IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Prize for thrillers with zero violence against women divides novelists

A new book prize will honor the best thriller in which no female character experiences violence. But not every crime novelist is on board with the concept.

It's a novel idea: a new book prize that's only for thrillers which contain no sexual or physical violence against a female character.

The award, called the Staunch Book Prize, was created by British writer and educator Bridget Lawless, who argues that sexual assaults on female characters are an "old cliché" that thrillers rely too heavily on.

The prize comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has shined a spotlight on how pervasive sexual misconduct is against women everywhere. Lawless said "the whole climate around what's happening to women" was part of what prompted her to create it.

Image: Mary Higgins Clark attends BookExpo America
Mary Higgins ClarkLaura Cavanaugh / Getty Images file

"There's such great stories that don't need to have that," Lawless said.

"If women are constantly depicted as victims and as helpless and as having no agency and being props to men who solve great crimes and protect them, I'm sure that has a subtle and subconscious effect on how women see themselves and are regarded as well," said Lawless.

The award has "hit a nerve," Lawless added, with many people reaching out to her to thank her for creating it.

But crime novelists are divided over it.

"My first reaction was, that's so well-intentioned and probably impossible," said Laura Lippman, an award-winning crime writer whose 23rd book, "Sunburn," is coming out later this month. "Because it's not the topic of sexualized violence that's the problem. It's the treatment."

Lippman, who was won multiple major awards since the publication of her first novel in 1997, also felt the award made an unfair generalization about thriller plotlines.

"My first reaction was, that's so well-intentioned and probably impossible."

Laura Lippman

"Crime fiction is this huge category," she said. "There are literally mysteries in which the cat solves the crime, and then there are these incredibly hard-boiled, how high is the body count, how many prostitutes are you going to murder for the sake of the hero's development mysteries."

And crime fiction author Julia Dahl, whose most recent book, "Conviction," follows a tabloid reporter investigating a decades-old triple murder case, feared the prize could result in fewer women portrayed in literature as a whole.

"If you take the woman away as the victim, now you're not digging into women's stories," she said. "I feel like it doesn't make a lot of sense to encourage writers not to address these issues that are clearly relevant."

"I do think that the more prizes, the better, but I don't necessarily think that discouraging people from writing about crime against women is the way to address the issue of crime against women," she added.

Famed suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who at 90 years old has written over 50 books, said the prize highlights an important concept.

"Simply, I admire the fact that they're doing it, because if there is a prize or a financial prize, of course it's going to attract people," said Clark, whose forthcoming novel, "I've Got My Eyes on You," comes out in April.

Clark said her novels don't use explicit violence or sex, but instead feature a woman "who is strong, something happens, and through her own intelligence and actions, she saves herself."

She said there's a way to address heinous crimes tastefully in any art form.

"Someone like Alfred Hitchcock, it's more that he hinted at it," she said. "You didn't see anyone strangled. You saw her looking frightened, and then in the next scene, you see her foot sticking out of the garbage can."

Even some novelists who have depicted graphic sexual violence praised the prize. Jessica Knoll, the New York Times best-selling author of suspense novel "The Luckiest Girl Alive," which centers on a gang rape that Knoll recently revealed was based on a similar event in her own past, called the award "interesting."

"You might think that I would be adamantly opposed, but I'm actually very much in favor," she said. Heavily relying on violence against women, especially if the author is male, she said, can "start to feel a little grimy."

"A lot of times, violence against women is used to develop female characters. It's a means of glory or redemption, or rape is used because it's a woman's rock bottom, and that makes me sad, because I think there are other avenues," she said. "That doesn't happen to male characters, so maybe we can get a little more creative."

Guidelines for the prize — which will open to submissions on Feb. 22 — require works of literature "in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered."

Authors of any nationality are welcome to submit their work, as long as it's written in English.

The winner of the prize will receive £2,000 (approximately $2,800), and will be announced on Nov. 25 — International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Depictions of violence in the media and in literature don't necessarily lead to violence in real life, said Dr. Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, a qualitative researcher who examines the connection between pop culture and social inequality.

"But what it does do is it contributes to a culture that supports violence and sees it as normal," she said.