Archive for February, 2018

The Staunch Book Prize

Posted by on February 22nd, 2018

The Staunch Book Prize was announced recently, and today has been opened to submissions (closing on 15 July 2018). The criteria for submissions is clear enough:

“The Staunch Book Prize will be awarded to a thriller novel in which no woman gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”

Okay, so let’s look at whether this award makes any sense whatsoever. Obviously, we’re all tired of books that use the rape, torture and murder of women simply as a plot device. But what actually is the point of crime fiction, and can crime fiction avoid dealing with such subjects? Crime fiction necessarily involves a crime, and narrative demands that it is a serious one. It will generally involve a murder or a rape, or something equally awful, because a detective investigating a littering offence for ninety thousand words is unlikely to be much of a page turner.

Does a woman have to be the victim? Absolutely not (although by the law of averages alone, of course, they would be half the time) But I feel there is a sense in which men make less effective victims on a narrative level. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo culminates in a gender-reversed scene in which Lisbeth Salander rescues the imprisoned and helpless male protagonist – and yet most people will remember her earlier ordeal over his later torture. Likewise, most people remember the desperate woman in the pit in The Silence Of The Lambs, while forgetting the only people who are actually killed on camera aside from the murderer – two old male security guards, one crucified and disembowelled, the other with his face peeled off and used as a mask to facilitate a cool escape. I think people do care less about male victims, in and out of fiction, and there are interesting things to say about that in terms of patriarchy and so on, but it doesn’t strike me that the Staunch Prize is interested in interrogating that particular issue.

That aside, there is also the obvious fact that most readers are women, and if books involving violence against women are popular then there must be a reason for this. While some works might be distasteful and exploitative, perhaps others are more nuanced and intelligent? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, because even the most cursory glance at the state of the crime genre reveals countless women writing brilliantly and powerfully about such issues. Never mind the argument that such works provide a safe outlet for the exploration of ingrained and lived fear, the best of what we have (and we have a lot of best) is intelligent, insightful, moving and, most of all, unapologetically confrontational. Which is as it should be. Crime fiction is meant to be uncomfortable; it’s meant to have sharp angles. And I’m sorry if you think serious matters are the preserve of literary fiction, but they aren’t. Crime writers are quite prepared to take weighty issues – including misogyny, in all of its subtle and blatant forms – between their teeth and fucking bite. Because that’s their job.

You can – of course – set up an award for anything, but it strikes me that setting up an award to reward the absence of something has to be better thought out than this. I do not doubt the good intentions of the organisers, but in creating this award they are throwing out so much work that would seem to be in line with their general principles. Fed up of exploitative books where women are simply the victims? Why not reward books which tackle the exploitation of women intelligently and directly instead? And yet this is an award where an all-male SAS action thriller could win, while a nuanced and smartly-observed study of domestic violence could not. That doesn’t seem remotely feminist to me – in any way, shape or form. It says to me that the organisers haven’t thought through what they’re doing and why.