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THE SHIELDS PRIZE, AMAZINGLY
The life of unremitting glamour, last week, included going to Nashville to help out at this launch event, which took place wildly against the odds...
More on each book at: https://carolshieldsprizeforfiction.com/2023-shortlist
Whoever thought this would actually happen? Not me, during most of the eleven years it took the dedicated team to put this together. In celebration, I hauled my wrinkly self through various airports, sitting at the bar in one of them on an ordinary chair as they were out of bar stools, which put my chin on a level with the bar. Fun to feel 2 1/2 again.
But then, two days of unremitting glamour for the shortlisters (above) – all very different from one another, all very talented and charming, all with better outfits than mine – who read to us in Ann Patchett’s Nashville bookstore, Parnassus, on Day One, and underwent the screaming tension of waiting for the announcement winner on Day 2. (Footnote: wonderful to see generous Ann again!)
Here is the speech I made on Day 1:
THE SHIELDS PRIZE
I’m happy to be here, and to have witnessed these five very talented people in action. And I’m quite frankly amazed that there is a Here for me to be attending!
Who would have thought that the dedicated team assembled tonight would pull it off? Not me. Certainly at the beginning I played, at least in my own mind, the part of Doubting Thomasina. When Susan Swan first approached me for help, I thought, “Oh well, I might as well humor her. They’ll never overcome all the obstacles that wise old biddies such as me know too well they will face.”
For instance: the anticipated naysayings. Such as, dismissively: Oh, women! Why have a prize for them, the lightweights? Or, more highmindedly: Can’t we just have a prize for People? Or, more snarkily: Women shouldn’t be stuffed into some second-rate pink frilly box, as if they can’t compete with Men. Indeed, all these naysayings have appeared, but they don’t seem to have troubled anyone’s sleep unduly.
Then there was the amount of money. “Holy catfish, that is one huge chunk of change! Shouldn’t it be less?” I asked frugally.
“No,” said they, succinctly. “If it’s less, no one will pay attention to it, and it won’t sell books, and our aim – levelling the financial playing field a bit – will not be achieved.”
“Well, you won’t ever be able to raise that much in Canada,” I said, Canadianishly.
“We know that,” they replied tersely. “But in honour of Carol Shields, it will be duo-national.”
“I’m still not convinced. Prove me wrong,” I said, strategically. I knew they would rise to the challenge, since the urge to prove me wrong is universal. Get to work on proving The Handmaid’s Tale wrong, while you’re at it, I whispered to myself. But there are already people getting to work on that one, I observe.
Which is a good thing for the Carol Shields prize, because if The Handmaid’s Tale comes true, there won’t be any women writers. There won’t even be any women readers: denied the books of women writers because they’ve all been declared pornographic, at least in Florida, and forced to read nothing but Dick and Jane, or possibly just Dick, or forbidden to read anything at all, women readers will become discouraged, or possibly extinct.
Levity aside, this prize is a pretty spectacular accomplishment. Long, long ago, when many of you did not yet exist, The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize in England. For a woman then, and a lowly Canadian woman at that, to find herself in such company was very unusual. There was a lovely printed programme, with the author’s biographies; according to my own biography, I had never been born, because it was rude to tell a lady’s age. I was also the only one of these authors who had apparently never been educated: among the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, it must have been considered bad form to pronounce the dreaded name of … Harvard.
Needless to say, my book did not win. But then, I didn’t expect it to. If you set a low bar, you enjoy yourself more, because you are never disappointed.
But here’s the magic: before being shortlisted, my book had sold very modestly, and had then ground to a halt. But after that evening it began selling again, and it has never stopped. The Orange Prize – now the Women’s Prize – works a similar enchantment. So does the Giller Prize. So does the Pulitzer, which Carol Shields herself won. It’s easy to find fault with prizes, but they do work, if by working we mean improving the job conditions, not only for their winners, but for those shortlisted. Such prizes can indeed change lives.
And so may it be with the Shields prize. I’m very pleased to see it defeating my negative expectations, and making it to the launch line, and now, at last, setting forth on its grand voyage. Bless this ship, I say, and her devoted and hardworking crew, and all who sail in her. Carol herself would have been highly delighted, and that’s saying a lot.
Once I get back from Stage Two of unremitting glamour, which involves being in Vancouver to raise $$$ for the Vancouver Writers’ Festival - it fell into a hole during Covid (fear not, we raised the $$$, the show will go on) – I shall read all of the books, each one of which sounds fascinating. (My excuse for not having read them before: I had bronchitis. Yes, I know, it’s feeble, and the dog ate my homework, but it’s all I got.)
Meanwhile you yourself have no such excuse, so should read all five of them immediately. The five jury members, who read 250 books — Two Hundred and Fifty! — are now all having hot baths, and well deserved they are, and no, I will not be on the jury next year because I’m too old and fragile, and anyway I have bronchitis. Or I did. But I would get it again if I had to read 250 books and make a long list and a short list and pick a winner. So much applause for the jury members! Well done!
Now, off to the L of U G: next stop, backstage at the Chan Centre, where there might be a cheese plate, I say hopefully (I go from cheese plate to cheese plate), and the dashing Ian Williams will interview me onstage. Many have quailed at the prospect, fearing I will cut them off at the knees, but he seems up for it.
Then up at 5 am tomorrow for more glamour. Maybe I will dye my hair pink. Jazz up my image. I’m considering it.