Are you a lazy novelist? Just throw in some sexual violence
In thriller writing, violence against women manages to be both disturbing and boring at the same time. But a new prize promises to reward authors who do things differently
by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett / January 24, 2018 /
I mostly stopped reading thrillers about four years ago. It was Becky Masterman’s Rage Against the Dying that did it. It got under my skin to such an extent that I began to have nightmares filled with graphic images of rape, torture and mutilation. Psychologically, the prospect of it happening to me became a case not of if, but when. As I wrote in the Guardian at the time: “My reaction was certainly symptomatic of the kind of paranoid, hyper-aware symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (I was violently attacked in 2010).”
In other words, perhaps I was the problem. I understood that millions of readers, mostly women, read and enjoy these books, and speculated a little as to why that might be. To my mind, it was partly a case of acquainting oneself with a very real threat. A survival impulse. A case of “show me what I’m dealing with, here, so it doesn’t happen to me.” Furthermore, we are used to seeing women cast as victims of sexual crimes; it happens to us in real life, after all, disproportionately so. So arguably these books reflect the world we live in.
But personally, I’d had just about a bellyful. I found the violence in thrillers disturbing, but it was also lurid and repetitive—rather boring in other words. So I put this genre to one side, mostly, though I was not immune to the hype regarding the conditions of various “girls” (The Girl on the Train, The Girl Before, etc).
It was with an amused smile, then, that I noted the launch of the Staunch Book Prize, to be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered. “As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high,” reads the blurb, “The Staunch Book Prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old clichés—particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously).” This is accompanied on the website by a series of short video clips showing especially unoriginal examples—a dog walker finding a woman’s body, a man slipping a pill into his date’s drink, a woman being pursued down a dark alley. Tropes we’ve seen a thousand time
“To pitch a thriller in which not a single woman dies is something of a political act these days”
A plea for originality in fiction is never a bad thing. You might argue that these books mirror the world around us—dog walkers often do find dead bodies—but many writers go beyond that. The serving up of dead women in titillating stages of undress is common is many forms of entertainment, a shortcut for lazy writers to add a bit of drama to a story. To use the realism defence often strikes me as disingenuous. To borrow a well-worn cry: “what about the men?” Awful things happen to them all the time, and yet these are rarely explored, especially not in crime fiction.
Another cliché is the use of a rape or assault as a shortcut to making the character “who she is”: a damaged victim. This is supposed to add complexity to the character but in unskilled hands often does the reverse.
Readers aren’t stupid. We know when a cliché has been thrown in to cynically pique our interest. On her website, addressing the depiction of rape in fiction, the author Marie Brennan encourages writers to ask themselves, “Why am I including this in my story? What purpose does it serve?”
“There are nine and ninety ways to motivate a character; it doesn’t have to be rape,” Brennan writes. It’s an intelligent post that anyone who is considering tossing a rape into their story should read.
“But I’m only giving the people what they want!” an exasperated author might insist. Perhaps they have just got off the phone with their editor, who has complained that their manuscript doesn’t contain enough dead women. I sympathise. To pitch a thriller in which not a single woman dies is something of a political act these days. A statement, and one that certainly might not net you a big advance or sales. But we need writers to stick to their guns, or else creativity suffers. I hope the Staunch Book Prize will also make a difference. Maybe then I’ll pick one up again.