Carol Shields 1935–
American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 91.
A Canadian-American born and raised in Chicago, Shields achieved a historic literary feat when her novel The Stone Diaries (1993) earned Canada's Governor General's Award and the American Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, and was short-listed for Britain's Booker Award.
Shields was born June 2, 1935, to Robert and Inez Warner in Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous suburb of Chicago. She has described her years growing up as safe and happy, but also insular. Shields earned a bachelor's degree from Hanover College in Indiana; while studying for a year in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian engineering graduate student. The two married in 1957 and Shields moved to Canada. For the next few years, Shields focused on family, giving birth to five children and following her husband across Canada as his career progressed. Shields took a magazine writing course at the University of Toronto and sold stories to the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and British Broadcasting Co. In her late twenties, she revived an earlier interest in poetry writing. When the family moved to Ottawa, Shields enrolled in the graduate department in English at the University of Ottawa, writing a masters thesis on Susanna Moodie. It was at this time that Shields began writing fiction; in 1976 she published Small Ceremonies. The book received critical acclaim in Canada and Shields was encouraged to continue writing. While she attracted a modest Canadian following with her subsequent works, she did not gain attention outside of Canada until publishing Swann (1987), which was short-listed for the prestigious Governor General's Award. Following the success of Swann, many of Shields' earlier works were released in the United States and Britain. Shields has resided in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a number of years, teaching English and creative writing at the University of Manitoba, where she is now chancellor.
Shields's fiction has focused on the common, almost banal, events of middle-class, middle-age characters. However, far from being uneventful, these characters' lives are marked by identity crises, self doubts, and anxieties. Her first published novel, Small Ceremonies, set in early 1970s Canada, focuses on Judith and Martin Gill, an academic couple, and their children. Through Judith's efforts to write a biography and the family's interaction with one another and others, Shields poses questions about public and private knowledge and how people construct identity. Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) continue Shields's exploration of how people come to know themselves and others. Later published in a single volume, the two works follow a married couple during one weekend; Happenstance is written from the husband's perspective and A Fairly Conventional Woman from the wife's. Together the works illustrate the isolation that occurs within the marriage and the degree to which the characters misunderstand one another and themselves. In Various Miracles (1985) and to a greater extent in Swann: A Mystery, Shields began to experiment with form while remaining constant in theme. Swann consists of five chapters, with each of the first four written from the perspective of one of the characters and the final chapter written as a screenplay which reveals crucial information about the cast. The novel focuses on the illusive identity of Mary Swann, a poor farmer's wife from rural Ontario, whose single volume of poetry was published after she was killed by her husband. To each character Swann and her poetry represent something different, and each character struggles to create an identity for her, even as the artifacts of her life begin to mysteriously disappear. The Stone Diaries is written in the form of a journal recording the life of Daisy Goodwill Fletts. In it Fletts discusses the events of her life as she attempts to define its meaning. Larry's Party (1997) focuses on similar concerns of self-identity, but is written from the perspective of an average middle-aged man. In addition to her novels, Shields has written two critically acclaimed short story collections and three poetry collections.
Critics are consistent in their praise of Shields's work. From the beginning of her career, critics have commended Shields's descriptive powers and ability to capture the nature of everyday life, comparing her with A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. In reviewing her first three books, Julie Beddoes wrote, "Shields can create vivid and often picturesque characters with such sympathy that one is convinced their eccentricities are the stuff of everyday life." Elizabeth Benedict remarked, "Shields is wickedly accurate about the intricacies of marriage, parenthood and the battle of the sexes, and an astute observer and satirist of social trends." However, most critics agree that Shields began a transformation of her literary career with Various Miracles and has built upon this with each subsequent work. In her review of Swann, Diane Turbide concluded that the novel's plot was better developed and less banal than her earlier works. Other reviewers have noted that nothing truly frightening threatens Shields's characters, although she has captured a more urgent tone in her later books. In addition, some critics have questioned the accuracy of classifying her as a feminist.