There’s been a little bit of controversy this week around the new Staunch prize for thrillers where ‘no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. And about time, says one side of the argument. For too long, lazy writers have been fridging women for the sake of a cheap plot point, and exploitative writers have been using violence against women to titillate male readers. The other says, No. Writers need to be free to explore and subvert difficult themes. Women should not be told that their own experience is off-limits.
As a reader, I can see myself falling on either side of the fence depending on my mood. It might be quite nice to read a book in the knowledge that it’s safe to get attached to the female characters. On the other hand, if I pick up a book knowing that a character, or several characters, must get to the end of it alive because otherwise it wouldn’t have been eligible for this prize, that would spoil the suspense a little.
‘Does a woman die in this?’ is a bit of a blunt instrument, but then so is any means of categorizing books.
As a writer, I don’t have a horse in this race. The books that might possibly end up being eligible for this prize are third and fourth in the ‘to write’ queue, so we won’t be seeing much of either of them for a good five years, I’d have thought – by which point this prize will have become well established, or else have disappeared entirely.
I don’t really see much point in getting upset about this. Establishing a prize for books that don’t include one particular plot point doesn’t stop anybody writing that plot point, it just stops their book being entered for that prize. I’m sure that 2018 and 2019 will see just as many dead women on the bookshelves as previous years, and that many of those books will still engage with the question in a thoughtful or angry manner. If we start to see an increase in people arguing that the only right way to write something is not to write it, that’s when I’ll start getting worried.
No prize is for everyone. I’m not just talking about criteria that restrict entry according to age or whether one’s been published before. Most prizes are out of bounds to me because of my self-published status (and it’s an absolute delight to find one that isn’t). What I mean is, not every book will be suitable for every prize. In 2007 I thought briefly about entering (a very embryonic version of what eventually became) Speak Its Name for a Scripture Union writing competition in memory of Patricia St John. I’ll pause here for you to read up on Scripture Union and Speak Its Name. And then laugh.
No, there’s no point in my getting irritated by a prize that I’m not going to enter. It does raise a more interesting question, though. How do we respect our own and others’ experience? How do we give an honest portrayal of the problems that a [member of a marginalised group] is likely to encounter without giving the impression that being a [member of a marginalised group] is wall-to-wall awfulness? Where is the line between representation and exploitation? Can we say that we’ve dealt with enough of all this bullshit in the real world and just give ourselves a night off?
This is something that I’m thinking about quite a lot as I work through the final edits on A Spoke In The Wheel, and as the sequel to Speak Its Name unfolds itself in my mind. How do I show the grinding misery that is the modern British benefits process without buying into damaging assumptions about what makes life worth living for disabled people? How do I show Lydia engaging with the institutional homophobia of the Church of England and its vocations process (yes, we’re going there) without undermining her integrated identity as a lesbian Christian? It is something that I think about as I watch Yuri!!! on Ice, where homophobia just doesn’t exist, and as I read Check, Please!, where homophobia exists but never touches our heroes, and the ways that those work and don’t work for me.
I’m still thinking, and still writing, and really, the best answer that I can come up with is that no single book is going to do this. We need the escapist books that can be opened in the confidence that everybody’s going to be OK. We also need the books that expose the awful things that people do to other people. We need the books in the middle, where we know that awful stuff will happen or might happen, but that the characters we love will come through somehow. That middle space is where my books – or at least the ones that have emerged so far – sit, and all I can do is write them the best I can. And, so far as I’m concerned, people are very welcome to establish prizes for any of them.