Monday, July 15, 2019


What are your thoughts, if you're inclined to share them, about the controversy surrounding the Staunch Book Prize for thrillers that depict no violence against women? I don't equate the award with a gag order, as some literati have done, and I don't believe that awarding special recognition to one measly thriller per annum will have a chilling effect on all thoughtful and artistic explorations of a theme that is a too-real part of our world. But I can see both sides of the issue, which is my birthright as a middle child and a Minnesotan.

Oh dear god, the things people can find to soapbox about!

If someone wants to offer a prize for the best book featuring the kale fields of Carkoon, let 'em!
It doesn't stop anyone writing other stuff.

Anyone who says this is akin to a gag order doesn't understand the meaning of gag order.

Clearly they need to take tea with Mary M. Webster. Or me. I'll give a demonstration.

But, let's dig a little deeper.

If you assess the percentage of crime novels that feature violence against female characters as the main plot point, you're going to have a very lopsided number.

I see queries every day of the week that start with some sort of brutal rape and murder.

And a lot of the books I read have those things on the page even if the first page does not.

Which brings us to the existential question: does publishing this kind of violence give people violent ideas?

It's an old question, and one that gets jeered at a lot. Understandably.

BUT take a look at a movie like Black Rain (Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia) made in 1989. It's very America First, anti-Japanese. Does it reflect the zeitgeist of 1989?  Or was it one of the things that produced the zeitgeist?

Executive Decision (Kurt Russell) 1996-a very different vibe than what you see today.

And the bad guys went from being German to being Arab, when?

Our art reflects our thinking, but our thinking is also influenced by our art.

Imagine the kerfuffle this little painting caused.

The obvious OMG moment is Mary punishing her Son. But notice: the halo in the corner. That's the part that really got 'em going.

All this to say: I don't give a fig about the requirements for a contest. There are so many contests and prizes it's actually hard to keep track.

I think one thing we can all agree on: when something new is suggested or offered, there are ALWAYS people who will tell you it's stupid, shortsighted or  shouldn't be done.

I bet you've seen that in your own lives (and I don't mean your kids objecting to new rules on bedtime!)

Will this new contest hurt anyone or harm your chances to be published in any way?


Myra Levine said...

I am so sick of novels that begin with the brutalization of a woman/girl that I hit PAUSE (I'm an audio book fan) and DELETE immediately. I'm not a feminist, and I don't believe in censorship, but this has been done to death. Pun intended.

Kitty said...

Dittos, Myra. Years ago, I began reading a certain writer’s murder mystery series. By the time I had read several, I noticed a common thread involving young women. The writer liked to put them in harm's way and/or brutalize them, including a 12-y-o. I dumped the book I was reading at the time and never read another one of his books.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I must say, I wouldn't have given this a second thought without the blog. I wish violence against women was not so much a part of the culture everywhere and in every age of history. It has been part of my personal experience.

It is horrifying, leaves you feeling powerless and meaningless. It takes a long-time to walk back out in the light when you've...

As a writer, I can't help but have it spiral into my writing. It helps me deal with the fury, the loss, the pain, and the fear. But I maybe have a different take than a man writing about such violence. I don't know. Write what you write. Read what you read. In art, nothing is taboo. Nothing at all. And I love that painting.

Anyhow, you can easily avoid subjects that offend you...well, unless you happen to be a literary agent. Then you can simply reject.

mhleader said...

You know, you can make an argument that brutalizing women is an intrinsic part of our genetics. As a species, we are intensely sexualized, far more so than almost every other species, with women constantly fertile, men having huge "family jewels" (in comparison to body size) and sex taking such a HUGE part of our attention.

We define ourselves via our sexuality--and anything outside the norm is hated and feared. The competition for sex and the drive to have power over others means men control sexual access to women (and children!) in nearly all cultures. And women being brutalized and punished for any deviation from being controlled. I *HATE* that. But I'm not sure our species can ever escape that fundamental part of our being.

I don't think we can train any of us to be less sexually driven. We would have to change our fundamental genetics to eliminate violence against women--and children. Horrible, isn't it?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've never seen that painting before, and WOW. Wow for a lot of reasons, I'm fascinated and intrigued. And also Mary has that arm WAY back there doesn't she?

I can see the merit and interest in a contest/writing parameter that's like "Okay, the foundations of this genre is built upon violence against women. There are more dead women than live ones in some of these pages. Can you write a story that feels the same but doesn't have that particular aspect?" It's a writing prompt, or maybe it's a way of thinking. Like, there's a website called Does the Dog Die? it so much to ask that maybe the woman also doesn't always die?

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Interesting. A fellow blogger was posting just recently about this very question. I think there are a couple of different things going on here.

As for violence against women in books, like every other thing in books, there are a million ways it can be handled and a million reasons it might be included - some good, some bad. This is such a universal part of human experience that it would be unrealistic never to tackle it ... Especially if you are writing crime novels. But I do understand being repelled if that's all an author seems to write about. That's why I stopped reading Ken Follett, and it's why I watch Blue Bloods but not CSI: Special Victims Unit.

The other thing I see going on is a culture-wide tendency that when we decide something is bad (which this clearly is), we decide that the way to stamp it out is to punish not just the thing but anyone who mentions it or anything tangentially related to it, without nuance or context. So, apparently there have been Twitter threads slamming "male writers" who write about rape ... As if men and women are each a homogenous class, and as if wtiting is not art with a million different ways to do it.

I included an abusive marriage in my series because it was just unrealistic to show a group of 20 families and not one abusive husbsnd among them. Once I put the problem in, being an injustice it naturally expanded and took over much of the second book.

Sarah said...

I definitely get why this contest exists. It actually made me think of so many of the "rules" you hear about when you start writing: Don't start the story with a character dreaming or waking up. Don't have the character look in a mirror for us to first "see" them. Often, those simple rules keep us from lazy writing. We need to figure out a better place to start the story, another way for the reader to see our character. The "rules" aren't laws, but they can push us to level up, to write something better.

Maybe the Staunch Book Prize is the equivalent of those rules: why don't we just TRY to write a story that doesn't brutalize a woman to drive the plot forward? Make this story work AND let the woman live. Let her drive the plot and not have it just happen to her.

We have stories where women are hurt because it happens in real life. But it can't hurt to have one place where we try and imagine that it doesn't have to happen, right? Both in stories and life?

I'd like to think it's just another opportunity to level up.

Pericula Ludus said...

Totally agree about the lazy writing, Sarah. Same with other common tropes. The lesbian couple could, just for a change, have a happy ending. Or non-white characters could survive. So many options so rarely explored...

As it is for so many, violence against women is part of my own experience. And yes, I think it needs to be present in fiction. If fiction strives to reflect reality, it should not ignore such issues. But how is it depicted? How is it reflected in the story? I'm not against all rape scenes. For obvious reasons, they tend to affect me quite deeply, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be written. What will make me actively dislike a book is rape as a plot device. Rape without showing the terrible, long-lasting consequences. Tick box exercise, need to hit that plot point. Not to speak of graphic scenes written as thinly veiled sexual fantasies. Those disgust me.

Matt Adams said...

I have nothing to add, but I wanted to tell you that's a great post, Janet.

D.H. said...

You know, I get it. When you not only read and watch about women getting brutalized but also see it on the news so often - and even may be on the receiving end of that experience - it gets tiring to keep seeing it. I think it makes perfect sense to draw that line in the sand.

If your entire plot hinges on a woman specifically getting brutalized, what would make it so different if it were a man instead? A brother, a friend, a son?

Why not even try to find another way to move the plot forward?

It's not just a tired trope - for some women (and maybe some men), it's an exhausting trope. I can only imagine if publishing has it to the point it's exhausting, that agents see queries for thrice that amount at the very least.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I won't read rape scenes. But it is a reality in our culture.

However, if the rape happened off scene, perhaps as the pre-hook we don't read about, and then we enter the story? There's so much to write about AFTER the reality of any kind of violence. The struggle to overcome broken trust and innocence, the repercussions on the partner/spouse, family, and friends, the way it forever shapes and shifts how the person interacts at work, in social settings, at vacation places, driving alone in the dark on a strange road. So much room to show psychological/spiritual/mental wounds, the growth or atrophy, fear and courage.

I'm an optimist. I like to think that someday, somehow, the human species will rise against the inclination to normalize and trivialize micro- and macro-violence against women and girls, transforming ourselves as a species. Daydreamer here...

Adele said...

Back in the 80s I instituted the "Sorry to Hear About Your Girlfriend" award. It was given as needed, to TV shows where women were destroyed just to move things along. I started it after, in an episode of "21 Jump Street", the opening credits featured Johnny Depp's character's girlfriend - who we'd never heard of or seen before - popping into a convenience store and being immediately (still in the opening credits) blown away by robbers. She existed for no other purpose than to provoke anger. Subsequent recipients included a special achievement award for "Magnum, PI" - for one season where in two separate episodes, terrorized women committed suicide right in front of our hero.

I have noticed, however, that where I live the "W Network" - supposedly for women - fills most of its schedule with back-to-back CSI: SVU episodes. So presumably there is a demand among women to watch women being abused and then their abuser being convicted. I'm not a trained psychologist and I don't know what that says about our society. Maybe women who are afraid it will happen to them, are dealing with their fears this way.

Writer of Wrongs said...

In my WIP, I have a couple of women victims, but I killed more men. I’ve also drafted several pages of another work which will involve trafficking - including child trafficking. But the abuse the child victim describes (the brutality is told in her voice, AFTER the fact, NOT portrayed as it’s happening) shape her into the character she becomes, and create the demons she’s battling in the story. And I honestly don’t know if that story is marketable; I just know that I need to write it. I started scribbling it a few years ago, long before MeToo or Epstein. It’s important to me, even if I never publish a single word.

Writer of Wrongs said...

Adele - from what I’ve read, this is a common phenomenon: many women enjoy reading/watching violent entertainment. I’ve also heard true-crime podcasters say that their biggest fans are women, and that their best feedback from those women is on the most violent, gory stuff. I’ve heard a theory that it gives women a sense of power — seeing justice served against those who commit heinous crimes — especially if the show/book includes a female protagonist. But I don’t know...

Beth Carpenter said...

One plus of special awards is that the finalists comprise a handy reading list for readers who are specifically looking for that sort of story. Whether it's avoiding violence against women, or featuring older protagonists, or stories set in Delaware, it's effectively a curated collection.

Fearless Reider said...

OP here — thanks to all for taking on this question! I was baffled by the furious outcry against the Staunch prize from a number of writers and groups; after all, many fine books are categorically excluded from consideration for, say, a Newbery or a Nebula because awards often recognize work written for specific audiences and preferences. I can understand, though, how writers who take great care to explore a very real problem with sensitivity and nuance might take it personally and feel unvalued by the offering of a prize that categorically excludes them. But I think we need both truth-telling and new paradigms to move forward as a society — stories that shine a light on hard truths and stories that offer alternatives to the same tired narratives. Those aims are not mutually exclusive in this big ol’ world.

Casual-T said...

If you don’t like the depiction of violence against any one arbitrarily chosen group of people (in this case women), then put down the book or stop watching the movie. Does Staunch have the right to make their own rules for their own contest? Sure. Do I agree with this particular rule? No.

Violence for the sake of violence has never interested me. I’ve had my share of violence in books and movies when I was young(er). Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again. BUT... What irks me in this day and age of “general victimhood” and “this is not allowed,” is the statement that violence against women is particularly egregious, which implies that violence against men is somehow less of an issue; to state that violence against gay folks, and people of any particular race or skin-color, is much more of an issue than—and here it comes—violence against straight, white, men. (I know, I know... How dare I bring this up.)

I am no fan of violence, PERIOD. Therefore I don’t read those kinds of books; I don’t watch those kinds of movies.

If the depiction of violence (against whomever) is necessary for the story to be told, so be it. In 99.99% of the time this violence will happen to either a male or female character. So to say that one group is out (because: victim points), but to imply that it’s alright to slash the other group’s throat and be entertained by it, is, in my opinion, hypocritical at best.

And just as an aside: During my divorce I found out that my ex had started writing a book. A rip-roaring tale of sexual fantasy, in which at one point she (being the lead character in her own book) was being raped by two strapping lads simultaneously, and rather enjoyed it... Things that make you go “Hmm...?”

Brenda said...

If you are writing a mystery or thriller someone is going to be in danger. It’s a fifty-fifty shot.

Is it more often a woman in fiction? Yes.
Is it more often a woman in reality? Again yes.

Interestingly I’ve had people object to my novel on the basis of the indigenous mother’s death. I would have an agent right now if I could agree to swap the genders of the first victim and the murderer.

One small problem. In Canada we don’t have an epidemic of indigenous men being murdered by caucasian partners. Why should my story not reflect reality so that we can all feel like Captain Marvel?

Miles O'Neal said...

I loved what Jennifer M and Sarah said (among others). If a book contains unnecessary violence, I'm almost always out- especially if it's against women, children, LGBTQ people, etc. If the violence is unnecessarily graphic, I'm out. I try hard to avoid such book sin the first place; I have no desire to help their sales, library checkout rates, etc.
"Unnecessary" definitely includes that added as a plot device to pull in an audience that would otherwise not be engaged.
In my series, one woman dies, another nearly dies, and another is under a spell. But these are integral to the story, and there are some badass women who help solve the problems. And there are men having similar things happen to them. I never push close to the YA boundaries in these books. Given that it's 1500s Scotland, it could legitimately be a lot worse, even without the dragons, evil faerie, etc.

Miles O'Neal said...

As far as the Staunch award goes, it seems like a great idea. I'm all for more contests and awards that are genre-specific. I suppose if this had been a wide-open thriller contest I planned to enter, and they changed the rules on me, I'd be a bit bummed. But unless it was the premier contest by far or one of a kind, even then I would maybe gripe a minute and then move on. ESPECIALLY given that this is an honorable way to handle things and encourages writing to move in a healthier direction.
As far as "gag order"? ROFLcopter time!

KDJames said...

I agree that if this were an established award that was now being restricted to a narrower focus, it would be a different matter. If the point of it is to raise awareness, it seems to be doing a good job.

I remember several years ago when people were all up in arms about the Bechdel test and its "three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man." It was going to destroy good stories, they said. Besides, this wasn't even a problem, they said. Except . . . when people started to analyze books and movies they discovered it was very common for them not to meet those simple criteria. It's similar to the awareness being raised more recently about stories where there are no minorities or other marginalized groups represented.

It's good for us to be aware of and consider stuff like this. Write what you want to write. Readers will read what they like.

And hey, I'm all in favour of people wanting to bestow accolades and cash on writers. The more the merrier.

AJ Blythe said...

My stories are sprinkled with violence/murder (little on the page - cozies!). In my current ms the first victim is male, because that character happened to be male. In my next to write, the first victim will be female. Again, that's because that's needed. I hope by the murderer reveal it's very clear to the reader why those people were murdered.

If the story is well written, the reason for the violence (whether to a male or female victim) should be clear to the reader. The reader has to understand the motivation for the violence. They don't have to agree with it, but they have to understand why. I don't like violence for violence sake, but have no problems if I can understand the motivation of the character. Doesn't mean I agree with it, but I can read the book.

Craig F said...

As long as the Staunch folks don't get on too high of a horse, I think they can raise some awareness. I am not a fan of gratuitous violence, but lots of people are. Dorsey is popular and Tarantino movies are highly anticipated.

This is the first that I have heard of this award, so they have a ways to go before they are top level. A lot can go wrong on that climb. I wish them luck because raising awareness is the first step in changing attitudes.

There are still facts that can't be ignored. More women do suffer violence than men. Seventy something percent of serial killers are male and prey, predominately, on women. Those things need to be known, just don't be lazy writing about them. Make the reason behind it be clear and poignant.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

So, this award for a book about kale fields...

Excellent point. I agree with you 100%!

Mister Furkles said...

The Staunch award folks must think that ignoring violence against women will make it go away. More likely, it will make it seem acceptable to some.

If only violence against men is depicted in the culture, then there will be less interest in addressing the special problems involved in violence against women and more effort will be applied to reducing violence against men.

Pretending evil doesn't exist does not make it go away it makes it grow. Have the pseudo intellectuals learned nothing from the holocaust? It might not have been so extreme if 'good' people had condemned it from the earliest days.

DeadSpiderEye said...

It's ironic I suppose, we put females in peril in narratives because we only care about torment and sudden death inflicted upon puppies nubile women, endearing old grannies and kids, as long as they're not brats. It seems that some of us care about the women so much that we complain when they get put in peril. I take it back, it's not ironic, it's an example of a circular imperative, which actually turns out to be ironic because circular imperatives make excellent plot devices.