Brow Beat

Why an Award for Books Without Violence Against Women Is So Controversial

A woman in a bookstore in Barcelona on April 14, 2016.
A woman peruses bookshelves. Josep Lago/Getty Images

An award exclusively for novels that do not depict violence against women has come under fire for the second year in a row. British author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless launched the Staunch Book Prize in 2018 specifically to recognize thrillers “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” The prize drew controversy almost as soon as it was announced, with crime writers such as Val McDermid arguing that “not to write about [violence against women] is to pretend it’s not happening,” and CrimeFest, the Bristol-based festival for crime novelists, ultimately withdrawing its support.

Sophie Hannah, who writes psychological thrillers as well as the continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries, publicly announced that she would ask her publishers not to submit her books for the award. She also made the case in a lengthy Facebook post that the Staunch Book Prize muddies its message by taking an overt stand against one type of violence but not others: “If the Staunch Prize were to be awarded to a book in which a man is murdered, on the other hand, how could we avoid the conclusion that the prize, at worst, approves of this, or, at best, doesn’t disapprove of it all that much?”

Lawless responded by telling CBC Radio that there are already other prizes out there that honor books whether they depict violence against women or not and acknowledged that not every book that does so is exploitative. “But it doesn’t mean that everyone wants to read that and the readers that want something different need to be able to find it,” she said. “And publishers need to recognize that there is a readership for this and pick up those kinds of books.” Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge was named as the first winner of the £2,000 prize. (This year’s is £1,000.)

On its face and despite the criticisms, the Staunch Prize succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to do, “to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women in fiction, and make space for exciting alternatives.” And not everyone was against it: Margaret Atwood, for one, tweeted a seemingly uncritical link to the CBC story about the prize, even though many of her own books would obviously be ineligible for it. But as the Staunch Prize accepts entries for 2019, it has taken an even firmer stance against thrillers with violence against women, and one inflammatory claim in particular has upset crime writers anew:

Fictional stereotypes of night stalkers, dark-alley attackers, serial killers and menacing strangers are dangerously misleading when 90 percent of rapists are known to the victim and the majority of women murdered knew their killer. That this can so seriously affect justice for women is alarming, to say the least, and must be addressed. For these reasons, and because we love great writing, we invite thriller writers to bring us strong stories that don’t resort to the same old cliches.

Several authors went on record to voice their opposition in the Guardian, with Sarah Hilary going as far as to call it “not a prize so much as a gagging order.” Kaite Welsh points out that her book’s heroine is raped under similar circumstances to her own life. “It’s a depressing origin story, yes—but then so is Batman’s, and I don’t see prizes set up to reward books with no orphans in them,” she writes. “I can’t write about a world without rape because I don’t live in one. I won’t sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia.”

“Those researching and advising about rape myths will tell you that the the public don’t recognise rape in many situations that actually are [rape]. Could this be because they have in their mind an idea of what is a ‘real rape’ and a ‘real rapist’? The kind they see on TV or read about in books?” Lawless asked the Guardian in response to the latest round of discontent. “The Staunch prize celebrates thrillers that are an alternative to novels which feature violence to women. If you have a problem with that, ask yourself why.”

Interestingly, the contest’s ban on women being murdered does not include “incidents where people in general or specific groups of people are the targets or victims, e.g. war, terrorist attacks, hostage situations, sabotage.” This year, the prize features an additional element, offering feedback for unpublished writers for an extra £65. (It already costs £20 to apply, though the contest rules include an offer to waive the fee for 10 low-income applicants.) As was the case in 2018, the winner will be announced on the International Day For The Elimination of Violence Against Women in November.