Debut women’s fiction prize welcomes men

From top row: Jane Urquhart, Karen Mcbride, Meghan Bell, Natasha Trethewey. Anne Giardini, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Jael Richardson, Susan Swan. Janice Zawerbny, Jodi Picoult, Alice Munro, Chelene Knight. Katherena Vermette, Dionne Brand, Marie-Claire Blais, Louise Erdich. (Image: The Globe and Mail)

This year marks the debut of a new literary award for women: the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a prize named in honour of the author of several memorable novels, including The Stone Diaries, which was short-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, and, in 1995, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

When Shields died in 2008, at 68, she was a beloved figure in the Canadian literary scene, and remains so to this day. In my mind, she is one of a quintet of Canadian women writers — including Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Smart, and Marie-Claire Blais — who left a mark on my imagination during formative years as both a writer and woman.

The Prize, founded by Canadian author Susan Swan and Harper Collins editor Janice Zawerbny, is supported by heavyweights like Atwood herself, and is the first English- language literary award to “celebrate excellence in fiction by women writers in the United States and Canada.”

Funded by Melinda Gates, the winner will be awarded $150,000, and the four runners-up receive $12,500 each. The ex-wife of Microsoft co-founder and billionaire, Bill Gates, explains:

“Throughout history, women have been writing profound, groundbreaking books. Yet, women authors earn less, are reviewed less often in major literary publications, and are routinely overlooked for awards. Ours will be a more equal society — and a more interesting one — when we expand the types of stories we deem to be worthy of recognition. The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction is an exciting step toward a future where books by women get the attention and prestige that they deserve.”

Some might argue that sex-specific awards are passé, as women writers enjoy more success in publishing than ever before. But as Swan points out, books written by women continue to be less likely to be reviewed or to win the most prominent book awards. If true, it seems important to specifically highlight female writers, yet this prize, despite its claims, doesn’t necessarily do that. The website for the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction specifies:

“Works written by women or non-binary authors are eligible for submission. The Prize welcomes and encourages submissions by transgender woman authors. The Prize recognizes trans women as women without qualification.”

The initial invitation to women quickly fades behind the queue of ubiquitous “non-binaries,” but moreover, the Prize wishes us to be clear on one fact: “trans women are women.” This is a phrase that rings in the ear of every active feminist who has publicized her intent to gather in a public venue — a library, say — in order to discuss issues that are unique to women. And, like all areas where this mantra is chanted (or hollered through a megaphone), “without qualification” makes clear that debate is not an option.

The only demographic overlooked in the Prize’s call for submissions seems to be “trans men.” That is, biological women who, by “identifying” as men, have forfeited their right to compete for the Prize — one downside to no longer calling yourself a lesbian, although perhaps a little tweaking toward “non-binary” might succeed in getting a foot in the door, no matter the style of shoe.

This view of “women’s” literary prizes begs several questions — inquiries I feel ridiculous making, but such are our crazy times. Most obvious: why is a “woman’s prize” giving gender-based illusions precedence over the sex-based reality of women? Are the powers that be in CanLit — so many of them women themselves (indeed, women significantly outnumber men in the Canadian publishing industry) — on board with the erasure of their own sex? Do they truly believe men and women can alter their sex? Do they feel silly (I would really like to know) adding she/her to their emails and Twitter bios when it’s entirely obvious that they are women? Are they (particularly those who are mothers) welcoming of terms like “chest-feeding?” Do they approve of being referred to as merely a classification of “people who have the capacity for pregnancy?” Do they see that in accepting the term “cis” they also accept “trans women” as the only “women without qualification”?

Perhaps there are women in publishing who felt suitably horrified seeing the death threats aimed at author J.K. Rowling when she objected to women being referred to as “people who menstruate,” though none seem to have voiced a public objection. Considering the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie, and the threats Rowling received not just for defending women’s sex-based rights and realities, but also in response to tweeting, “Feeling very sick right now. Let [Rushdie] be ok,” one would think this would be the time to step forward.

If not now, when?

Surely female writers know that a man who “identifies” as a woman cannot write about the female experience with the accuracy and nuance of a woman herself. Or, as singer Macy Gray recently put it in an interview with Piers Morgan: “Being a little girl is a whole epic book, you know? And you can’t have that just because you want to be a woman.”

You only have to be a woman (and have been a girl) to know that Gray is right. The Twitter-bashing that forced her into a half-retraction of what she knows to be true was shameful and humiliating. I thought a clear, authentic “voice” was something the literary world took pains to pursue, not something it wished to strike out of existence. But it seems politicized narratives have taken precedence, and the “voice” CanLit is celebrating says that men can be women.

Why did the founders of the Prize not simply fund a grant for trans authors, or be clear that anyone at all can enter, since that is actually what the submission guidelines specify? One reason might be that a prize designated for women attracts significant funding, making its “inclusivity” all the more a betrayal.

If “cultural appropriation” is such a concern for CanLit, why have they so readily accepted appropriation of an entire sex?

I know that many in the publishing industry really do care about books, authors, and writing. It’s not only a business to them, just as it isn’t for the writer. Under the best conditions, intense bonds form over the work, respect is exchanged, common goals acknowledged, and writer and editor share a necessary understanding that leads to preserving the integrity of the written word — its meaning, its precision, its dignity.

What concerns me about the embrace of “gender identity” trends in the literary community is that this integrity is compromised when the word “woman” is stripped of all meaning.

We are at the point where a central concern for women — that we have been diminished into a set of de-sexed body parts and sub-classifications — is the last thing any writer could broach — even in fiction — and expect to be published. And who, aside from the writer herself, will feel this loss most keenly? The reader — the lover of literature who is rendered invisible, like the authors whose books fail to make it past CanLit’s gatekeepers (or worse, were never written at all).

All writers are readers, and I’m no exception. I think of myself years ago, as I first encountered the work of Atwood, Smart, Munro, Shields, Blais. My recollection of English and creative writing classes is that there was a lot of talk about achieving a “universal” voice,  the underlying suggestion being that writing from a women’s point of view — about women’s concerns — fell short of that. These writers showed me that, whether the story was about marriage, old age, lesbianism, the politics of women’s relationships, sexual passion, motherhood, or girlhood, it was enough to tell it (if you told it well) through a woman’s eyes, and that uniquely female experience could be universally enjoyed by readers. They also showed me that, yes, being a woman is a whole epic book — all its own.

Brenda Brooks’ novel Gotta Find Me An Angel was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Her 2019 book, HONEY, was shortlisted for the U.K. Staunch Book Prize, an award for thrillers “where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, or murdered.”

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