The Staunch Prize
So, you may have seen towards the end of last week that The Staunch book prize was launched. This prize will be awarded to “a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. As the prize’s founder Bridget Lawless (an ironic name, if I ever heard one!), screenwriter and founder of the prize, asserts:
“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, fetishises and normalises what happens to women in the real world.”
Lawless’ fellow judge is actress Doon Mackichan, whom most of us will recognise from the Smack The Pony sketch show (presumably the ponies were not female). As it says on the prize’s website, “Like many women, [Doon’s] become increasingly put off by the endless depiction of violence towards women on screen”. (LATER EDIT: She disappeared from the prize when Lawless went after Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling on Twitter. The prize lost its then-sponsor, Crimefest, too. Oops).
Reading about the prize, my first thought was that it seems odd the awards-givers here are not novelists themselves, but a screenwriter and actress. They do address this on the website: “We’re focusing on thriller novels because they’re a huge and important genre in their own right – and they’re frequently also source material for film and television.”
We’re still missing out the ACRES of original material in the spec pile, but okay. It seems bizarre to me the prize-givers would focus on novels and not the world they have the most experience of, especially when this seems to be their primary concern. Even with the recent gains in female representation and female-centric stories, screenwriting is FAR less progressive than crime novels generally, too which some might argue has skewed their perspective. But, moving on.
It’s pretty fair to say the news of this prize was greeted with bemusement and even dismay by the crime fiction community. This may seem odd to some: after all, crime fiction – whether novels, TV or movies – has a long, salacious history of using women’s bodies as props and plot devices.
It may sound even stranger to long-term followers of THIS blog that I don’t think The Staunch Prize will work. After all, I have long campaigned against trashy depictions of violence against women and girls, especially in rape scenes. But those with your eye on the B2W ball will also know I place storytelling way ahead of box-ticking of ANY kind, feminist or otherwise. I’ve written multiple times agendas have no place in storytelling, which The Staunch Prize appears to have in spades:
“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)”.
I’m wondering what ‘ridiculous high’ really means in terms of numbers and context, though it’s clear from their language use they feel there is TOO MUCH. Note the uses of quotation marks in the former suggesting to me they feel violence is NEVER ‘necessary to the plot’; with the latter use of ‘ingeniously’ connoting to me that it DOESN’T MATTER how writers write murder or violence. If it includes females? It’s OUT.
Road To Hell
So, whilst the reasoning behind the prize may seem laudable on the surface, it soon becomes clear the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Why:
- Crime Fiction unsurprisingly needs to involve crime. Some of that crime will need to be visited on women, (dependant on the story being told). We already have crime fiction with no crime, it’s called OTHER GENRES.
- Modern Crime Fiction actively seeks to place women in the driving seat, especially via police procedurals and domestic noir. In comparison to screenwriting, where poor representations of violence against women are still rife, I’ve read over 300 published novels in the last two years, the vast majority of them crime fiction. I’ve actively sought out books that go against the ‘same old cliches’ The Staunch Prize mention and had no issues whatsoever finding them. They are literally everywhere. It’s almost as if this prize is behind the times.
- This award ironically penalises female writers who want to process and share their own stories of violence (whatever that means). When the genre is finally taking the female POV seriously, this seems like an own goal and old fashioned.
(By the way, my own novel, The Other Twin features a murder, stalking and a beating of a female character, so therefore would presumably not qualify for this award).
So, despite trying to ensure I ‘practice what I preach’ on this blog when it comes to diversity, challenging tropes, etc it would appear I am now framed as ‘part of the problem’ just by virtue of writing crime fiction. This is more than a little ironic, when I’ve literally made it my life’s work to challenge sensational, ill-advising and downright shitty writing.
And that’s just me. What about other crime writers? I’m assuming most of them aren’t rubbing their hands with glee at the keyboards, salivating at the thought of inflicting violence on their female characters for sport. As someone who has worked with writers for fifteen years now, I would imagine their motivation for writing – crime fiction or any other genre, in any medium, including screenwriting – is the same as any other writer’s: they feel compelled to write because they have something to say, explore, examine.
I’ve long warned about the dangers of militant femcrmt on storytelling via this blog. As far back as 2013 I said The Bechdel Test, whilst useful as a starting point for writers (and readers or viewers) was just that – a starting point. I’ve received multiple messages and emails about that post, telling me what a bad feminist I am at best and at worst, an enemy of women.
Perhaps naively, I thought it was a one-off. So I continued in my message, feeling sure pressing for REAL diversity (rather than applying agendas like merely counting women) would ensure better stories and better characterisation. I’ve written free ebooks, my latest non-fiction book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film and countless blogs about it over the last four years.
But still I see social media getting hotter and hotter on calling out writers of all kinds over what readers and viewers perceive to be ‘problematic messages’, even if catharsis or a learning arc for the characters is achieved. It’s even got to the point that feminists who say they want feminist stories are now no longer able to even recognise them, even when such a message is delivered with the subtlety of a brick to the face.
With all this in mind then, it would appear the ‘responsibility of the artist’ includes NEVER writing anything that could is considered ‘bad’, with the list of what shouldn’t be written about growing by the day.
Now, we have The Staunch Prize. Yay.
Fuelled by social media and blogs, the old adage ‘everyone’s a critic’ has never seemed more apt. News sites and online magazine run so-called ‘think pieces’ constantly on everything from Fifty Shades to Friends and now, it appears, the whole of crime fiction as a genre.
But this isn’t the first time our society has experienced this. The Twitterati tick box culture of “if it is X it’s racist/ableist/misogynist/transphobic and so are the readers who like it'” might feel new, but it’s only the language and delivery via new tech that is.
Anyone with an A Level in Media Studies can tell you about how the Victorians worried just what salacious and sinister stories would do to the next generation. The current moral panic via social media is quite literally old-hat, recycled from the past. This is in itself is ironic, since WE ALL ARE the ‘next generation/s’, descended from those original people worried about it. Presumably, most of us have not become criminals, murderers or rapists by virtue of reading (or writing!) crime fiction. David Ahern, author of the Madam Tulip mysteries, says:
“Great writing is about empathy and shared humanity (even the bad bits). Gross, trashy and sensationalist writing can’t be legislated against in my opinion. The Victorians campaigned for ‘uplifting’ storytelling and what they got was moralising dross. And it didn’t stop the Penny Dreadfuls either.”
Sarah Hilary, writer of the DI Marnie Rome series and winner of the 2015 Theakston Crime award for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin agrees:
‘Wouldn’t it be better to draw attention to the excellent, compassionate, thought-provoking novels that deal with the reality of violence?”
And there’s the heart of the matter – whether crime fiction really DOES ‘echo,, exaggerate, fetishise and normalise what happens to women in the real world’ as Lawless asserts. Well, let’s put this under the microscope.
Violence, Catharsis and Reality
As far as keywords go, the notion crime fiction ‘echoes, exaggerates, fetishises and normalises’ violence against women in REAL LIFE seem pretty straightforward and common sense. After all, violence against women happens in real life, plus it happens in crime fiction. The two are inextricably linked.
But by HOW MUCH? Well, there’s been about a trillion studies (real number) and we’re still no closer to finding out in real, testable terms. Whilst we may read about how rapists consume violent pornography in planning their crimes, there’s a wealth of people who do so as well, who would never do commit such a terrible crime. Now what? Plus, let’s remember crime fiction – however salacious or sensational – only requires an imagination. It is not on a par with the literal creation of porn.
So, if crime fiction ‘exaggerates’ and ‘fetishises’ violence against women, then NO amount of awards will stop certain writers writing the salacious, sensational and exploitative if that’s their bag. What’s more, people will read/watch it if that’s what they like. Supply and demand.
Similarly, if crime fiction ‘normalises’real life violence against women, are we to suppose ‘bad’ people write and/or consume exploitative novels, TV and movies? If we are, then by the same logic, we must also suppose the people writing and consuming ‘woke’ stuff are by their very nature ‘good’. This is absurd.
However, Lawless IS right when she says crime fiction ‘echoes‘ what happens in real life. There can be an incredible catharsis to crime fiction for both writers ANBD readers, where everyone gets what they deserve (whatever that means). This rarely happens in real life. These stories can also help people – including victims of real-life violence! – to process and come to terms with what has happened to them.
Erin Kelly, author of the 2017 bestseller He Said/She Said, which deals with the realities of a rape, a court case and its far-reaching after-effects, tweeted in response to news of The Staunch Prize:
“Or instead of turning a blind eye to the endemic violence against women and girls (which is really just another way of silencing our stories), we highlight writers who tackle this important subject sensitively and intelligently?”
Winnie Li is the author of Dark Chapter, a crime novel inspired by her own survival of a violent stranger rape. She explains:
“One thing I specifically wanted to do was challenge these genre tropes of sexual murder (i.e. a book opens on the body of a beautiful dead rape victim) and of victims/survivors themselves not having the voice or capacity to tell their own story on their own terms. So, while I understand the impetus of this prize, I also think it fails to recognise that crime fiction authors are capable of using genre to address very real societal problems in ways that are informed & sensitive.”
Steve Mosby, author of You Can Run, agrees:
“I understand the reasoning behind [the prize], but I think it’s misguided. There may be many exploitative crime novels that use violence against women as a plot device, but even without considering whether that in itself is actually a problem, surely there are many crime novels that deal with this important issue sensitively and intelligently and with insight? It seems utterly bizarre to me, frankly, for an award motivated by feminist principles to deliberately ignore and exclude works that deal with serious issues facing women.”
I’m honestly surprised Lawless would cite crime fiction ‘echoing’ REAL violence against women as a bad thing. I don’t tell my stories because I want fame, or money. I tell them because I have secrets no one else knows. I CHOOSE crime fiction as a genre because it can deliver them. Nothing more, nothing less.
What About Female Villains?
Let’s not forget that women can be the ones DOING the bad things, too. The Staunch Prize seems to hint that women are *always* the ones in the victim’s seat, but as mentioned this very often is not the case, especially in the last decade of modern crime fiction. As Paula Daly, author of the DI Joanne Aspinall series points out:
“This prize seems to suggest that women in crime fiction are automatically victims, but this is simply not the case. We have seen many nuanced, multiple-layered female villains in crime fiction, some of whom have been victims themselves or made victims of other women as well as men. Annie Wilkes in Misery visited terrible violence on Paul Sheldon, but what if Paul had been my namesake, Paula … Would it automatically have been a worse book?”
What happens to books where the antagonist is female … do they qualify for The Staunch Prize? It’s unclear. Maybe only if their victim is a man! Oh no, wait — apparently not, according to their website: “That doesn’t mean we’re just looking for thrillers that feature men in jeopardy.” Blimey.
If this award makes some writers think, ‘Oh maybe I should be more careful,‘ then maybe it has a value (not that it’s actually ‘testable’). It’s like I always say on this blog: these tests are great for making you think ABOUT various things for the very first time. Sadly (or not, dependant on your viewpoint) that’s all they can do.
But let’s be clear. Just as counting women, characters of colour, LGBT characters or disabled characters does not guarantee good characterisation, this award will not deliver a sudden backslide in violence against women in crime fiction, nor the sudden sea change in real life they’re hoping for. In real terms, that sea change arguably already happened with readers AND viewers with the runaway success of Gone Girl and the ‘birth’ of domestic noir. The Staunch Prize is late to the party!
But regardless, better stories and better characters are delivered by WRITERS, not agendas. Stories cannot be written by committee. That is a fact, since not everyone sees storytelling the same way. It’s actually because of this that storytelling is so wonderful.
So, rather than drawing lines in the sand and telling writers what NOT to do, in my opinion The Staunch Prize would be better employed working WITH writers to highlight those stories that deal with the realities of violence in meaningful and sensitive ways.
What Writers Can Do
I’ve had a wealth of messages from my crime writing Bang2writers worried about this prize. Not because they won’t win it, but because they’re worried there’s something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with what they like reading/watching, what they want to write about and the audiences they want to attract:
Are they freaks and weirdoes? Are they bad feminists? Maybe they shouldn’t write at all!
I spent much of the weekend answering these messages and it’s made me angry and sad. This could have been a brilliant opportunity to stimulate discussion about over-used tropes and cliches, not to mention the cathartic reality of crime fiction and what ‘exploitative’ storytelling really means. Instead, we have angry and jaded veteran crime writers, plus the next generation of wannabes are freaking out, maybe even deciding to jump ship altogether to another genre. Talk about an own goal.
So, my advice? Ignore all this and keep writing! Ignore agendas. The responsibility of the artist is ONLY to deliver an entertaining (not boring) story. How you get there is up to you, ‘cos the goal posts will only change if you listen to everybody else. Just make sure you do your research and work on your craft. The best advice I ever got was from a screenwriter who’d adapted a VERY controversial novel (amongst other things) for the screen. That writer said:
‘Never listen to armchair critics … You can jump through every single hoop and they will NEVER be happy. Forget them.’
It’s the only way forwards. Keep at it.