As It Happens

Why a new $150K literary prize is just for women and non-binary writers

From the Booker to the Nobel to the Pulitzer to the Giller, there's no shortage of literary prizes in the world. There is, however, a notable shortage of women winning those prizes. Susan Swan wants to change that. 

The late Carol Shields would have been 'thrilled to her toes' to have her name on the prize, says author

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction is named after The Stone Diaries author, and is the first award for women and non-binary authors in North America. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)


From the Booker to the Nobel to the Pulitzer to the Giller, there's no shortage of literary prizes in the world. There is, however, a notable shortage of women winning those prizes. 

Susan Swan wants to change that. 

The Canadian author has teamed up with HarperCollins editor Janice Zawerbny to create the first prize solely awarded to women and non-binary people.

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will award $150,000 to a Canadian or U.S. author, making it one of the richest literary prizes in the world. The first prize will be awarded in 2022.

Shields, an American-Canadian author, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Governor General's Award for her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries. She died in 2003.

Here is part of Swan's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What's so special about this award?

Well it's a very unique award. In that it is, you know, an award that is offered both in Canada and the U.S. to women, to women writers, for a piece of fiction, short story or a novel. 

And most of the major Western countries do have a prize for women's fiction. France has [the] Prix Femina. The U.K. has the Women's Prize for Fiction. And Australia has the Stella Prize. 

But we haven't had a big prize in this continent for women authors. But we do now.

Shields, left, is escorted by B.C. Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo, after being presented with the Companion of the Order of Canada Award. (Richard Lam/The Canadian Press)

What difference do you think it'll make? 

I think it'll make a big difference. For one thing, it will boost the sales of the books of the women who are nominated or win. That's been proven in the U.K. over and over. 

And then it will be in public record forever that these women won those prizes and it will go a long way to making sure that women's fiction is, you know, recognized.

Because, for instance, I think an author like Carol Shields, who often wrote about domestic settings and relationships, there would be a tendency, traditionally, to dismiss a woman writer who dealt with those themes as lightweight.

And then maybe finally lastly I think … many women, we were sort of brought up to think that it's the men who write serious books and women do something else. And it's a good, you know, kind of wake-up call to address that attitude.

This is going to be more than any other literary prize that we have here. So why so much money?

I thought we needed to go big because, first of all, it's not a national prize. It involves two countries. So that's a lot of writers.

And then secondly, really, if it was a more modest amount, there'd be a tendency for people to think it was a niche prize, "Oh that's just the woman's prize," and not pay much attention to it. But this way, you can't ignore us.

I understand you've had some pushback from male authors who said things like, "Where do you draw the line?" Can you tell us about some of that response.

Initially, the prize was called the Rosalind Prize, after the Shakespearean character, and when we ... [had] some discussion of that on Facebook originally, some male authors complained that ... what were we on Earth are we doing? Now we'd have to have prizes for every ethnicity.

 And I pointed out that actually women represented every ethnicity. And so that was pretty funny.

But when we changed the name to the Carol Shields Prize, we didn't really get any pushback because she's such a beloved figure.

But on the issue of ethnicity  ... women are still trying to get into the inner circle and to break through some serious barriers. But a lot of criticism of the publishing world, that it's still an old guard world, whether it's men or women, it's very white and very established. So how do you break that down? 

I think the place where we're focusing most on diversity is in the selection of the jurors.

I've had some advice from [author] Roxane Gay in the States and she said to widen … your definition of diversity to include transgender, to include people with disabilities, to include working class, as well as as race and ethnicity. 

And we will work hard to build up a database of jurors that reflect all those aspects of human life. 

Canadian author Susan Swan says she decided the prize should be $150,000 so that people would take notice and not brush it off as niche award. (Mark Reynes Roberts)

I would imagine there's a fair bit of suspicion that, yes, this is just going to be a different kind of establishment and will not include First Nations, Indigenous people and other ... people trying to break in and trying to be part of that establishment.

We're working with Indigenous writers and women of colour writers and they've been involved in the prize. Jael Richardson is involved, Chelene Knight, who ran Room magazine in Vancouver, Katherena Vermette.

So I think it's just a matter of continuing to follow up on that and pay attention. 

We have no intention of just repeating what's been done before.

In the world of men.

That's right.

I see this really as, you know, morphing into a big publishing network of women in the business who help other women. 

We have mentoring programs where the writer who wins will pick an emerging writer, for instance at Banff Centre, and they will spend two weeks at Banff Centre and do a workshop together and a public event. 

And then we have some ongoing discussions about providing awards to women who are writers and single mothers, and women who are writers and refugees.

Choosing Carol Shields as the figurehead for this award, a ... fabulous writer who met a lot of sexism trying to get her work published. What do you think she would say about the establishment of the Carol Shields Prize? 

I think she would be amazed.

As her daughter said this morning to someone, she thinks her mother would also be abashed. Like, a little bit shy about it. 

There's a very interesting story about her once when we were at a party together in Toronto. A male writer, her vintage, came over and started to talk nonstop about himself. And Carol looked at me, looked at the male writer, and said, "I don't have to put up with that."

So she walked off.

So another part of her, I think, would be thrilled to her toes about it.

Written by Sarah Jackson and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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