Often overshadowed by our neighbours to the south, Canadian authors have contributed more to literature than people realize.
Specifically, 20th century female authors have had significant contributions in the literary world. The following writers are considered pioneers of their genres, especially to feminist Canadian literature.
1. Margaret Eleanor Atwood (1939-present)
Margaret Atwood is a writer, poet, essayist, teacher and activist. Her works have been published and translated in over 45 countries and 30 languages, and she is widely regarded as one of Canada’s most prominent writers.
Atwood has published works ranging from children’s books, graphic novels, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, as well as television, radio and theatre scripts. Her pieces have won numerous awards, including the Man Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General’s Literary Award, the Franz Kafka Prize and the National Book Critics and PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Her most celebrated novels are Surfacing (1972), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its long-awaited sequel The Testaments (2019), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000) and Oryx and Crake (2003). She writes mostly in the genres of historical fiction, dystopian fiction and science fiction. Her work is considered to have feminist themes, but Atwood refuses the label of “feminist.” In an interview following the publication of her first novel The Edible Woman (1969) she said, “I don’t consider it feminism, I just consider it social realism.”
2. Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942)
Known better under her pen-name L. M. Montgomery, she is best known for her portrayals of youth, friendship and adventure in her novels Anne of Green Gables (1908).
The first book in this series followed Anne Shirley, a young orphan begrudgingly adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Montgomery’s works were mainly set in Prince Edward Island, which immortalized the province through her descriptions of nature and community.
She was named one of the 12 greatest women in Canada by the Toronto Star in 1924, was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 1935, named a person of national historic significance by the Canadian government in 1943 and became the first Canadian woman to be a member of the British Royal Society of Arts. Canada Post also issued stamps in her honour in 1975.
3. Margaret Lawrence (1926-1987)
Jean Margaret Lawrence was a novelist and short story writer from Neepawa, Man. and is one of the most popular writers in women’s literature in Canada. She wrote novels, poetry, short stories and children’s books.
The first few novels of her literary career were This Side Jordan (1960), The Prophet’s Camel (1963) and The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963)—the latter two novels being a collection of African stories. Lawrence’s next novels were based in Canada with female protagonists, titled The Stone Angel (1964), The Fire Dwellers (1969) and Heart of a Stranger (1977). Two of her novels won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.
Lawrence helped in founding the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust of Canada. She was also made a person of national historic significance by the Canadian government in 2018.
4. Alice Munro (1931-present)
Alice Munro is best known for being a short story writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2013. Her works are almost exclusive to the short story genre, renowned for her use of imagery and a descriptive narrative style that contains depth and shows the complex lives of everyday people. Munro said that she felt personally connected to short stories and fiction because she wanted the reader “to feel something astonishing—not ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.”
Munro’s most notable works are Happy Shades (1968), which won the Governor General’s Literary Award and The Lives of Girls and Women (1971), for which she was presented with the Canadian Booksellers Award.
Her award-winning short story anthologies include Who Do You Think You Are (1978), which was awarded the Governor General’s Award for English fiction, as well as The Love of a Good Woman (1998), which won the Giller Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Munro was awarded the Trillium Book Award for her short story Dear Life in 2012.
5. Carol Shields (1935-2003)
Shields was an American-born Canadian writer. She graduated from Hanover College in June 1957 in history and education, and received a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Ottawa in 1975. Upon taking a creative writing course at the University of Toronto, she won a writer’s contest sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1965.
Her most celebrated novel was The Stone Diaries (1993), for which she was given the Governor General’s Literary Award and Pulitzer Prize.
Shields published her other major novel Unless in 2002, which was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize, the ScotiaBank-Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in fiction. The next year, Unless won the Ethel Wilson Prize in fiction. Her fiction and poetry revolved around themes of domestic lives and middle class people.
Shields said in an interview that Canada has been a good country for writers. “We don’t have a long literary tradition. We’re not big on heroes, either. The concept of heroes is alien, and I think that’s a very telling piece of our national ethos. No one deserves to be better than anyone else,” she said.
These 20th century authors have made their mark in the history of feminist and North American literature. Next time you’re itching for a good classic to read, consider updating your book list with these Canadian masterpieces.