When men write about “ordinary people”, they are thought to be subtle and sensitive. When women do, their novels are classified as domestic.
– Carol Shields
Carol Shields was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author famed for her masterful command of producing fiction about the lives of everyday people. Her novels tended to focus on the quiet rhythms of life, but Shields’s gift for finding such sadness and beauty in the ordinary made her an extraordinary writer.
The youngest of three siblings, Carol Shields was born Carol Warner in 1935 and raised in the suburb of Oak Park in Illinois. In later life, Shields expressed regret that she never really knew her father, and didn’t think that she’d ever had a real conversation with him; this lack of communication in families would later become a major theme in her work. Shields went on to attend liberal arts college Hanover College, Indiana in 1953, and in 1955 she was awarded a United Nations Scholarship to study at Exeter University in the UK.
In 1956, Shields went on a break to Scotland and met her future husband Don. They were married at her parents’ home in Oak Park a year later. After their marriage, they set up home in Canada and went on to have five children. They were married for 46 years, up until her death.
During the early years of her marriage, Shields abandoned writing but was encouraged to pick up her pen by her husband after she gave birth to their second child. Despite having a young family, Shields attended a writing course at the University of Toronto and began writing short stories and poems. She experienced her first success around this time as two of her short stories were sold and she published two poetry collections.
In 1969, Shields enrolled at the University of Ottawa for an MA in Canadian Literature. She graduated in 1975 after completing a thesis on Susanna Moodie. This thesis would be the skeleton for her first novel Small Ceremonies, which was published a year later, the same year that Shields celebrated her 40th birthday. Small Ceremonies is set over the course of one year and focuses on biographer Judith Gill, who has a desire to write fiction. The novel demonstrates what Shields would become acclaimed for: making the ordinary utterly compelling.
Her second novel The Box Garden, a companion piece to Small Ceremonies, was published in 1977 and her third novel, Happenstance, followed in 1980. Around this time, Shields began teaching creative writing at universities and colleges.
Although Shields had received acclaim from fellow writers such as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, it wasn’t until her fourth novel Swann was published in 1987 that Shields began to receive international attention. Christopher Potter, an editor at Fourth Estate, happened upon her work while looking for new writers from North America and bought her backlist for UK publication. Shields’s fifth novel, The Republic of Love, fared similarly well and with these two novels her international reputation began to flourish.
In 1995, Shields published The Stone Diaries. The book is epic in scale, spanning from the protagonist Daisy Goodwill Flett’s birth in 1905 to her death at the beginning of the 1990s. Through the personal lens of one person, narrated with humour and pathos, The Stone Diaries subtly tracks feminism throughout the century, and through the life of one woman. The Stone Diaries was hugely successful. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the US National Book Critics Award and since its publication more than 15 million copies have been sold.
Following the huge success of The Stone Diaries, Shields went on to write Larry’s Party. Similar in tone and scope to The Stone Diaries, the novel recounts the life of Larry through the metaphor of his obsession with mazes. The novel went on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1998. In addition to her literary awards and acclaim, Shields was also appointed as Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg in 1996 and was made Companion of the Order of Canada – the country’s highest honour – in 2002. As well as her ten novels, Shields also produced three poetry collections, a play, a biography of Jane Austen and three short story collections.
Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Upon her diagnosis Shields wrote her final novel, Unless. The novel contained overtly darker tones than her previous work, and Shields’s protagonist gives a passionate defense of female writers to focus on ‘domestic’ subjects, something which Shields was criticised for throughout her career. Shields continued to give high profile interviews to The New York Times and The Observer upon the publication of Unless, despite being in the final stages of breast cancer. Carol Shields died in July 2003 at the age of 68.