Books

New Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will award $150K to a woman or non-binary writer

To be launched in 2022, the prize will be open to writers in Canada and the U.S.
Carol Shields is pictured above on Oct. 26, 2002 at a ceremony in Victoria, B.C. where she was presented with the Companion of the Order of Canada. (Richard Lam/Canadian Press)

A new annual literary prize, named in honour of the late writing legend Carol Shields, will be launched in 2022 — awarding $150,000 to a single work of fiction by a woman or non-binary writer.

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 first three years of the prize will be funded by an anonymous corporate donor.

"$150,000 is a nice round figure," said one of the prize founders, Canadian novelist Susan Swan, in an interview with CBC Books.

"I've always thought the prize money had to be a lot of money because it's not just a national prize. This is a statement of our belief that the excellence of women's writing deserves to be paid well."

This is a statement of our belief that the excellence of women's writing deserves to be paid well.- Susan Swan

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 for 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.

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

When drilling down further to look at how women of colour and non-binary writers have fared on the world's biggest literary prizes, the numbers shrink even further. Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize in 2019, co-winning it with Margaret Atwood. Toni Morrison remains the only woman of colour to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The organizers of the Carol Shields Prize are in discussions with groups like the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), held annually in Brampton, Ont., on a collaboration.

Established in 2014, FOLD has become a cornerstone event on the Canadian literary scene. Festival director and author Jael Richardson said its exciting to part of this prize and shared how the prize can ensure inclusivity.

"In the actual structure and creation of every aspect of the prize, I'd really like to see [non-binary voices and writers of colour] thoughtfully included in the conversation. And not just included in the conversation, but really listened to," said Richardson.

"I think they have made efforts, but sometimes when you've made initial efforts, you feel like you've done it. You've included this person or these two people. It's really about saying, 'how can we do more?' For me, for the prize to be really thoughtfully successful it would have to more and more ask itself, 'how can we include writers of colour? How can we include non-binary and trans folks in the conversation?'"

Swan said that the selection of the jurors is one way they will be mindful of diversity. 

"We will try to make sure there is a solid diverse group of women serving as jurors and build a database to that effect," said Swan.

"We will try to follow Roxane Gay's suggestion to me in an email a few years back that we look beyond race and ethnicity as a marker of diversity and include queer women, working class women, women with disabilities and transgender 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 5 books. The four finalists will receive $12,500.

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

B.C. poet Chelene Knight was consulted by the Carol Shields Prize organizers on what an effective mentorship would look like.

"Mentorship can take so many forms," said Knight in an interview with CBC Books.

"You have to be able to sit down with this person, understand what their idea of the industry looks like now and figure out what they need. A new writer today might just need a second pair of eyes, but another writer might need uplifting and guidance and someone to tell them that they are a writer. I think the organizing team is doing a really great job to make sure that this mentorship component is as flexible and as malleable as it needs to be."

Swan said between now and 2022, the prize will be fundraising to cover administrative costs, find their jury panel and make their inaugural longlist.

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

Her books include the novels The Stone Diarieswinner of the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 1992 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993, Larry's Party, and Unless. She died in 2003.

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