A prize for thrillers without female victims divides opinion

LONDON — It's a chilling cliche of thrillers that women often end up abducted, abused or dead.

One writer is so sick of the violence that she has set up a book prize to reward crime novels "in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered." The contest has some writers and readers cheering, but others say it could deter authors from tackling tough real-life issues.

The Staunch Book Prize offers a 2,000 pound ($2,800) purse and is open to published and unpublished books alike.

London-based writer and educator Bridget Lawless founded the contest after growing weary of violence against women being a "go-to motivator" in books, films and TV shows.

"We haven't really moved on too far from the silent movies," said Lawless, who argues that violence against women in fiction has become both numbingly commonplace and increasingly explicit. "Women are still being tied to the tracks, but now they have got to be raped first."

Lawless says she has been surprised by the strength of reaction to the idea, which was partly inspired by the "Me Too" movement against Hollywood sexual harassment. Within weeks of being announced, the prize has acquired a website, a judging panel — Lawless, comedian Doon Mackichan and literary agent Piers Blofield — and international media coverage.

The Staunch Prize is open for submissions from Feb. 22 to July 15, with the winner announced on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Lawless thinks the reception is connected to the dam-burst of women's stories unleashed by sexual-misconduct allegations against powerful men in entertainment, politics, business and the media.

"Lots and lots of readers have written personal messages to me to say 'thank goodness,'" she said.

She said that at a time when "women are very seriously talking about violence that's happened to them ... a lot of people don't want to go home and then mop up lots of violence against women in literature."

But what about those who do? Women make up a large portion of thriller readers and authors, and female crime writers have been among the strongest critics of the prize.

Crime novelist Sophie Hannah, whose latest book is the mystery thriller "Keep Her Safe", wrote in The Guardian that it's vital to tell stories in which violence "is subjected to psychological and moral scrutiny, and punished."

"Reading the eligibility criteria, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the prize actively sets out to discourage crime fiction, even of the highest quality, that tackles violence against women head-on," she wrote.

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid said good writers "want to address these issues — not by ignoring them but by dealing with them in a way that isn't exploitative."

"As long as women are dying at the hands of violent men, I am going to write about this. Because not to write about it is to pretend it's not happening," McDermid told the BBC.

Lawless says she is not trying to limit writers' freedom, but just wants readers to have a choice.

"I'm not telling everyone they shouldn't write it or read it," she said. "It's not censorship or a ban. It's just saying: 'Come on, can't we find some other stories?'"

___

Bridget Lawless is not related to the author of this story.

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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