Saturday 20 October 2018

Women attacked, raped, silenced - all in the name of entertainment

During the #MeToo campaign, screenwriter Bridget lawless had the idea to launch a prize for thrillers that eschew violence against women. Here, she explains why

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Getty Images

The idea for the Staunch Book Prize arose from my own growing frustration and disgust at the amount of violence towards women depicted in novels and on screen. It came about during the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns, and, hot on its heels, the awards season, which sees the film industry pat itself on the back and includes the BAFTAs, for which I vote.

All these things collided and suddenly real life and fiction were part of the same story. People were glad, relieved and sickened that stories about how women are treated in the film industry were surfacing daily - stories of sexual harassment and abuse on a terrifying scale. Women assaulted, raped, silenced, all in the name of entertainment. Knowing how easily things can slip off the news agenda, leaving individual women to fight alone with the consequences of speaking out, everyone was asking "how do we keep the conversation going?"

To me, it seems that all any of us can do are small things with a little impact, adding to a weight of action and opinion that can tip the balance. I decided to abstain from voting for the BAFTAs. I didn't want to risk rewarding anyone who might later be found to have abused or assaulted someone either to further their own career or in the making of a particular film. The stories are still emerging.

Then the idea of the book prize struck me. It seemed timely to start drawing connections between fictional violence - glamorised depictions of sexual assault and murder, in books, films and television - and what happens to women in real life. Books felt like a scale and format I could handle, and thrillers are the genre where most of this violence appears. I'd have to put up the prize money myself - £2,000 - and run the competition to the end. No matter how many entries I got (none? a thousand?), I'd read every one. Thus, Staunch Book Prize, with its unusual criteria, was born. The prize will honour a thriller in which no woman gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered. I knew it would be controversial and provocative to some, but it was also timely, and called for more original writing, new ideas, a change in the narrative of women endlessly presented as victims and bodies. I couldn't have predicted the reception it would receive, the huge wave of support, and the way news of this prize would shoot around the world without me doing a single piece of marketing.

It all stemmed from a query about advertising in book-trade magazine The Bookseller (which I couldn't afford), their news reporter picked it up, and an article went online.

Word spread quickly because it is news - such criteria have never been used before. As some critics have said, it's a prize against something, not for something. It is and it isn't. It's a direct shout-out against the preponderance of violence against women in fiction which is graphic, explicit, fetishised and savoured. Not in itself a new observation by any means. It also draws the direct connection to what appears on screen, as books are often source material for adaptations.

Everyone I asked to get involved has said yes without hesitation (except for a couple of potential judges who were too busy, or said they were!) But the first person I invited was Doon MacKichan, perhaps best known as an actor and comedian from Smack the Pony, but also a committed and vocal activist. We were joined by Piers Blofeld, a literary agent who has been actively looking for writers who don't follow the old clichés about violence against women - yet, having found an exceptional example, found it harder to sell to publishers than you might imagine. So, are publishers part of the problem?

It might seem so, and I hope this prize might make them more open and welcoming to well-written books with a different agenda. The thriller genre is huge and it's thriving. Thousands of women are writing thrillers - often in the crime sub-genre, and often containing graphic accounts of sexual violence inflicted on female characters. So what is the problem? Well, obviously it isn't a problem for all. But so many people tell me they've given up reading thrillers because of it. They may want to read and support women writers, but they don't want to spend their leisure time reading (or watching) stories in which women are brutalised, tortured, horribly killed. I'm getting this response from many men, too, which is hugely encouraging and I'm so glad to hear from them.

My critics so far have mainly been women, and mainly writers of this sort of crime novel. They feel the prize is censoring, some kind of ban, misguided, saying that violence against women is real and should be explored, and that it can be cathartic for many women to write and/or read about it. We need to know about it because it happens.

But no one is banning or censoring anything. If they were, I'd be out there marching for people's freedom to write what they choose. Yes, violence against women is real, but when it's relished, and dwelt upon repeatedly (and these stories are painfully repetitive), and in the private moments where it's enjoyed, questions can be raised about what its function really is. I certainly wouldn't walk into a rape crisis centre and suggest victims should be prescribed a course of heavy reading. The people I know who work in that sector don't get their information or training from reading novels.

People ask me if this prize is needed. All I can say is that I believe in it wholeheartedly, and that my inbox is full of personal messages from readers and writers, and from survivors of violence and rape, who have said things like "Finally", "About time", "Thank God, I can't wait to read these books!" "Thank you!" And from one rape survivor, in particular: "This gives me hope."

The simple fact is that for myself and many others, at this moment in time, explicit fictional violence against women in books and films sits uneasily beside the real-life struggles and reforms women are fighting for - even sacrificing their lives for - in the very real world.

The Staunch book prize is for thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.

See www.staunchbookprize.com

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