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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Why we need the Staunch Book Prize

Like a zombie rising from its grave to take advantage of the Black Friday Sales, it is once again time to witness the fury of people who love crime thriller fiction versus people who love crime thriller fiction. I thought we'd dealt with all this Staunch book prize last year but apparently, there was more to say.

I don't like that simile makes sense in context, but I like it.

What is the Staunch book prize?

The Staunch book prize is "the Prize For A Thriller In Which No Woman Is Beaten, Stalked, Sexually Exploited, Raped Or Murdered." Launched last year in 2018, the first winner was Jock Serong (what a name) with his novel On The Java Ridge.

Apparently forgetting it dealt with the Staunch prize in 2018, the Guardian weighed in once again with a measured article, headed "Crime writers react with fury to claim their books hinder rape trials."

Okay, so an emotionally loaded headline, with a responsible article underneath. As the article was shared on social media, I wasn't surprised to watch people react to the headline without reading the content. Such is the power of FURY.

What's the problem?

You mean with the Staunch book prize, or in general?

There are many in the crime writing community who have spoken out against the Staunch book prize. The Guardian article notes the objection of several crime thriller authors - all-female, notably. Val McDermid probably said it best:

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.

Which is an understandable point of view. And as I might have mentioned a few hundred times on Twitter and here on the blog, I'm obsessed with Agatha Christie who had no problem showing violence against women.

For a much, much better understanding of what these writers are uncomfortable with, read Sophie Hannah's article from last year. A prize for thrillers with no violence against women? That’s not progressive.

Again, what's the problem?

The problem is the Staunch book prize is not a contingency of trigger-warning happy, politically correct liberals. They're responding to an issue which is as old as literature itself. As Bridget Lawless, the founder says:

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.

After all, of the over 50 rapes between seasons 1-5 in Game Of Thrones (not to mention the over 200 in the books), how many served a purpose other than the pure titillation? In fact, how many do you even remember? These shocking scenes, got audiences talking. It normalised the idea, 'well, in this medieval world, women just get raped.'

What I remember is Sansa ordering the execution of Little Finger, of her taking her throne. I remember Daenery's first flight on Drogo and burning fleets of ships. And Ayra perfecting her shapeshifting and killing the Night King. I didn't need the rape scenes - no one needed the rape scenes. But, women in fiction get raped. It wouldn't be realistic if they didn't.

Cue my eye roll.

There's a long, long history of women in fiction being used as plot points. This usually leads to tropes like "Women in Refrigerators" and "Disposable Women."

You know the drill. The anti-social, hard-drinking male protagonist commits his life to justice, hunting down criminals and one day, he'll find that bastard who murdered his daughter/wife/young girl he failed to save.

And don't get me wrong, I love these stories. I'm currently writing one of these stories (face-palm).

No one is saying these stories are wrong. All the Staunch prize is encouraging is new ways of telling female-driven narratives without them being victims. It's an admirable goal.

This is not an all or nothing issue

The argument put forward is unrealistic on both sides. The implication that crime writers are going to overturn centuries of inequality and violence against women by depicting it is optimistic. The suggestion that depicting only positive narratives for women only pretends it's not happening at all.

It's a similar point to the infamous Bechdel-Wallace Test (which I'll be writing on at a later date). For something to pass the test, it must have two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man.

People have since gone over overboard with it despite the fact it's not a quality test. Twilight passes. The Hobbit doesn't. That doesn't make Twilight better than The Hobbit. The point of the Bechdel-Wallace test is to make us think - hey, why when we're lucky even have more than one female character on screen, are they only talking about men?

So why has this seemingly harmless prize, there to make a point about the disproportionate depiction of women as victims, become such a contentious point?

As with most things, it's a construction of the media

The Staunch prize is asked to justify its existence by every publication having a quiet July. So it comes out swinging, claiming it's going to revolutionize the way we think of women in society. It's going to do this by changing the way we view common rape myths and show us that women are heroes too.

Which is all a bit of a tall order for a book prize.

To balance the piece, let's get in touch with some female authors (the bigger the name the better) who write about violence to women and ask them to justify their creative art. Understandably miffed at being implied they're part of perpetuating a vicious cycle, the thriller authors feel unfairly slighted.

And so we get hyperbolic quotes because they're more fun - award here goes to Sarah Hilary for describing Staunch as “not a prize so much as a gagging order.”

As though every idealistic space opera novel steals shelf space from a near-future climate change novel. That kind of thinking only exists in the popular press as a way of riling up readers. If you'll allow me my alliteration.

Choice will kill bad fiction

We're only starting to recognise the big hole in the ways women can and have been depicted. Can we be something other than a mother, wife, object of desire or victim?

No one asking for more diverse narratives to be told to shut up and go away. The more choice we have, the more books which no longer speak to the female experience will be passed over for ones that do. Not a single one of the authors who have spoken out against this prize would suffer for a hundred new novels depicting women who are not beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.

Some days, I want gritty realism. Other days, I want to read about how we're going to be the captains of space ships or intergalactic bounty hunters, or... maybe just a far-off world where women don't worry about walking alone in the dark.

But that's just my opinion.

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