The Current

Now is not the time for silence on violence against women, say crime novelists

Some writers say that violence is a reality, and fiction provides a safe space to address it.
Sheena Kamal, author of The Lost Ones, said she started writing crime fiction because she wanted to address gender violence.
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A new book prize wants to reward some original thinking — writing that doesn't centre on the abuse of women.

Bridget Lawless, an author and screenwriter, created the The Staunch Book Prize when she grew tired of the constant stream of violence against women. 

It only accepts crime and thriller novels where "no woman is sexually exploited, raped or murdered," in pages that don't resort to "the same old clichés – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however 'necessary to the plot'), or done away with (however ingeniously)."

While it has struck to the heart of the #MeToo conversation, some crime writers argue that it rewards silence on gender violence, when now is the time to have a conversation.

"What's really baffling about [the Staunch Prize] is it attempts to address gender violence, by not addressing gender violence," said Sheena Kamal, author of The Lost Ones.

Kamal started writing crime fiction because she wanted to address gender violence through the genre, and thinks this award is a step backwards.

Melissa Yi said that the prize "is just choosing to spotlight the thrillers that don't happen to show violence against women."

"I don't actually feel like [the prize] serves the #MeToo movement. I think it ignores gender violence and rewards people for ignoring it," Kamal told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Crime writer Melanie McGrath agreed that the Staunch Book Prize misses the #MeToo mark in celebrating books that don't include female violence, because like other types of violence, it is a reality that needs to be written and talked about.

"We have to accept that violence is a reality of our culture, of our societies," said McGrath. "One thing we have learned from the #MeToo movement is that when we deny reality, we have a problem."

McGrath believes that violence has no moral hierarchy, and this award is creating one.

"Crime fiction writers are explorers in the realm of violence," said McGrath. "Whether that's gender violence, or violence against children, or whatever kind of violence."

However, within the thriller and crime writing communities, there are those who believe this award is actually taking a step forward — away from the genre's gratuitous and often violent treatment of female characters.

"I love the Staunch Prize," said Melissa Yi, who writes medical thrillers. "I'm very excited about it. By not talking about violence against women, [Lawless] is not denying reality, she's just choosing to spotlight the thrillers that don't happen to show violence against women."

Violence is reality for many 

Melanie McGrath said that violence against women is a reality that needs to be written and talked about.
While McGrath argued that violence of all forms should be treated equally, Yi pointed out that the statistics behind homicide aren't equal.

"The fact is 75 per cent of the time, homicide victims are male," said Yi. "I think a disproportionate number of books focus on women as victims because they tend to get a very emotional reaction from both men and women."

McGrath said that the skewed focus on female violence, relative to reality, is because while men may be more likely to be homicide victims, women face a deeper psychological fear on a daily basis — and the female audience appreciates the mirror that can be a fantasy on the pages of a book.

"I think many women have to be conscious all the time of the presence and the possibility of violence," said McGrath.

"And so I think women, whether for good or bad, live in a constant kind of low level of vigilance about violence... in a way that isn't present for many men.

"We get to explore our worst fears in a safe space and — in the vast majority of crime fiction — see that the case is solved, equilibrium is restored, more increasingly, by female detectives who are given agency."

Blood on the page

The panel agreed that graphic, gratuitous depictions of violence of all kinds are becoming a thing of the past, at least in the book world. In their own writing, they have questioned the violence they choose to portray.

"If graphic depictions of violence only exist to titillate, or they only exist in order that a man can say something about them or solve the crime," said McGrath, "then we've got a problem."

"I do a lot of hard work to make sure that the violence in my novels is always personal and I don't allow the male gaze at all when it comes to violence against women," said Kamal.

"It's first-person, present-tense, it's really all very personal, and very direct." 

"It's not about projecting violence onto the women, it's about somebody's experience with it."

As for the award?

"I don't think it's our business to protect women or protect readers," said McGrath. "I think we can trust women and readers to do that for themselves."

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This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler and Kori Sidaway.

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