Strong stories that don’t resort to the same old clichés.
July 10, 2019 7:21 AM   Subscribe

"There is indeed a healthy audience for thrillers without violence towards women." The Staunch book prize is "For A Thriller In Which No Woman Is Beaten, Stalked, Sexually Exploited, Raped Or Murdered." It was launched in 2018 by Bridget Lawless (IMDB, Twitter, Amazon).

Staunch offers a feedback service (for a fee) to check unpublished manuscripts against prize criteria.

Some crime writers criticize the idea. For example, Helen Fields wrote one critique; Lawless responded. Others support it, like Janet Clark.

More on the Staunch: the 2018 shortlist and that year's winner. The judges. How to enter. An audio interview with Lawless.
posted by doctornemo (38 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
Another reason why The Thing is one the greatest horror stories ever.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:47 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Re: The Thing - does it count if the reason there is no violence towards women is that there are no women?
posted by murphy slaw at 7:52 AM on July 10 [37 favorites]


A great deal of these authors responses are already very embarrassing for them, and will age even worse.
posted by zerolives at 7:53 AM on July 10 [8 favorites]


Yeah, a version of Alien that cast Ripley as a man instead of a woman would eliminate the problem of a woman being "stalked" in that film but wouldn't do much for Sigourney Weaver's career or women's place in the genre. Probably the criteria should include a variation on the Bechdel Test as well -- it could go to a thriller that features two women who have a conversation about something other than men without later being beaten, stalked, assaulted, etc.
posted by Mothlight at 7:55 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Oh, this is actually going to make a really good index of stuff-to-read for me. I've been reading violent thrillers since I was pretty much a child, but in recent years -- basically at the point when regular first- and third-person accounts of violence against women became completely unavoidable in my social media feeds on a daily if not hourly basis -- I've been almost totally unable to deal with that stuff in fiction. First because I'm just viscerally repelled by sexual violence in literature on a deep, trigger-y level, and second because I tend to read thrillers as a form of escape from the awful things in our world to the differently awful things in a fictional world, but when it comes to violence and especially sexual violence against women I can't do that switch-over very well. It becomes No Fun and while I totally understand that not every book is meant for Fun, that's why I read this particular genre.

It's been dreadful to open a particular sort of book for entertainment and know, in the back of my mind, that there's going to be this inevitable section of sexual violence. I actually managed to get really into Patricia Highsmith these last few years, for many reasons, but one of them being that there is comparatively little and almost zero sexual violence, definitely none "on-screen" so far and it's never there just to be there, to move the plot along, as a character development shortcut, to just present a lurid scene, or for any of the more socially-relevant reasons cited in the criticisms of this project in the FPP.

On my social media feeds there's actually a wide, wide agreement that a website that could catalog whether a certain piece of media has sexual violence against women in it (kind of like doesthedogdie.com but for people) would be an amazing thing for everyone except probably the people having to run it. When Mandy came out I really wanted to see it but had to "spoil" about half the movie for myself (it's not a particularly spoil-able movie) to try to figure out if any of the violence in it was explicitly sexual in nature: it was not and I really appreciate the film reviewer that mentioned this exact thing.
posted by griphus at 7:57 AM on July 10 [20 favorites]


Quite honestly, I'd welcome thrillers in which no one was brutalized or otherwise graphically dealt with. thrill ≠ graphic bloodletting
posted by Thorzdad at 8:02 AM on July 10 [18 favorites]


Griphus, doesthedogdie tracks dozens of different categories now, it’s worth looking at for more than just dogs!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:07 AM on July 10 [7 favorites]


I think this is great. This award doesn’t mean thrillers in which women are brutalized can’t be great, it just selects the best of thrillers that don’t fit into that category for those of us interested in reading outside the usual.
posted by sallybrown at 8:10 AM on July 10 [14 favorites]


A lawyer has already used Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to try to say a missing woman may have faked her own death.

We know, as well, that jurors base so many judgements based on media depictions.
posted by Hypatia at 8:10 AM on July 10 [5 favorites]


Oh holy moly looks like there's also something called Unconsenting Media for this as well! Thank you!!
posted by griphus at 8:10 AM on July 10 [7 favorites]


I agree with Thorzdad, thrillers without brutality at all is what I'd like to see more of.
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:16 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


If I were starting literary prizes, it would be for a mystery novel that manages to have a female detective without a rape backstory.

This was one of the reasons I gave up on the YA Charlotte Holmes series: countless Sherlock Holmes stories out there without a rape backstory, and then as soon as it's a female character, well, obviously there must be a reason she's like that: rape backstory.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:16 AM on July 10 [21 favorites]


This award doesn’t mean thrillers in which women are brutalized can’t be great, it just selects the best of thrillers that don’t fit into that category for those of us interested in reading outside the usual.

Right?! Does the existence of the Caldecott Medal mean that nobody can write books for adults? The responses by other authors are pretty absurd.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:45 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


Alien that cast Ripley as a man instead of a woman would eliminate the problem of a woman being "stalked"

But... the "stalking" of the Alien has nothing to do with misogyny, or the patriarchy!

Hmmm - I say that as an immediate gut-reaction, then I think about the artistic choices made by hiring H.R Giger and I think, well ... wait-a-minute... but, then again - there is this article, with a pull-quote:

I’m going to attack [the audience] sexually… I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs.

Immediately followed by:
In the original script, characters’ genders were explicitly interchangeable. This was a distinctly unusual feature for a sci-fi script at the time, and meant that the lead Ellen Ripley, the now iconic female action hero played by Sigourney Weaver, was never initially conceived of as a woman at all.

This might explain why her behaviour doesn’t conform to the sexist stereotypes rife in 1970s filmmaking. Weaver also told the Independent in 2012 that Ripley was an expression of 1970s feminist insurgency: “Women were agitating to be in the army, to work in warehouses and as truck drivers.”

posted by jkaczor at 8:55 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


For the writers who are objecting to this award, nobody is saying they can't write what they want. In their books they can pit in as much rape and violence against women as their hearts desire- they simply won't qualify for this award.

But i think the real problem is these writers want to be congratulated on what they write. They hate the idea of not being rewarded for all the sexualized violence they put in their work.
posted by happyroach at 9:06 AM on July 10 [14 favorites]


But i think the real problem is these writers want to be congratulated on what they write. They hate the idea of not being rewarded for all the sexualized violence they put in their work.

I really don't see it that way, especially for the women writers. Helen Fields, in particular, is saying, as I hear it: this is the language of my life, and I will not be told not to speak it. What Bridget Lawless is saying, as I understand it, is: what if -- for just three hundred pages or so -- what if this was not the language that we spoke?

Lawless isn't proposing that the books be set in some kind of feminist utopia, much less that all books should be. She just wants to incentivize the idea that a woman is not a born target. I think that's fine. I'll be interested to read books that qualify for that prize. I'll also still be interested in true crime and the occasional innovative thriller.

I am relatively uninterested in thrillers in general, no matter how tough the women are. I find that fictional murderers lack the weirdness and dull, pedestrian quality that even -- or perhaps especially -- extraordinary criminals seem to have about them in real life. I prefer mysteries, the kind that are less about the peril of the living murderer than the milieu, the cast of characters, and the local idea of justice.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:00 AM on July 10 [9 favorites]


Really into this prize on first glance. I'm desperately tired of my FIL recommending me thrillers starring some hardboiled alcoholic who's deeply in love with a tough-as-nails broad who hates men, including our protagonist, because of the violence inflicted upon her often and frequently... only to change her tune once she sees our protagonist bring a whole new level of brutality to bear against a would-be aggressor, not only saving the broad but solving a series of wildly gruesome crimes at the same time. Sometimes handsome men have to do terrible things to get pretty ladies to like them.

A Twitter account I love, Einstürzende Louboutin, pointed out that any time a filmmaker invokes sexual violence, they are knowingly excluding at least a few female members of any audience. I think that's a good thing to point out to anyone who tries to whatabout this prize or the intent behind it.
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 10:00 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


The first (older) thriller I could think of that I think would qualify is Stephen King's The Colorado Kid. Which is an odd thriller, an odd book for King, and I think one of his best.
posted by feckless at 10:22 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I have been having this conversation with my sci fi book group for a couple of years. In addition to points made I think a lot of writers have a hard time coming up with motivations for a woman character or for ways to show that she is strong without having to overcome victimization.
posted by Botanizer at 10:42 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


writers have a hard time coming up with motivations for a woman character or for ways to show that she is strong without having to overcome victimization

Having a stable home environment, with supportive parents who recognize you have drive/spirit/initiative/smarts/experience, being raised in a society where women are equals in opportunity, leadership and self-actualization shouldn't be too much of a stretch of imagination for people writing science-fiction...
posted by jkaczor at 11:41 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


jkaczor, I think about this a lot. It's really tough for me as a writer. I can invent any amount of fantastical races or magical systems, but equality and kindness and love -- what romance writers call "emotional justice" -- these seem like the ridiculous fantasies, the unserious ideas, the nonsense. I'm working on this, at the keyboard and at the therapist's office.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:59 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


It's really tough for me as a writer.

The horrible thing I think about with your response, is - "write what you know", which I think would be horrific for female authors to be writing about characters experience with these topics. (or, as an author who might have had to live through similar experiences (or know someone who has - and I am willing to bet every woman knows at least one person who has been victimized) is it cathartic?)

(And then the shoe-on-the-other foot, what are male writers doing then? Fantasizing, writing their own experiences... yuck)
posted by jkaczor at 12:40 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I think the prize is a brilliant idea and should be applied to television too. And I think it’s still ok and important to write about violence against women, but maybe not only for entertainment purposes? And maybe it’s just time for a bit of change and variety anyway. This should be encouraged and I’m surprised there are writers offended by it.
posted by bitteschoen at 12:54 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I recently enjoyed the "Who The Hell is Hamish" podcast because it was true crime with emotional betrayal but no physical violence.
posted by vespabelle at 12:56 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


It's such a good approach to not be pointing at books and saying "That's bad because it contains X" but rather pointing to books and saying "You might enjoy reading this because it does not contain X."

And so telling that even that is threatening to some people.

(And yeah it could be seen as a form of censorship in some alternate universe where most books have a "Contains no violence against women!" sticker on them and books without the sticker don't get any shelf space. But that's not our universe.)
posted by straight at 1:16 PM on July 10 [15 favorites]


Are there any male protagonists where his past experience as a victim of sexual violence informs his current character?
posted by amanda at 2:22 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


@amanda The main character in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (link to Goodreads) is a victim of sexual violence both as a child and as an adult, and those events absolutely germane to his character and actions. However, to say that novel is not a thriller is a huge understatement.

I can't think of a thriller in which the main character is both male and has been a victim of sexual violence.
posted by platitudipus at 3:44 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I'm on a mystery kick at the moment and have really enjoyed a string of 20+ novels without sexual violence. Upping the chance has been sticking to female authors only and screening out obvious sexual violence plots, so I had sexual violence in about 20% of the novels. It was remarkable how much more I could relax into the books knowing it wasn't going to end up in rape relevations.

One thing that was interesting was several of the better books had female characters who are very aware of rape culture and physical safety measures - reality existed for them, but rape and sexual violence still weren't needed as driving motivators of the plots or splashy scenes in the books.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:45 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I recently saw a light-hearted romantic comedy about an aspiring stand up comic, where the backstory for the female lead was that she had been sexually abused as a child. Because that's the only motivation a woman can have. For anything.
posted by misfish at 3:53 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


It's such a good approach to not be pointing at books and saying "That's bad because it contains X" but rather pointing to books and saying "You might enjoy reading this because it does not contain X."

That would be a good approach, and it’s unfortunate that the prize organisers aren’t taking it, but are instead reverting to blanket descriptions of writing that depicts violence against women as “the same old clichés” and as “celebrating violence towards women“, having no positive social impact and hindering rape trials. This despite a range of female crime writers (some victims of violence themselves) having previously pointed out how offensive it is for good and sensitive writing to be “lumped together with the crass, the incompetent and the pornographers of violence”.

I think the concept behind the prize is great and I hope it continues to exist, but it would be really good to see the organisers making some effort to distinguish between baby and bath water.
posted by inire at 5:35 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Are there any male protagonists where his past experience as a victim of sexual violence informs his current character?

I’ve read some, but they were romance novels.
posted by bq at 6:06 PM on July 10


Are there any male protagonists where his past experience as a victim of sexual violence informs his current character?

Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels aren't thrillers but are about a male protagonist who suffers and is profoundly shaped by childhood sexual abuse.
posted by sy at 7:11 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


That would be a good approach, and it’s unfortunate that the prize organisers aren’t taking it, but are instead reverting to blanket descriptions of writing that depicts violence against women as “the same old clichés” and as “celebrating violence towards women“, having no positive social impact and hindering rape trials. This despite a range of female crime writers (some victims of violence themselves) having previously pointed out how offensive it is for good and sensitive writing to be “lumped together with the crass, the incompetent and the pornographers of violence”.

I don't see them pointing to any particular book and saying it's bad. I see them pointing to particular books and saying they are good. I don't think that obliges them to endlessly qualify their desire for books without sexual violence with reassurances that yes, not every single book with sexual violence contains all of the things they think are bad about sexual violence.
posted by straight at 7:44 PM on July 10 [11 favorites]


I don't see them pointing to any particular book and saying it's bad.

Well, quite - the lack of specificity is the issue.

Not that the prize organisers should be pointing out shitty books one by one, of course, but it would take very little effort (with no need for 'endless qualifications') to avoid tarring all writers who depict violence against women with the same brush, suggesting that their depictions of "serial killers and menacing strangers are dangerously misleading [and] seriously affect justice for women", and responding to criticism from female writers by asking "Where is the research that demonstrates that this kind of writing does anything positive socially?".

I don't think you need to make that effort if you're lumping together people who are all somewhere on the same spectrum of harmfulness (hence why discussions of misogyny can ignore cries of #NotAllMen). But if you find yourself lumping vocal feminists and survivors of rape together with lazy, sensationalist misogynists who use sexual violence to 'spice things up', it's probably worth making a bit more of an effort.
posted by inire at 4:21 AM on July 11


and responding to criticism from female writers by asking "Where is the research that demonstrates that this kind of writing does anything positive socially?".

I think the full quote there is clearer? "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". That describes a certain attitude to the depiction of sexual violence for titillation purposes which isn’t necessarily the only way to write about it.

Of course the prize entry requirements take a more simplistic approach, because absence of sexual violence makes for a simple clear criterion for entry, else they would have to debate endlessly on which books with sexual violence in them perpetuate a problematic attitude or not, which depictions are titillating and exploitative and which aren’t, it’d become impossible to judge which entries are eligible or not...
posted by bitteschoen at 5:10 AM on July 11


Absolutely - no problem at all with the formal entry requirements or the promotional aims, it's the statements by the organisers that are kind of off.

Like, after that bit about offering up extreme torture etc. as entertainment, saying: “How does celebrating violence towards women like this deepen our understanding of social issues, as is so frequently claimed? Where is the research that demonstrates that this kind of writing does anything positive socially?”

Which conflates the torture-as-entertainment crowd (who by and large don't pretend to give a toss about deepening understanding of social issues) with those writing about this seriously and with some degree of moral purpose (who are doing precisely the opposite of celebrating violence against women) - hence the criticism.
posted by inire at 5:49 AM on July 11


There's a series of sorta-science-fiction novels by L Timmel DuChamp which really changed the way I understood writing about violence against women and made me realize how utterly terrible like 99% of it is. (Not that I'd been a huge fan before.)

Du Champ draws on her experience as an activist against US involvement in South and Central America during the eighties, so her depictions of violence against women are informed by meeting women who actually had been brutalized and abused by US-backed regimes and by a strong sense of the structural nature of this violence. But more than that, there is no titillation in her writing, and its total absence made me realize how present it is in literally almost every other book that deals with violence against women (and in much fan fiction that deals with violence against men). It made me realize how almost everything else I'd read was not in fact horrifying enough because it had been massaged to create aesthetic appeal, make it sexy or else fit it into horror genre tropes. Sorrow, weight of knowledge, fear, dismay, disgust, a sense that something was done to a real person, a sense of reality - these are the characteristics of violence in Du Champ's writing and I find them largely absent in the vast majority of other fiction I've read dealing with these themes.

One of these books' major themes is torture, the social infrastructure that supports it and the impacts that it has on society as a whole. These aren't easy books to read, and as much as I like them, there's one of them I cannot re-read. I cannot overstress that terrible things happen in these books, that they are disturbing and that one of the point of view characters for a book is a woman who is essentially in charge of the security system.

They are remarkable books* and they forever raised the bar for how I expect writers to deal with violence, particularly violence against women.



*Though the prose is uneven, especially in the first book, and you have to have a tolerance for a slightly clunky SFnal premise. The books are great in spite of these things, not because of their lyricism or super accomplished SF - they're Du Champ's first fiction which she wrote in the eighties and lightly edited before publication ten-ish years ago.
posted by Frowner at 6:42 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


The problem is that there are two overlapping concerns here:

1. There are legit reasons someone would want to avoid reading depictions of sexual violence in any book, regardless of the artistic merit.

2. There are lots of depictions of sexual violence that are bad and deserving of criticism.

The Staunch Book Prize seems designed to satisfy #1, but the people involved are also interested in talking about #2, and they talk in general terms because they think #2 is so pervasive.
posted by straight at 7:24 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


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