About eight years ago, the Canadian novelist Susan Swan looked into the research about how female writers compared with male ones when it came to literary prizes and coverage. She was shocked by what she found.
“I thought it was going to be a happy progress report,” she said in an interview. “Instead it was a bad news day.”
Books written by women were less likely to be reviewed or win the most prominent book awards, Swan said. Some of those numbers have shifted in recent years. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a group that tracks the gender imbalance in major publications, reported gains for female writers at several of them in 2018, and writers such as Bernardine Evaristo, Margaret Atwood, Susan Choi and Sarah M. Broom took home several of the highest-profile book awards last year, The News York Times reported.
But Swan teamed up with a friend who works in book publishing, Janice Zawerbny, in an effort to continue to level the playing field. The result is a new annual prize, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, which starting in 2022 will award $150,000 for a work of fiction published in the previous year by a woman.
It is a sum that 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). The Nobel Prize for Literature is one exception, with laureates receiving nearly $1 million.
“We wanted to go big on it so that people paid attention,” Swan said. In addition to the $150,000 grand prize, four finalists will each receive $12,500.
Award winners often see their book sales increase, which Swan said is part of the goal of their prize. “I think it’s going to make a big difference to the lives of women writers, because it will boost their incomes and their profile,” she said.
Books published in English in the United States and Canada will be eligible, including those translated from Spanish or French. Writers must be citizens and current residents, for at least five years, of the United States or Canada. The winner and finalists will be selected by a judging panel that will include one writer each from the United States, Canada and another country.
Carol Shields was a prolific, genre-spanning author who wrote more than 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Stone Diaries.’ She died in 2003 from complications from breast cancer. Zawerbny and Swan named the prize after her because of her dual Canadian and United States citizenship and the way her work centered domestic life, something Swan said has often been wrongly dismissed as lightweight or unimportant by male critics.
The prize has been funded for the first three years by an anonymous corporate donor. Swan and Zawerbny have started a foundation that will operate the prize and raise additional money to cover administrative costs. They have already enlisted prominent novelists as honorary patrons, including Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley and Alice Munro.
Mentorship is also a key part of the prize. The winner will be asked to select another writer to mentor and work with on writing fellowships. “It’s still your job as a younger writer to figure out what you’re trying to say to the world,” Swan said, but a more experienced one can, “by taking you seriously, just affirm that what you’re working on matters.”
*Concepción de León is the staff writer in The New York Times covering literary news and culture for the Books Desk. She launched El Espace for the Styles section, a weekly column in which she writes about news and culture for a Latinx audience.