The most notable prizes in American literature are most often awarded to men.
In the last 20 years, six women have won the Nobel Prize in iiterature. Six won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The National Book Award for fiction comes closest to parity, with nine women winners in two decades.
But come 2022, there will be a literary award no North American man is eligible for: The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. And this one pays more than most of the other awards.
First reported by The New York Times, the award will honor the best in North American fiction among women and nonbinary authors. It was co-founded by award-winning authors and poets and supported by Margaret Atwood, Jodi Picoult and Jane Smiley, among other notable writers.
The only criteria: Literary excellence, written by a woman or nonbinary author.
Susan Swan, a Canadian novelist and co-founder of the prize, said the founding board noticed the discrepancy: Male authors have historically been awarded far more often for their work than women, even as the number of published works by men and women evens out. Nonbinary authors are recognized far less.
The UK has the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction. Australia has the Stella and in France there’s the La Prix Femina, but the US doesn’t have an equivalent on the same scale.
“The discrepancy is not about how many people read women’s books,” Swan told CNN. “It’s about whether women’s books are taken seriously.”
It’s named for an acclaimed female author
The founding board named the award for Carol Shields, an acclaimed author who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1995 for “The Stone Diaries,” which traces a woman’s life across one century.
“She wrote novels that traditional male critics would’ve considered ‘lightweight’ because they were set in the home and were about family relationships,” Swan told CNN.
Shields championed women in her field until her death in 2003 and believed that tales considered “ordinary” were no less remarkable when they were written by women.
“As a woman who has elected a writing life, I am interested in writing away the invisibility of women’s lives, looking at writing as an act of redemption,” Shields said in her 1997 seminar at Harvard University. “In order to do this I need the companionship, the example, of other women who are writing.”
The Pulitzer committee awarded Shields $3,000 (a bit over $5,000 today). The first winner of her namesake award will receive $150,000 in Canadian dollars, or around $113,000 in US dollars.
In comparison, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction receives $15,000 and the National Book Award $10,000. Nobel Prize laureates are paid around $1 million
It aims to address literary inequality
According to VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a nonprofit that tracks the breakdown of gender in literature, women and men pen and publish roughly the same amount of novels over a three-year period in Canada and the US.
But only 25% of books written by women were reviewed by men between 2017 and 2018, even though 80% of women read fiction compared to 45% of men.
“Women can read novels or fiction by men, about men and cross-gender without blinking an eye,” she said. “But men are less inclined to read fiction by women.”
Why? Swan hazards a guess: “Men aren’t as ambidextrous as women when it comes to reading” fiction about women, she said.
It rewards more than the winner
The winner of the Carole Shields Prize will help choose an emerging writer who they’ll mentor for a year. The prize committee will also award a grant to a woman writer who’s a recent immigrant or refugee.
Runners-up, chosen from a shortlist of five, will receive a writer-in-residency at a Canadian or American university.
And that handsome cash prize was intentional, Swan said: Critics will have to take the prize seriously.
For one, it’s a North American prize, not just an American or Canadian one, she said. And if the prize money were smaller, as it is for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, critics might consider it “niche.”
“The large amount is a statement of belief in the brilliance of women’s writing,” she said.
Apart from the money, Swan said she hopes the awards function as a “permanent historical record” of the achievement of North American authors. Perhaps its stamp of approval could boost the sales of women’s novels and raise their profiles, she said.
“That’s one of our hopes … to provide a framework for women’s writing so that it is part of the world in a way that it didn’t exist before,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to ignore the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction.”