Great ideas, shame about the leadership

August 14, 1998

Diversity within the Commonwealth's universities will be high on the ACU's agenda, with contributions from writer Carol Shields and Canadian Indian university head Eber Hampton

Chancellor and novelist Carol Shields believes academics often make bad managers. She tells Harriet Swain why

In Carol Shields's latest novel, Larry's Party, the main character is an ordinary man with an unusual job. He designs award-winning mazes. And these mazes become symbols of the sometimes confusing, sometimes beautiful journey of his life, full of occasional dead-ends, missed opportunities and unexpected openings. His job defines him, not only in these metaphoric terms, not only through the changes it helps bring about but through the daily minutiae of experiences that any job entails.

Ms Shields, writer, academic and mother of five admits that work fascinates her. It is work and the workplace that will be the main subjects of her address to the Association of Commonwealth Universities this week. She will discuss how universities should be leading the way in creating a friendly working environment. Often, she says, they fail because people who achieve university administrative posts tend to be academics with little training in management. And then they have to cope with the sometimes difficult attitudes of employees. "Academics are trained in critical thinking and I think that's what turns all of us into gripes," she says.

As chancellor of Winnipeg University, she has had the chance to view the grumblings of an academic community at first hand. But her interest in work is more broadly based. Born in America 63 years ago, she was in her forties before she published her first novel and took up her first lecturing post, at the University of Ottawa, where she moved when she married. Until middle age, she had concentrated on the work involved in raising five children - four girls and a boy - and following her engineer husband around Canada for his job. Now she combines her duties as chancellor and a regular job teaching part-time at the University of Manitoba, where her husband is dean of engineering, with the more flexible and self-starting working arrangements of a professional novelist.

So while experiencing many different types of work she has also come relatively late to the rituals of a career, while experiencing directly the dramatic change in status some careers can bring. She has compared the process of writing to making a dress or fixing a meal. But her novels - and she has now written six - have brought her a Pulitzer Prize for the Stone Diaries in 1995 and an Orange Prize for women fiction writers, as well as an established place in the bestseller lists. They have taken her to writers' festivals and conferences across the world, where she has taken part in panel discussions, readings and seminars. However well she cooked for her large family and however much it was appreciated, she never found herself up on a platform talking about it.

Perhaps for that reason, her interest in work carries with it a feminist edge. She has mostly written about its effects on women - how it can change the way they see themselves and how others, particularly men, see them. From Brenda in Happenstance, who, in middle age, finds a talent for quilt-making that takes her away from her family for the first time and makes her question the rest of her life, to Fay in The Republic of Love and her all-absorbing work on mythology and mermaids, Shields shows a fascination with the way women cope with the new roles available to them at the end of the 20th century. But she is interested in how men cope too, as she shows in Larry's Party. Before she wrote about Larry Weller's life she asked the men she knew about theirs. Ironically, the book won her the Pounds 30,000 women-only Orange Prize.

Ms Shields has acknowledged but not supported the rows over whether this prize is necessary, given that women are perfectly capable of winning mixed prizes such as Pulitzers or Bookers. But she has complained in the past about the lack of women book reviewers, suggesting that women, while not writing better books than men, tend to write about what will interest other women.

Her first two books, dismissed as minor domestic novels, have only lately been reprinted and taken seriously. The big themes of her books -love, families and loneliness - tend to be hidden behind mundane tasks, such as finding out the cost of a haircut or making breakfast. She always says she writes about ordinary people because she is one. But she brings to the job the unusual skill of highlighting the extraordinary in life's everyday detail, revealing, in the process, that an ordinary person does not exist.

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