February 12, 2020
New Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will pay big for women and nonbinary authors
by Alyea Canada
Like many of us, Canadian novelist Susan Swan was disheartened to learn that female writers continue to lag behind male writers in terms of coverage and literary prizes. Despite modest advances in the 2018 VIDA Count, books written by women and nonbinary authors are still less likely to be covered compared to those by men. And although women took home the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in recent years, it is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the number of male winners. But Swan didn’t just feel bad about the numbers, she teamed up with an industry friend, Janice Zawerbny, and the two are launching the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction.
The prize, which starts in 2022 and is named after one of Canada’s best-known writers, will award an impressive 150,000 Canadian dollars (about $113,000) to a work of fiction published by a woman or nonbinary person published the previous year. To be eligible, authors must be a U.S. or Canadian citizen or current resident of at least five years and their book must be published in the United States or Canada in English, including translations from Spanish or French. Four finalists will each receive 12,500 Canadian dollars (about $9,400).
The judging panel will include one writer each from the U.S., Canada, and another country. Swan makes it clear that when it comes to the diversity of the prize’s jurors they intend to be thoughtful, telling Jane van Koeverden at CBC Books, “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.”
As Concepción de León points out in the New York Times, the prize is offering a lot of money and “dwarfs the prize money for literary awards such as the Booker Prize (50,000 pounds, roughly $65,000), the Pulitzer Prize for fiction ($15,000) and the National Book Award ($10,000).” This was intentional. de León goes on to quote Swan as saying they wanted an amount that people would pay attention to and that would “make a big difference to the lives of women writers, because it will boost their incomes and their profile.”
Swan also sees the hefty purse as an indication that women’s writing deserves to be paid well and should be taken as seriously as men’s. For the first three years the prize is funded by an anonymous corporation, and Swan and Zawerbny have started a foundation to run the prize and raise additional funding. There is already an impressive list of honorary patrons including Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro.
The prize is not just about awarding a potentially life-changing amount of money to the winner, there is also a mentorship component. The winner will be asked to choose a writer to mentor and help with writing fellowships. Hopefully this prize is a step in the right direction of closing the gap between cis men and everyone else and will encourage critics to approach work by women and nonbinary authors with the same weight and seriousness they do work by men.
The mentorship may be the most impactful part of the Carol Shields Prize because often it only takes one other person affirming their work to inspire someone to keep writing when the odds seem stacked against them.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.