Crime writers react with fury to claim their books hinder rape trials
Novelists have condemned the Staunch prize – for thrillers without violence against women – as a ‘gagging order’, after organisers said the genre could bias jurors
Fri 5 Jul 2019 11.08 BST
Crime novelists have hit out at the claim that fictional depictions of sexual assault influence the outcomes of rape cases, after a prize for books with no violence against women asserted that stereotypical portrayals of attackers could “seriously affect justice”.
The Staunch prize, awarded to a thriller in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered, was launched last year to “offer an alternative narrative to stories based around violence to women”. When it was announced, it was widely criticised by major writers including Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah. McDermid said that “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”, and Hannah told her publishers not to submit her books for the prize.
The prize, which is now looking for entries for 2019, this year points to what it calls a growing body of research suggesting that jurors are “reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men accused of rape, as they don’t fit the idea of a rapist they’ve internalised through the stories and images they’ve received through popular culture”.
Its website adds: “Fictional stereotypes of night stalkers, dark-alley attackers, serial killers and menacing strangers are dangerously misleading when 90% of rapists are known to the victim and the majority of women murdered knew their killer. That this can so seriously affect justice for women is alarming, to say the least, and must be addressed. For these reasons, and because we love great writing, we invite thriller writers to bring us strong stories that don’t resort to the same old cliches.”
Many crime writers explore this kind of material because they believe it’s important not to brush it under the carpet – and they do so carefully and with sensitivity
Steve Mosby, whose latest novel You Can Run follows a killer who has been abducting women for 20 years, called the implication that crime writers who write about violence against women foster it in real life “not only offensive, but backwards and wrong-headed”.
“Many crime writers explore this kind of material because they believe it’s important not to brush it under the carpet – and they do so carefully and with sensitivity, compassion and insight. The message given out by the organisers of the Staunch prize suggests they haven’t read very much of the genre at all,” said Mosby.
Julia Crouch, whose novels include Cuckoo and Her Husband’s Lover, said she loves to write about “women who behave ‘badly’ … Because of this, they find themselves in dangerous situations and sometimes they get hurt,” she said. “Is [the prize] really suggesting that they stay at home and knit? But then, the home is no safer. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, an estimated 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2017, and an estimated 4.3 million aged 16-59 have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. Are we just not allowed to write about this?”
We need to read about trauma – the perpetrators as well as the victims
Crouch said that novelists tackle violence against women because “it is our lived experience … To say that exploring it in fiction is somehow reprehensible seems to me to be yet another way of sidelining and silencing the female experience and voice. I know for a fact that women who have experienced violence can find it helpful to explore it in fictional form.”
Sarah Hilary, author of the Marnie Rome crime series, called the Staunch award “not a prize so much as a gagging order”.
“Violence against women takes many forms, perhaps the most insidious of which is censorship. We’re discouraged from going to the police in case we’re not believed, taught to expect resistance to our version of events, silenced by shame or fear,” she said. “This prize reinforces all those negative messages, and ignores the very real good that crime fiction can do by reflecting the violent reality of many women’s lives.”
Staunch prize founder Bridget Lawless said that the award had not claimed that “crime writers who deal with sexual violence are contributing to it in real life … But we are concerned about the way that women are depicted as the victims of extreme torture, rape and murder, graphically described, bloody, terrifying and prolonged, normalised and offered up as entertainment. And guess what, so are lots of people, including readers who reject it by preference, and those working to end violence towards women,” she said. “How does celebrating violence towards women like this deepen our understanding of social issues, as is so frequently claimed? Where is the research that demonstrates that this kind of writing does anything positive socially?”
She pointed to the recently reported fall in prosecutions for rape despite growing incidence. “Those researching and advising about rape myths will tell you that the public don’t recognise rape in many situations that actually are [rape]. Could this be because they have in their mind an idea of what is a ‘real rape’ and a ‘real rapist’? The kind they see on TV or read about in books?” she said. “Is it true perhaps, that the research which tells us that many of our jurors have very fixed and wrongly held ideas about rapists is part of the reason they fail to convict in so many of the 90% of cases where the victim knew their rapists?
“The Staunch prize celebrates thrillers that are an alternative to novels which feature violence to women. If you have a problem with that, ask yourself why.”