There’s a New Prize for Author’s who Stay Away from the Familiar Trope of Violence Against Women

2018 Staunch Prize shortlist Belatina
Photo Credit

And the award goes to…every single thriller avoiding violent scenes against women. Author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless launched the Staunch Book Prize, a reward that will 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 reported by The Guardian, the entity will announce the winner on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and will receive about $2836 U.S. a cash prize funded by Lawless. According to the award website, The Staunch Book Prize was created in order to “draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women in fiction and make space for exciting alternatives.” 

Despite the #MeToo and Time’s Up era, women are still fighting for their rights. against sexual abuse, harassment, and violence. “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),” wrote Lawless. “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?”

Staunch Book Prize
Photo Credit Doon MacKichan and Bridget Lawless congratulate Liz Parsons who collected the award on behalf of her cousin, Australian author Jock Serong, for his wonderful novel On The Java Ridge.

But just because there’s no violence in your story, it doesn’t mean that your book qualifies as a contestant. The guidelines established that horror or fantasy novels can’t be submitted and only crime, mystery, historical, sci-fi, cyber, comedy, psychological, spy, suspense, political, satirical and disaster books can take part. 

Lawless revealed that she’s extremely tired of the exaggeration in thriller stories and like her, there are a lot of women who support this initiative. “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, fetishizes and normalizes what happens to women in the real world. But I know there are writers creating thrilling and complex work without going there,” she continued.

The Guardian reported that Lawless knows that not all thrillers with crimes against women are degrading. “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.”

“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 flavor enhancer lacking moral or artistic purpose,” said crime novelist Andrew Taylor. “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.”

As reported by the newspaper, crime novelist Val McDermid agreed with Taylor: “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,” adding that “it was “entirely possible to write about this without being exploitative or gratuitous.”

“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 seem to me to be self-defeating.” 

“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. Women 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.”

Java Ridge Jock Serong Staunch Award

In 2018, only six writers were shortlisted during the inaugural Staunch Prize. The award went to Australian novelist Jock Serong for his thriller “On the Java Ridge.” “I’m proud to be the inaugural winner of the Staunch Book Prize and I look forward to discovering the writers – and their books – who win it in the future,” he said.

Serong also commented on the objection from Taylor and McDermid. “I can see Val’s point: Violence against women is an epidemic that cuts across affluence, geography, everything. So as I understand her, she asks why would you encourage writing that doesn’t hold a mirror up to this? The answer, I think, is that the award is aimed at something slightly different: It’s addressing that laziness that creeps in, the tropes where women and girls are used unthinkingly as default victims in the story. My novel ‘On the Java Ridge’ certainly doesn’t shirk violence, but I’ve tried to think very hard about where that violence is directed and whom it affects.”

As an initiative, the prize will be offering a paid feedback service for any unpublished submission. The novelist will receive a three to five-page report via email, including details about the first impression, strength, and originality of the idea, selection of characters, style, dialogue, plus a recommendation. 

Former actor, professor of Cultural Studies, and Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority, Lola Young is one of the judges along with Psychologist Dr, Dominic Willmott, and Editor Elaine Richard.

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