Carol Shields Biography
Carol Shields comments:
Nationality: Canadian and American. Born: Carol Warner, Oak Park, Illinois, 1935. Education: Hanover College, Indiana, 1953-57, A.B.; University of Ottawa, 1969-75, M.A. Career: Editorial assistant, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 1972-74; faculty member, University of Ottawa, 1976-77, and University of British Columbia, 1978-79. Since 1980, faculty member, University of Manitoba; since 1996, chancellor, University of Winnipeg. Awards: Canada Council grant, 1972, 1974, 1976; Canadian Authors Association prize, 1976, for Small Ceremonies; Marion Engel award, Writers' Development Trust, 1990; Governor General's award for fiction, 1993; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994; Canadian Book Sellers' award, 1994; Manitoba Book of the Year award, 1994; Pulitzer prize for fiction, 1995; National Book Critics Circle award, 1995. Honorary doctorate: University of Ottawa, 1995; Hanover College, 1996; Queen's University, 1996; University of Winnipeg, 1996; University of British Columbia, 1996; University of Western Ontario, 1997; University of Toronto, 1998; Concordia University, 1998. Order of Canada, 1998. Agent: Bella Pomer, 22 Shallmar Blvd., Toronto, Ontario M5N 2Z8, Canada.
Small Ceremonies. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1976; London, Fourth Estate, 1995; New York, Penguin, 1996.
The Box Garden. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1977; London, Fourth Estate, 1995; New York, Penguin, 1996.
Happenstance. Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1980; with A Fairly Conventional Woman, London, Fourth Estate, 1993, New York, Viking, 1994.
A Fairly Conventional Woman. Toronto, Macmillan Canada, 1982; with Happenstance, London, Fourth Estate, 1993, New York, Viking, 1994.
Swann: A Mystery. Don Mills, Ontario, Stoddart, 1987; New York, Viking, 1989; London, Fourth Estate, 1992.
A Celibate Season, with Blanche Howard. Regina, Saskatchewan, Coteau, 1991.
The Republic of Love. Toronto, Random House Canada, New York, Viking, and London, Fourth Estate, 1992.
The Stone Diaries. Toronto, Random House Canada, and London, Fourth Estate, 1993; New York, Viking, 1994.
Mary Swann. London, Fourth Estate, 1996.
Larry's Party. New York, Viking, 1997.
Various Miracles. Don Mills, Ontario, Stoddart, 1985; New York, Viking, 1989; London, Fourth Estate, 1994.
The Orange Fish. Toronto, Random House Canada, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.
Dressing Up for the Carnival. New York, Viking, 2000.
Arrivals and Departures. N.p., Blizzard, 1990.
Thirteen Hands. N.p., Blizzard, 1993.
Others. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1972.
Intersect. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1974.
Coming to Canada. Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1992.
Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1976.
Fashion, Power, Guilt, and the Charity of Families (with Catherine Shields). Winnipeg, Blizzard Publishing, 1995.
Anniversary: A Comedy (with Dave Williamson). Winnipeg, Blizzard Publishing, and Buffalo, New York, 1998.
National Library of Canada.
My novels have centred on half a dozen concerns: the lives of women, notions of gender, the force of time, the genesis of art, synchronicity, the relationship of fiction and biography.
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Carol Shields adds something to a traditional theme of contemporary women writers: the difficulty of negotiating the gender gap. She explores this territory with signature-style humor and optimism. She does not perceive the problem with any less acuity for her funniness; she only gives her characters a likable resilience. Her writing uses a form of black humor that incites a giggle just because it so categorically refuses to romanticize the situation. Absurdity, satire, paradox, and mistaken identity are also the source of much pleasure.
Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden are twin novels about women who are martyring, fussbudgety, stingy, widowed, emotional-blackmailing. There is a wickedly funny mother of two grown daughters; and the two daughters themselves, one married with kids and living a life that looks full and enviable to her single sister—one out west in Vancouver, the other back home near mom in Manitoba. One novel per sister. Although the married sister doesn't often think of the single one, the single sister's envy is palpable. Shields has been compared to Margaret Laurence—Small Ceremonies has even been seen as derivative of Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God and The Fire Dwellers. This comparison may be rooted in their Canadian stock, and their interest in the profundity of the mundane. In Small Ceremonies, once you have read the narrative of the lucky, married sister, you know her jealous sister's vision is skewed. The marriage isn't so rosy, communication isn't so flourishing, and romance isn't so hot as the sister thought.
This intertextuality makes good suspense and enriches the plot for one who reads both novels. Shields does not hide her derivativeness but rather makes the derivative nature of writing theme and plot the subject of many jokes throughout her canon. Her main characters are all writers of some description, and each one commits a fraud, an infringement, a plagiarism, or a distortion in the course of plying a trade. According to one of her characters, who has stolen the plot of his best-seller from a novel written by his graduate student (who in turn ripped it off from her former landlord), there are only seven plots in the world, so you might as well make use of them. The resemblance of The Box Garden and Small Ceremonies in plot and character to Laurence's early work affected this reader—a Canadianist—in a pleasurable, comforting way, somewhat like the feeling of the scholar when encountering the repetition of facts already familiar to her: the sense that she is beginning to know the field.
In the 1980s, Shields tried a new genre: mystery. With this shift in direction, her writing gained individuality and force. Swann: A Mystery is a hilarious send-up of academics, biographers, critics, archivists, book collectors, and conferenciers. Each of the four main characters has an interest in deceased poet Mary Swann. Each one's literary interest is adulterated by his or her own ambitions. But someone is stealing, buying, and destroying all of the remaining Swann manuscripts and artifacts, making it difficult for the others to carry on the international Swann conference with dignity. Perhaps Shields's criminal is not as difficult for the reader to identify as those in the best of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, but what Shields provides is a romp through the corruptions of the book business and an exposé of the average psyche: the small lies that normal people tell, the little corners that they cut, and their rationalizations that help make their behavior seem acceptable in the context of the lonely, bookish lives they lead. "Who would ever know?" is the question, not "Is this right or wrong?"
Shields's skills as a short story writer are strong, especially in the 1985 collection Various Miracles, though falter somewhat in The Orange Fish, published four years later. The first volume contains several gems. The subject about which Shields writes best is mother-daughter relationships that are full of ambivalence yet founded on unshakable love and understanding. The mother-daughter bond is so much more profound or real than the man-woman connection that the latter is nearly always a source of jest. Nor is the preference meant to show favoritism of the female; rather it honors the bonding of women and of motherhood while questioning the strength of most romantic female-male ties. Shields shows her characters, especially the "sensitive one of the family," relating to, identifying with, and rebelling against their mothers but always returning later to seek them out, to question, to support, to respect, and to understand. Her latest collection of short fiction, Dressing Up for the Carnival, tells many stories about those who yearn to be successful artists and in one way or another come up short. "The Scarf," for example, may at first be about a successful writer, but after lunch with a friend she discovers her own success may not be a direct comparison to her talent.
The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General's Award, is a rich portrayal of inner-bloom in Daisy Goodwill's later life. Daisy's early life is marred with difficulty—her mother dies in childbirth and her father is prone to disappearance. Daisy marries, but her husband commits suicide. She marries professor Barker Flett and she lives out her life with the humorous sarcasm and wit of a survivor. Daisy, a garden columnist, has a penchant for gossip, recipes, and other fragments of life congealed in a fluidity of prose. Much like Daisy, Shields enjoins the fragments of postmodern life with the sometimes monotonous rootedness of daily life. This remarkable tension is all the more served by a character of later years and great depth.
Shields's themes are typical of postmodern fiction: mother-daughter symbiosis; husband-wife estrangement; the inventiveness of the writer; the pretentiousness of the academy; loneliness and our anger at our aloneness; the role that chance plays in all encounters and happenings, good or bad. Her writer-protagonists are so literary that, in the end, they see their own selves as characters in a book. Successful feminist critic Sarah Maloney suddenly chooses marriage because she wants to live a good metaphor. Anatomizing her psyche, she says of "the irrepressible Sarah," her academic self, "Her awful energy seems to require too much of me, and I wonder: Where is her core? Does she even have a core? I want to live for a time without irony, without rhetoric, in a cool, solid metaphor. A conch shell, that would be nice."
Shields herself cannot live without irony, a fact for which her readers should be grateful.
updated by Maureen Aitken