Staunch Book Prize: a reward for the best thriller that doesn't use women as victims

We speak to Bridget Lawless, the founder and a judge, of the new literary book prize that's got people talking

Bridget Lawless is the founder and one of the judges of the competition. Courtesy Clare Park
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If there is blood to be spilt on the pages of a thriller, it very often belongs to a poor unfortunate female victim. Or multiple victims in the case of best-selling serial killer novels such as Stieg Larsson's The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.

However, a new literary prize for the thriller genre is hoping to disrupt this disturbing norm.

Open to all authors over the age of 18, the Staunch Book Prize wants to break away from such clichés. Instead, it will reward a great thriller that doesn’t feature a woman being “beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”.

Bridget Lawless, a British author and screenwriter who founded the prize, credits the #MeToo movement against the sexual abuse and harassment of women in Hollywood and beyond as catalyst for launching the prize. She wanted to do her part to keep the conversation going.

“This is a critical point in time, and the prize, in its small way, is getting people talking about the issues,” she tells me via email.

"When the #MeToo campaign started, I decided to abstain from voting for the Baftas," she says. "I knew there would be more stories of abuse coming out, and I didn't want to unwittingly reward someone whose story only came out later. This is far from over.

“I’d really like to see discussions in writers’ courses, reading groups, publishers, agents and among the producers, directors and actors who might be involved in adaptations.”

The author believes that books and other media that use violence against women as a plot device are doing it for commercial gain. The result is rather lurid, instead of informative, fiction.

“People who are interested in the reality of [violence against women] tend not to read that kind of fiction, because they find it distasteful and exploitative, and maybe part of the problem.

"They put their efforts into finding out more about what's happening to real women,
and trying to do something about it

For those determined to tackle the popular thriller genre, what does Lawless suggest they write about instead? How about “hostile environments or extreme weather”? She adds that predatory behaviour and “people injuring and murdering each other is only a small part of what’s possible with the genre”.

Lawless clearly feels that violence against women is a rather tired trope. "It's a very well-worn and overused way to go," she says. "Why do you need to concentrate on stories where that's part of the plot? Can your characters use their wits to avoid these things? Can you come up with a situation in which no one is a victim?"

While the Staunch Book Prize has been praised for being innovative and fresh, there are critics. Some suggest that awarding a prize for excluding violence against women ignores the ongoing issue or makes it seem as though writing or reading about it is a terrible thing.

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"There is an element in the criticism that almost suggests thrillers which contain [this topic have] some kind of educational role, or are 'shining a light' on a difficult and otherwise hidden subject. I don't buy into that," Lawless argues. "It's quite surreal sometimes hearing people argue for violence against women… or describe the prize as a ban or censorship, or a call for violence against men or children. It's very clearly stated that we're looking for original writing and alternatives."

Submissions to the prize are invited from publishers, agents and directly from writers from February 22 to July 15. Alongside Lawless, the judges include comedian Doon Mackichan (Smack the Pony, Plebs) and literary agent Piers Blofeld. The winner of the £2,000 (Dh10,346) will be announced on November 25 to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

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