Submissions are now open for the Staunch Book Prize, a new award that will be given “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Hard to argue with that, you might think. But the prize has stirred up a certain amount of controversy.
Sophie Hannah, the bestselling crime and thriller novelist, has written a piece for the Guardian decrying the initiative. “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the [Staunch] prize actively sets out to discourage crime fiction, even of the highest quality, that tackles violence against women head-on,” she writes. As confirmation, she cites like-minded tweets from Sarah Hilary, Steve Cavanagh and Val McDermid, who wrote: “I expend vast amounts of time trying to write creatively about difficult things. Somewhat resent being lumped together with the crass, the incompetent and the pornographers of violence.”
But all this is missing the point. The purpose of the prize is not to bestow more gongs on established writers such as Cavanagh, Hilary and Hannah herself. (As for Val McDermid, her mantelpiece must be groaning already.) Nor is it meant to slap down people who have written murder mysteries with female victims, any more than the Wainwright Nature and Travel Writing Prize aims to discourage people from writing about anything but nature. (Or travel.) The point of the Staunch award, surely, is to a message to new, young, unpublished writers, to inspire them, to stimulate their imaginations into stretching that little bit further.
As a freelance fiction editor, I can report that there are roughly 1.5 jillion people out there writing crime novels. These are amateurs, not professionals; people who love to read crime and, perhaps, want to pay homage to their favourite authors by having a bash themselves. Lacking in experience, and perhaps confidence, they often fall back for their plotting on what they know best. The troubled detective with a dark past. The corrupt officer on the take. The girl who slips out for a date behind her parents’ backs. The unhinged serial killer who takes a ‘souvenir’ or leaves a ‘signature’ or behaves in some other bizarre, implausible, often gory way.
Many of these writers are working in isolation. They have no readers’ group to tell them that they’re relying on ideas that are cliched, ideas that, in their prevalence across the genre, perpetuate a stereotype that is toxic to society.
The Guardian piece also quoted Steve Cavanagh, who wrote: "Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate a book that could challenge prejudice rather than celebrate a book which ignores it?” -- a point Hannah calls "unarguable". Well, I'll argue with it. If someone wrote a thriller with the primary purpose of addressing social injustice, frankly, that would not be a thriller. It might deserve a prize, but it wouldn't provide many thrills. No one picked up Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train because they fancied a thoughtful exploration of the troubling escalation in young, single women's binge-drinking. They bought it because they wanted a cracking page-turner, with an exciting new brand of unreliable narrator. They wanted, in a word, story.
If this award can convince even one debut writer that a good thriller doesn’t need a horrifically mutilated (or brutally kidnapped, or raped, etc) woman at its heart, then it will have done its job. Once a novelist has worked hard to conceive such a story, they're in a much stronger position to begin tackling issues around violence against women in their fiction, should they choose to.
In that, this Staunch prize could hardly be more timely. Look at the backlash against the outrage generated by the Weinstein scandal and the ensuing #metoo revolution. Catherine Deneuve’s famous letter, co-signed by Catherine Millet and nearly 100 others, more or less advised women that when it came to men making flirtatious advances, they should put up and shut up. In Old Hollywood, with legendary its casting couch, that attitude was the accepted norm for decades. Now, women in every industry, not just film, are breathing huge sighs of relief that this standard of behaviour has been challenged and stigmatised. #Metoo has opened our eyes to the possibility of knocking down so many other old, ugly, harmful cultural tropes.
If the fiction industry can do that by means of carrots, rather than sticks – such as a prize rewarding good books that go against the grain – so much the better.