New book prize launched for those of us tired of reading about sexual violence against women
Sneh Rupra at University College London (University of London)
2nd February 2018
Are you tired of female characters constantly being subjected to violence and abuse in media? Just how many rape plots are included for shock value, or to ‘serve the story’, in everything from books to TV to film, and when is it going to stop?
Author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless has launched the Staunch Book Prize to honour thrillers in which ‘no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.’ It’s a damning indictment on the state of fiction, especially crime fiction, that a prize like this needs to be created at all, but there’s no doubt that it does.
“It’s way past time for something more original,” says Lawless. “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 – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously).”
The huge number of films that involved rape as a plot device in last year’s BAFTA nominations is what pushed Lawless to launch this prize. “I thought, I can do one small thing. I thought I’d start with books,” she explained. “They are a source for so much material, and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help.
“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 prize will be open to entry next month, and will be judged Lawless alongside panel including actor and writer Doon Mackichan, who has been very outspoken about the rise of violence against women on TV. The winner will be announced on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
“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,” Lawless continues. “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.”
Though both male and female writers have spoken out to defend their right to write about such topics, and their disapproval at this prize being exclusionary, but Lawless remains staunch. “Of course, there are [good thrillers tackling this topic], but they are not for this prize,” she says. “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.”v
Books that do include women being ‘beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered,’ still have every opportunity to win any other prize out there, but more than anything the Staunch book prize draws attention to the sheer volume of this content in the market. It’s a plea to authors to weigh up their reasoning for why and how they write about these topics, and what message their work sends to its readers.
I’m sure there will be plenty of people more glad to take thriller recommendations from the Staunch shortlist than from anywhere else, and who knows, perhaps the film and TV industries will take notice too! We can always hope!