Maggie O’Farrell Wins the UK’s 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Historical fiction novel Hamnet, about the son of William Shakespeare, by Maggie O’Farrell becomes the 25th winner of the UK Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Maggie O’Farrell in Edinburgh, the winner of the 25th annual honor for her book based on the son of William Shakespeare. Image: Women’s Prize for Fiction

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Expresses Something Profound’
This evening (September 9) in Edinburgh, the Northern Irish-born author Maggie O’Farrell has won the 25th Women’s Prize for Fiction for her eighth novel, Hamnet (Hachette’s Headline Group / Tinder Press).

One observation to be made here is confirmation of a robust popularity for historical fiction, reflected in the jury’s shortlist.

While The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel was a major contender for the award—the third book in Mantel’s Wolf Hall 1500s English trilogy—O’Farrell won for her book based on Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare, a story set in the boy’s 11th year, in 1596.

Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, as its title suggests, is an all-female perspective on the Trojan War. And for that matter, Bernardine Evaristo’s now-familiar Girl, Woman, Other spans a timeline of a century or so.

Knopf’s cover for the US edition of the book, released July 21

And in a note related to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—which of course prompted the digital reveal of the winner and the three nights of online readings that preceded it—Hamnet is a book published on March 31, released directly into the teeth of the pathogen’s springtime advance in the United Kingdom.

While many publishers have done what appeared to be the logical thing and postponed their releases—triggering a looming collision of drop dates this autumn—here is a book that was handed to readers just in time for the deepest stages of mitigation.

That gamble by Hachette’s people seems to have paid off handsomely.

At The Bookseller in London, Mark Chandler and Benedicte Page are reporting that Hamnet is going into a new print run of 25,000 hardcovers for its home market. “Hamnet has sold 14,966 units for just under £261,000 (US$338,870) through Nielsen BookScan since June, when sales figures became available again.”

The win was announced in London by jury chair Martha Lane Fox, as author Paula Hawkins delivered the cash award (£30,000, US$38,958) and O’Farrell’s “Bessie” bronze figurine in the Scottish capital.

Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring.”Martha Lane Fox, Women's Prize for Fiction

In her comments, Fox said, “The euphoria of being in the same room for the final judging meeting was quickly eclipsed by the excitement we all feel about this exceptional winner.

Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring.”

Joining Fox on the jury this year:

  • Scarlett Curtis, writer and activist
  • Melanie Eusebe, co-founder of the Black British Business Awards
  • Viv Groskop, author and comedian
  • Paula Hawkins, author

And has become the custom among many awards reaching significant anniversaries, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is holding a “best of the best” public vote for one of the titles of its 25 years of operation. You can learn more about that here and on the hashtag #ReadingWomen.

‘Immense Elegance and Emotional Heft’

Image: Women’s Prize for Fiction

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, in addition to O’Farrell’s book, these titles were shortlisted in this year’s competition:

The sponsors of the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year are Baileys, Fremantle, and NatWest.

Waterstones is the program’s retail partner and its fiction buyer Bea Carvalho is quoted on the news of the award, saying, “The last year has seen some stunning fiction by women writers, and Hamnet stands out as a work of immense elegance and emotional heft. We are delighted that we will be able to share it with so many more customers as a result of this well-deserved win.”

Image: Women’s Prize for Fiction

More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing and book awards is here.  More on the Women’s Prize for Fiction is here. And more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.