Founded by writer Bridget Lawless, the prize will open for submissions next month, with the winner being announced on November 25, coinciding with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. She will be joined by fellow judge Doon Mackichan, who first came to fame in Smack the Pony which featured a female-only cast, before going on to write and present BBC Radio 4 documentary Body Count Rising.
For decades, many thrillers have relied on a narrative whereby women are written as objects of male violence, victims to boundless psychological, physical and sexual assault. One only needs to look at the success of recent bestsellers Gone Girl (2012) or The Girl on the Train (2015), to appreciate how ingrained this laboured trope is in our cultural archive. Only last week, yet another novel featuring a female in its title, The Woman in the Window, launched to great acclaim having gone for seven figures at auction. And now, Lawless is saying enough is enough. Surely there’s more original material out there?
‘As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high, the Staunch Book Prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old clichés – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however “necessary to the plot”), or done away with (however ingeniously),’ she wrote on the prize’s website.
In January this year, Lawless wrote a piece in The Guardian, announcing her decision to abstain from voting in this year’s Baftas, given the widespread allegations of sexual harassment that have pervaded Hollywood. For Lawless, ‘everyone who didn’t speak, act or walk away is also implicated’ and as such, abstaining from voting is not only taking a stand against perpetrators, but also against the enablers who are in her eyes, are also complicit.
She writes: ‘I’m now not only acutely aware of what’s on screen that I might or might not applaud – the writing, performances, direction, music, effects, makeup and hair – but of that other world behind the camera. I can’t know what might or might not have gone on in each individual case, but I can’t not be aware of its relevance.’
Entries for this year’s prize are open to both male and female authors of any nationality who are over 18, with the winning entry receiving a grand prize of £2,000.
Lawless is emphasising the great scope for the thriller category, in a long overdue rebranding of a genre that has forever remained a space for female abuse rather than female empowerment. ‘We’re focusing on thriller novels because they’re a huge and important genre in their own right – and they’re frequently also source material for film and television. Let’s show not only readers, but producers, directors and actors that there are amazing, complex thrillers being created today by writers with truly fresh ideas, great imagination and brilliant plotting skill.’
In a year that novelist Kamila Shamsie lobbied to be the “year of publishing women” the announcement of the Staunch Book Prize suggests things are moving forward. Though with only one publisher taking on Shamsie’s challenge, the small, independent And Other Stories, there is clearly a long way to go before women are represented equally in literature. But amid the #MeToo moment we currently find ourselves in, this new prize emerges as a refreshing, concrete response to an urgent question.