Melinda Gates Is Donating $250,000 to Fund a Literary Award Just for Women

Leigh Haber
·4 min read
Photo credit: Temi Oyelola
Photo credit: Temi Oyelola

From Oprah Magazine

  • The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will award $150,000 to an emerging woman writer.

  • It is the second largest literary award in the world, after the Nobel Prize.

  • The first winner of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will be announced in 2023.

Today, Melinda Gates announced she is donating $250,000 to help underwrite the recently established Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, the first English language literary award to celebrate excellence in fiction by women writers in the United States and Canada, through her investment and incubation company, Pivotal Ventures.

The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction will award its winner the largest purse of any literary award in the world—$150,000—with the exception of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Its first winner and four nominees will be announced in 2023.

Pivotal Ventures’ stated mission is to jumpstart “social progress where it is stalled.” In an exclusive interview with OprahMag.com, Gates says women have fewer advantages than their male counterparts, which is why she is supporting the Carol Shields Prize in particular.

“Throughout history,” Gates says, “women have been writing profound groundbreaking books. Yet often they earn less, are reviewed less frequently, and are overlooked for awards. The Carol Shields Prize is an exciting step toward a future where books by women get the attention and prestige they deserve.”

The co-founders of the prize are the writer Susan Swan and the Canadian publisher Janice Zawerbny, who, in 2012, attended a book festival panel at which they learned that books by women receive only one-third of the review coverage accorded books by men. The data was similarly bleak when it came to who receives the lion’s share of literary prizes such as the Booker, the Nobel, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award. The two decided they wanted to do something about it, so they began organizing, arm-twisting, and fundraising to establish an award that would specifically honor women.

They named the prize after the Pulitzer Prize-winning late writer Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries and many other important works in which women’s lives were the focus. Before she died of complications from breast cancer in 1998, Shields often wrote and spoke about the plight of the woman writer—and how to her, writing was “an act of redemption." In being a novelist, she was “writing away the invisibility of women’s lives.”

While Melinda Gates is primarily known in philanthropy, science, and technology, she says she is passionate about fiction, and that it was in part reading science fiction, beginning with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, that led to her interest in computer science.

Soon after she married Microsoft founder Bill Gates and before she ever traveled to Africa with the Gates Foundation, she read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which, she says, “opened my eyes to seeing a different part of the world and how you might approach some of the questions in those regions.”

On the board or otherwise supporting The Carol Shields Prize are such prominent writers as Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett, and Natasha Trethewey, who are all also known for mentoring younger, less established writers.

In fact, mentorship will be an essential piece of the Carol Shields Prize organization, founder Susan Swan says. “We are creating an activist foundation where women writers empower other women writers. Our mentorship programs for emerging women writers from all backgrounds and gender identities are critical to shifting cultural attitudes. Emerging women writers are the young trees in the forest and older writers like myself are here in part to help them grow."

Enabling women to tell their stories is a way of empowering them, Gates adds. “Through all my travels around the world, whether in a Northern Indian village or a remote part of Tanzania, women tell me, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me my story before, they’ve never asked me about my life.’ By listening to their stories, and saying their names we were telling them: you’re lives are important. That’s why what the Carol Shields Prize will be doing is essential."

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