Melinda Gates donates $318K to new North American literary award, Carol Shields Prize for Fiction

The literary prize, named in honour of the late writing legend Carol Shields, will be launched in 2022 — awarding $150,000 Cad to a single work of fiction by a woman or non-binary writer.
In this Feb. 1, 2018 file photo, Melinda Gates poses for a photo before an interview in Kirkland, Wash. (The Associated Press)

Melinda Gates, the billionaire philanthropist and businessperson, has donated $250,000 U.S. ($318,130 Cad) to the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction.

Named in honour of the late writing legend Carol Shields, the prize will be launched in 2023 — awarding $150,000 Cad to a single work of fiction by a woman or non-binary writer.

Gates' donation was made through her investment and incubation company Pivotal Ventures. She is also the co-chair of the namesake charitable organization she runs with her husband, Bill Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Throughout history, women have been writing profound, groundbreaking books. Yet, women authors earn less, are reviewed less often in major literary publications and are routinely overlooked for awards. Ours will be a more equal society — and a more interesting one — when we expand the types of stories we deem to be worthy of recognition. The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction is an exciting step toward a future where books by women get the attention and prestige that they deserve," Gates said in a press statement.

Gates has supported several initiatives around the world aimed at empowering girls and women, such as improving access to female contraceptives globally, maternal health and breast milk research, as well as climate change.

She even wrote a bestselling book about this work: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World was published in 2019.

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will be open to English-language books published in the U.S. or Canada, including translations from Spanish and French. Writers must be citizens and current residents, of at least five years, of Canada or the U.S.

The prize was founded by Canadian writer Susan Swan and Janice Zawerbny, an editor at HarperCollins Canada.

Susan Swan saw how literary prizes for women in other countries helped writers carve out a space for themselves in the male-dominated industry. In North America, no such prize existed. So the Canadian author decided to create the first, alongside HarperCollins editor Janice Zawerbny. 6:37

Planning for the prize began back in 2012 after Swan participated in a discussion of the status of women in writing on a panel that included Kate Mosse, who established the U.K. Women's Prize for Fiction and Australian writer Gail Jones. It was moderated by Shields's daughter Anne Giardini.

Looking at statistics generated by arts organizations like VIDA and CWILA, Swan found that women writers were being reviewed in publications far less than their male counterparts.

The historical numbers for major literary awards are particularly dismal — only 15 women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1910 and about a third of the winners of Canada's oldest literary prize, the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, have been women.

The prize will have three jurors: a Canadian, an American and a third international judge. It will be awarded annually in the spring, preceded by a longlist of 15 books and shortlist of five books. 

The four remaining finalists will each receive $12,500 U.S.

The winner of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will also be asked to select an emerging writer to mentor for a year.

Carol Shields, an emerging writer

39 years ago
Duration 5:14
A young Carol Shields tells the CBC why her fiction revolves around modern, ordinary women. 5:14

Shields, the prize's namesake, was one of Canada's best-known writers.

Her books include the novels The Stone Diaries, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 1992 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993, Larry's Party and UnlessShe died in 2003.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?