Opinion: The Staunch Book Prize & Violence Against Women in Fiction

Listen, this isn’t going to be an easy lighthearted booknerd post, okay? I have some actual real thoughts that I want to put down. It might be long, so if you stick around for the whole thing I’ll be your best friend. And I’m a pretty good friend. I can talk some good shit about your enemies, or find you some enemies if you don’t have any, and then talk shit about them. I always have wine & weed at my house that I’ll share freely. I can fill your instagram DMs with dank memes. And if you want to cancel plans at the last minute instead of going out, that’s okay with me because I was probably thinking of doing the same thing.

qf8uf

So…

There’s a new book prize that is specifically designed to honour thrillers that don’t contain violence against women. Colour me intrigued.

“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.”

Part of me is giving this a thumbs up and thinking how is it 2018 and this is a new idea? And another part of me is having some conflicting emotions about it just because of comments made surrounding it. I love crime thrillers and serial killer stories, without shame, and yes, they mostly always contain violence against women. So, is it me? Am I shitty feminist? I try, but maybe my own misogyny runs so deep I didn’t even know it was there?

I feel like I need to be introspective about this. Because, I’ll be honest, I’ve never even considered the fact that most of literature I read is consistently about women being victimized in some way.

First of all, it’s a trope. Most definitely. Violence against women at the hands of a man is basically a genre in-and-of-itself by now, one that has seen novel after novel moved to the top of the books charts, turned into movies and given high praise in reviews by woman readers the world over. So, why? If we’re (mostly) all feminists and here for girl power and for changing the current societal climate, and (mostly) all have a #metoo moment? Why do we flock towards these kinds of books?

The Staunch Book Prize has given me pause and caused me to really consider my reasons. And that alone has to be a win for the creator of the award – I’m going to have the nerve to guess.

Author and screenwriter, Bridget Lawless, is the creator of the award and will be funding the $2000 in prize money herself. She says, “It’s way past time for something more original. 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).”

I will concede, this kind of fiction, and non-fiction, is at an all time in terms of popularity. I wouldn’t call it a ridiculous high, though. I could be wrong – though I feel like I have been paying attention because this has kind of been my thing for the last two decades – but, this uptick in popularity really started to gain mainstream attention with the podcast Serial.

Hands up if you were obsessed with Adnan Syed and the tale Sarah Keonig weaved! Even SNL did a spoof, ffs.

Once something strikes a cord, inevitably, everyone else will try to capitalize on the moment. So Netflix jumped on the band wagon with Making a Murderer.

Again, hands up if you binged every episode! I am waiting with bated breath for season two so I can finally have that inside view to catch up with Steven Avery and his Wisconsin accent. (Shout out to Manitowoc Police Department for being shady assholes, probably!)

There was always Dateline, there was always The First 48, there was always 48 Hour Mystery. But suddenly, there seemed to be so much more mainstream viewing options available, and the book market followed suit. To the outsider, I can see how, excuse the pun, it might look like overkill. But it’s always been there for people who wanted to find it.

The entertainment industry realized that there was a huge audience for this kind of story, and now we’re oversaturated, with even the big networks getting in on the murder of Gianni Versace or a 6-parter on Laci Peterson. It’s the perfect time for someone like me. It’s like Christmas for someone like me. But maybe for other women, women who are not interested in this kind of story, they just don’t understand it. All they can see is violence against women being used to exploit, to capitalize and to profit.

I can understand that. But I think this conversation requires the input of women who are seeing things it in a different light.

“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. But I know there are writers creating thrilling and complex work without going there.” -Bridget Lawless

I’m trying to think, out of all books I’ve read, how many used violence against women as a lazy plot device, or for the shock value and nothing more. To gratuitously entertain by way of a woman’s torment, or to give the male character a stronger story. Off the top of my head, I can name two books out of hundreds, and I gave those books shitty reviews.

I’m not interested in rape for the sake of shock, or to increase tension, or to spur a character forward, or for the sake of some man’s motivation/hero arc. I don’t think any of us are, and I’m in favour of that kind of lazy writing being weeded out.

My favourite kind of detective novels are about a woman who does the job just because she wants to. Just because she likes it and finds a sense of purpose, a sense of self, in a job she loves; a job she’s good at. No grisly backstory required.

Lawless says, “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… 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?”

Actually, there are lots of stories. There are so many genres readers can choose from. But, what I hope is that this book prize will spur a wider selection of thrillers, so that there is something for the women who are tired of the “cliches”, who are tired of the violence. They deserve a thriller option too. But, here’s the thing – largely, even disproportionately so, the biggest consumers of books, TV shows and movies that deal with crime, investigation, murder and violence towards women…are, in fact, women.

Thinking about the why from a personal perspective, I can say that we are reading this genre, have gravitated towards it as a favourite, because we love the mystery, the investigation, the puzzle and suspense. It’s a scientific fact that some people love horror and shocks and thrills because of how it makes them feel. While the next person can’t stand the sight of blood, I will watch every Halloween movie back-to-back during my favourite holiday. It makes me happy. I don’t judge those who feel differently, and I would hope for the same in return.

There is another big reason that we love stories like this: because we want to confront the things that scare us and find a strength through the triumph of good over the evil against our gender.

Maybe we don’t consciously realize it, but I have in the last few days come to understand this about myself. Introspection, bitches!

The facts are that, in the real world, women are more likely to be the victims of such evil. And we know it. When’s the last time a woman walked down the street without her keys between her fingers? Or got into the elevator with a stranger only to hold her purse tighter or wrap her arms around herself like a shield? How many times has a woman walked through a parking garage without listening for strange noises or checking her surroundings, including inside her own car?

We know we’re targets. We know it without even needing to be told. It’s an innate knowledge we are just born with.

The only difference between the sexes that I care about is that one can murder the other with their bare hands.

And I want to confront this and be aware of it and read about how in the end, the bad guy didn’t win.

Author Val McDermid says of the award, “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.” She adds: “It’s 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. But that’s not generally the sort of book that wins awards.”

I have especially gravitated towards the novels featuring a female lead who is smart and tough and can catch the bad guy – even though he’s biologically physically stronger, she can still stop him.

I have gravitated towards the stories that feature a woman who is finding her strength, who is rebuilding and proving that she is not a victim, but a survivor.

I appreciate this new award, I look forward to seeing who is on the shortlist, and getting around to reading those novels. But, there is a different way to view the kinds of thrillers that are not up for the award. It’s important to not put a blanket statement out that thrillers which contain violence against women are a problem, or are contributing to the problem.

Let’s not take away the empowerment some of us get from this particular kind of story. Let’s not take away the mystery some of us find joy in figuring out. Or the thrills and suspense that get our hearts racing. Because, honestly, video games aren’t causing school shootings. Metal music isn’t causing satan worship. And thriller novels and movies and true crime podcasts and TV shows are not causing violence against women.

If I man is going to do it, he was going to do it whether or not he listened to the dulcet tones of Keith Morrison talk about a case in upstate New York where another husband killed another wife.

Are there some writers who must do better in their plot choices and backstory choices? Yes. But there is a way to write about these things the right way. Even, I dare say, in a literary artistic way; in a way that has depth and meaning and emotional relevance. But there are, literally, hundreds of awards that these books qualify for and there is no issue in giving the Staunch Award some space to exist within the genre.

It definitely feels like a revolution is happening, a tide is turning. #metoo is a watershed moment for women in North American, and perhaps around the world, as it continues to grow and influence and give strength. Something like this new book award is forcing us to look at what we’re used to reading and daring to come up with something new. Let’s mix it up, be more creative, step away from the usual thriller fodder.

But let’s also keep writing about it these kinds of stories that I, yes, love. I want to keep reading about badass female. I want to keep reading about psychopaths and what they do and why they do it. I want to keep the mystery alive. I want to keep the dark and twisty stories coming. These stories that women flock to,  because in the end, they win.

What thrillers have you read that would qualify for this award? Let me know so I can check them out! 

 

Until next time, Booknerds…

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3 thoughts on “Opinion: The Staunch Book Prize & Violence Against Women in Fiction

  1. I agree with pretty much everything you said! Except for the part of men who commit violent acts are going to do it no matter what. I think that may be the case for some, but not all. I think many are taught that kind of behaviour is okay because of society. And I think making sure we’re teaching everybody that it’s not could help reduce the instances where it happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I definitely agree – we’ve all created, or allowed, a culture in which we’ve let certain behaviour become the norm. And not followed up with punishment. Or have shown that only certain people will be punished. Brock Turner comes to mind. But I was specifically talking about the kinds of people who appear in thrillers – typically psychopaths. And psychopaths are gonna go psychopathic no matter what, was kind of my point! If that’s clearer…

      Like

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