Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

From top row: Jane Urquhart, Karen Mcbride, Meghan Bell, Natasha Trethewey. Anne Giardini, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood. Jael Richardson, Susan Swan. Janice Zawerbny, Jodi Picoult, Alice Munro, Chelene Knight. Katherena Vermette, Dionne Brand, Marie-Claire Blais, Louise Erdich.Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Carol Shields earned Hanover College’s top writing prize when she graduated from the Indiana school in 1957. She did not, however, receive it. The committee gave the prize to the second-place student instead. Because he was a he. He would need to make a living, the thinking went, and the prize would help.

Shields may not have taken home that particular trophy, but nevertheless she persisted, writing her way to literary legend status with novels that included the multi prize-winning The Stone Diaries. Now her name will become even more deeply etched in literary history.

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, to be officially launched later this month, will award $150,000 to a Canadian or U.S. female author, and $12,500 to each of the shortlisted authors. It is one of the richest literary prizes, period.

The prize, open to non-binary writers, will also include books in translation from French in Canada and from Spanish in the United States. Further, it has a mentorship component, proposed residencies and other awards.

“My hope is that the prize will boost the profile and incomes of a large number of women writers, that it will function as a permanent historical record of brilliant work by women fiction authors,” says Canadian author Susan Swan, who co-founded the prize with Janice Zawerbny.

Zawerbny, senior editor at HarperCollins Canada, and Swan, Jack McClelland Chair at Massey College at the University of Toronto, have recruited a list of prominent writers, editors and philanthropists, including Canadian writers Alice Munro, Dionne Brand, Jane Urquhart and Charlotte Gray; Iris Tupholme, senior vice president and executive publisher of HarperCollins Canada; former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and bestselling U.S. novelists Jane Smiley, Francine Prose and Erica Jong.

Margaret Atwood has also been very active in the project, donating startup funds and helping to enlist other high-profile supporters, such as American bestselling author Jodi Picoult. “After I recovered from the fact that Margaret Atwood knew I walked this earth,” says Picoult, she and Atwood talked about how Picoult could pitch in. “You’ve been very vocal about gender discrimination in publishing,” Picoult recalls Atwood telling her at an event, after “making a beeline” for her.

The statistics the organization presents in its promotional package speak for themselves: As of 2017-18, only one-third of Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction winners had been women, and 11 per cent of Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour winners. Female writers earn 55 per cent of the income their male counterparts earn. On average, books by women make up less than one-third of work reviewed in mainstream and literary publications.

Since 1901, a grand total of 15 women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now, the good news. A literary prize has huge potential: Sales of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues jumped 479 per cent after she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the organizers say. And sales of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad increased by 2,250 per cent after winning the United Kingdom’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

“I see this prize primarily as having an economic function for women writers,” Zawerbny says.

When Atwood told Picoult about the idea for the prize, the American immediately agreed to help. One of her main duties: talking it up in the U.S.

“It’s getting people to understand that there are reasons that we need a literary prize that is dedicated to women at this point in publishing and … that ultimately it’s going to benefit not just women, but really all readers,” Picoult says. “Because we know categorically that books that win awards are more widely read and we also know that while women seem to read all genders of writers, men tend to only read other men.”

The lightbulb came on during a dark rainy night in Vancouver, more than seven years ago.

In 2012, Swan, who is also former chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, spoke at a panel titled Women and Literature at the Vancouver Writers Fest. She had been doing research about inequity in publishing and, at the event, she presented her findings to the audience, which included Zawerbny.

After the panel, “Janice announced to me that she wanted to start a prize and I said, if you do, I’ll help you,” Swan says. What began as a casual musing turned into a full-on years’ long effort.

An article about their idea published in The Globe and Mail in November, 2012, made its way to literary circles in the U.S. – which, it turns out, were trying to do the same thing south of the border. They decided to join forces.

Swan, they recall, came up with the idea for the prize’s namesake. Shields was a dual citizen: Born in Chicago, she lived most of her adult life in Canada. The Stone Diaries had won both the Pulitzer in the U.S. and the Governor General’s Award in Canada. She had co-edited anthologies that revealed quiet truths about being a writer who is a woman.

“As soon as we got Carol’s name, it felt like we began to gain some momentum,” Swan says. “She’s beloved, so it became less about a complaint prize, basically, and starting to be more about celebrating the brilliance of women’s fiction.”

Attracting support was not a problem; the response has been “universally great,” Zawerbny says. Raising money is another story. As Zawerbny points out, most prizes are started by someone who already has money and wants to bestow it for a particular prize.

“We didn’t have that. We had to start from scratch with nothing,” she says.

The group secured charitable status in Canada; in the U.S. they have a charitable partnership, which allows for U.S. tax receipts to be issued and the money is forwarded to the Canadian organization.

Negotiations have been continuing about sponsorships; announcements are pending.

On Feb. 20, board member Julie Jacobson, former bookseller, self-proclaimed lifetime literature fanatic – and Canlit enthusiast – will host an invitation-only cocktail party in her lakeside Chicago apartment to launch the prize.

Jacobson – who lived in Ottawa when her husband was U.S. ambassador to Canada – will host superstars such as Smiley, Trethewey, Urquhart and Knopf Canada Publisher Anne Collins (who was Shields’s editor), and emerging writers such as Karen McBride. McBride, an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation, published her debut novel Crow Winter last year. Swan mentored her at U of T and invited her to the prize launch.

“It gives a sense of hope, I think, for new writers, new women writers, to know that there’s [a prize] out there, specifically for them,” says McBride, 29. “To know that this exists and that there’s a mentorship involved, that someone will be there to help craft your work, it’s priceless.”

What would Shields think of this, I ask Anne Giardini, Shields’ daughter, who has also been an active participant. “Oh, I don’t know. … She would probably be, as most of us would be, both honoured and abashed. Women tend to be that mix of sentiment, don’t you think, when we’re put forward?”

Carol Ann Warner was born in Oak Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, in 1935. In 1957, after graduation, she married Don Shields. She was 22 when she moved to Canada, and became a Canadian citizen in 1971. The family moved around a fair bit, but settled in Winnipeg before finally moving to Victoria. She started publishing poetry in her 30s and was in her early 40s when she published her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976. She won many prizes, received a long list of honorary doctorates, and was named to the Order of Canada. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages.

She knew that writing by and about women was much more important than the attention and recognition it earned.

“I am interested in writing away the invisibility of women’s lives, looking at writing as an act of redemption,” Shields wrote in an essay that appears in Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, edited by Giardini and her son Nicholas Giardini. “In order to do this, I need the companionship, the example, of other women who are writing.”

In 2001, Shields co-edited with Marjorie Anderson Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told, an anthology of essays by women about personal experiences.

“Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields told The Globe in 2001.

A second volume was published in 2003. Shields did not live to see that. She died in 2002 from complications of breast cancer. She was 68.

“In Ms. Shields’s hands, the commonplace became extraordinary,” read the New York Times obituary.

Her work lives on – remarkable, beloved and memorable.

Giardini met Barack and Michelle Obama recently and when speaking with the former U.S. president mentioned that her mother was also from Chicago and that she had won a Pulitzer. He did a sort of double-take and asked what she wrote. When Giardini said The Stone Diaries, Barack Obama didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh that’s about a woman who didn’t get to live her own life,” Obama said.

He had read it, Giardini says. “And remembered it.”

The people involved in this prize comprise not just a list of usual Canlit suspects. The older, whiter writing establishment is joined in this effort by younger and diverse writers. They include Jael Richardson, artistic director of FOLD, the Festival of Literary Diversity; Métis writer Katherena Vermette; Meghan Bell, who co-founded the feminist literary festival Growing Room, and former Room magazine managing editor Chelene Knight.

“My main involvement was just that conversation around the value of uplifting women writers and also looking at how mentorship can kind of almost outlast the monetary prize itself,” says Knight, author of Braided Skin and Dear Current Occupant.

The goal is to create a publishing network where women empower other women – in particular older women helping younger writers. “People are going to be able to plug into that network and get a leg up,” Swan says. “It’s not just a prize; it’s becoming something else.”

The group plans to have the winner choose, with the help of a nominating committee, an emerging writer whom the winner will mentor for a year. There are plans for additional charitable activities, including grants to emerging student writers and a female writer who is a refugee or recent immigrant.

There will be a writing residency at the Banff Centre and writer-in-residence at Fogo Island in Newfoundland. There will be an annual public online vote for a favourite book or short story about love, with a prize named for one of Shields’s novels: The Republic of Love People’s Choice Award. They plan to award the first Carol Shields Prize for Fiction in 2022. The organizers feel confident about getting the financial support they need.

“I believe in the idea that nations should play to their strength and I think Canada has a huge strength in women writers,” Giardini says. Giardini says to have this prize named for Shields is joyous and exciting. “Every time I think, how does my mother fit into this project, I only have to break open one of her books and read one page, and then I go ah, yes, this is a remarkable voice and an example of what the best writing can be, and the best reading can be.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe