CrimeFest, the festival of crime writing which is held in Bristol each year and the newly launched Staunch Prize for crime fiction find themselves at the centre of a controversy over the depiction of violence against women in crime fiction.
The arguments over such depiction in TV dramas are long-established and well-rehearsed, but the unease over gratuitous, even pornographic violence in fiction is fairly new.
The Staunch Prize was set up in January 2018 to celebrate thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered. That seems to me like a pretty interesting, progressive aim.
Unfortunately a number of big name crime writers have rolled up their sleeves and gone in hard on the organisers of the prize, needlessly declaring blindingly obvious distinctions such as ‘brutality is not the same thing as writing about brutality’. No, it’s not. But it can be. OK, writers are inflicting suffering only on fictional characters, so it’s hardly comparable with, say, Hitchcock’s sadistic treatment of Tippi Hedren in filming ‘The Birds’. But the perpetuation of a convention in which female characters are the routine recipients of violent behaviour is not something to be accepted without question.
The big-hitters are furious that their approach to their craft should be questioned and they seem to have exerted such self-righteously outraged pressure that the organisers of CrimeFest – which was to host the prize - have simply caved in. The justification for the reversal of their decision is that certain high-profile opponents of violence against woman don’t like the prize (because it appears to criticise their own treatment of their fictional characters).
This is an extraordinary act of censorship by force. If the writers who have complained were confident and comfortable in their art, why are they so upset by one prize amongst many? Are they affronted? Insulted? Or do they fear the Staunch Prize as the first sign of a turning tide? If the latter, then aren’t they being just a little bit paranoid?
The important point to remember is that the Staunch Prize is not trying to exclude or outlaw what we might call conventional crime fiction. It is simply an attempt to identify and promote another way of doing things. As Piers Blofeld, one of the prize’s judges puts it: ‘it is about encouraging alternatives’.
Surely that can only be a positive contribution to diversity, variety, creativity and intelligent debate. Instead the prize has simply flushed out some well-paid bullies who really should know how to behave better.