless wrote an op-ed for The Guardian explaining why she was abstaining from voting in this year’s BAFTA Film Awards (or British Academy Film Awards) in the wake of all those allegations against Weinstein and other men in the film industry.
“I’m watching films, but voting blind. There’s no card at the end of a film stating that ‘no performers or employees were physically or psychologically damaged in the making of this film,’” she wrote. “As long as that isn’t happening I can’t possibly cast a vote for this year’s awards,” she added. “The only thing I can do that feels right by my own conscience is abstain—until I can be sure what I’m rewarding, and at what cost it was achieved.”