The opinion, The Shadow of Violence, by Jane Casey appears in the winter 2019 edition of The Author. Ms Casey is the author of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels. Her most recent novel is Let the Dead Speak.
Ms Casey takes exception to the Staunch Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, screenwriter and author of educational material on violence. The prize is awarded to books that do not feature violence against women. Ms Lawless says the purpose of the award is to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women, and make sense for exciting alternatives.
Ms Casey says, “Our genre may frequently feature murderous rage, but crime writers are renowned as a calm, close-knit and pleasant literary collective. It takes a lot to get us agitated; we generally work through our darker feelings in our books. Yet nothing has stirred us up more than the Staunch Prize. The reaction of many crime writers has ranged from scepticism to hurt to actual outrage. Crime writers are defensive. Crime is a genre that struggles for critical respect, despite brilliant and inventive writing and enormous popularity with readers. The Staunch Prize feels like a response to the bad old days when crime was thought of as low-grade and vulgar entertainment, designed to titillate and thrill, devoid of any merit.
“At a recent literary festival ion London, I suggested that it is the duty of writers who write contemporary crime novels to reflect society as it is at that moment. We live in a state of perpetual change; what appals one generation barely ruffles the feathers of the next. Universal crimes – the ones that echo through the generations – are crimes against people. These stories are as old as time; not telling then does not make them go away. Telling stories about these crimes to a new audience has an important function: this is part of the world and it must be understood like any other threat to our safety and well being.
“The Staunch Prize website asserts that through their work, crime writers are perpetuating rape myths.” (The rape myth, based on academic research, is that jurors are reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men of rape because such men do not fit the idea of rapists that jurors have internalised from stories and popular culture.) She continues, “But contemporary crime writers, I would argue, no longer perpetuate the myth that only ‘stranger rape’ is ‘real rape’. We do the opposite.
“With the rise of the domestic noir genre of psychological thriller, crime-writing has moved inside the home to focus on exactly those behaviours that the Staunch Prize suggests it obscures. Gaslighting, emotional abuse, coercive control, domestic violence, rape: all of these are real crimes that affect women (and often men) behind closed doors. Exploring them in fiction is a way of placing them in context for victims and those of us in society who have never had to endure similar experiences – even, eventually jurors.
“A 2013 study by psychologists at York University in Toronto found that reading two genres in particular was a significant predictor of greater ‘interpersonal sensitivity’ – romance and suspense/thrillers. Reading crime makes us more empathetic rather than blunting our sensibilities. A 2010 Harris poll found that crime and thrillers were the most popular novels for both men and women, with 57% off female readers enjoying them (compared to 39% of male readers).”
As a footnote: Dorothy, a junior doctor, in my novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, is raped by her supervisor, a senior consultant. She goes public, winning public support, forcing the resignation of the consultant, who flees the country, and a financial settlement.