February 9, 2018
A new writing award will highlight stories that keep violence against women off the page
by Alex Primiani
A new prize for thriller writers who do not describe sexual abuse, rape, or violence against their female protagonists has been launched in London. Entries for the Staunch Book Prize, as Allison Flood reports at the Guardian, will be accepted starting next month, and the first winner will be announced November 25th.
The new prize is the brainchild of author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless, who noticed an increasing use (or abuse) of a specific trope in the thriller genre: male characters directing over-the-top violence towards female ones.
Lawless began to formulate the rules for the award after declining to vote in this year’s BAFTA Awards, organized by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In an op-ed for the Guardian last month, Lawless wondered—after the countless allegations of sexual harassment and trauma against film producer Harvey Weinstein—how many of these abuse-soaked films were in some way tied to his real-life empire of abuse.
As I watch this season’s Bafta film entries, I’m now not only acutely aware of what’s on screen that I might or might not applaud – the writing, performances, direction, music, effects, makeup and hair – but of that other world behind the camera. I can’t know what might or might not have gone on in each individual case, but I can’t not be aware of its relevance.
I try to make choices in my day-to-day life in line with my own sense of morality: what and where I buy, which people or causes I support. But when it comes to the task of rewarding individual films with my vote, some of the essential criteria for those choices are concealed. 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”. Would that such a thing were possible.
Eligibility is simple, as the award’s website explains: “the inaugural Staunch Book Prize 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.”
But for some thriller and crime writers, the only thing explicit in Lawless’s criteria is their omission of one common trope. Flood interviews novelist Val McDermid, who, while applauding Lawless for her ambitions, has some doubts:
“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… 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 seems to me to be self-defeating.”
While McDermid makes some good points, it’s hardly accurate to call Lawless’s award a ban — it simply provides readers an opportunity to discover work that uses more creative devices within an established genre. Ain’t nothing wrong with rewarding books that are innovative, run potentially counter to the mainstream, and don’t have any abused women in them.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.