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10 September 2020
Shakespeare's Son Appears as the Main Character in the Prize-winning Novel
Photo by The Guardian

On September 9, the winner of the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction was announced in London. It is Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell with the novel Hamnet. This is Farrell's eighth novel, but the first to receive a literary award.

The novel is set in England, in a plague that causes the death of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son. The twin sister survives. The family's grief is so unbearable that the famous playwright's marriage is in jeopardy. This is a novel about the bereavement that destroys human relationships, about the Elizabethan times, the era of discovery and travel, because it is by sea that an infected flea gets from Alexandria to London. The flea becomes an equal heroine of the novel and marches through the pages of the book, bringing death to the only son of the Great Bard.

According to the website of the award, "it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written". Indeed, the tragedy Hamlet was written after Hamnet’s death. These two names sound similar in English.

The award, which is already 25 years old, is one of the most prestigious, guaranteeing author-laureates the recognition of both, readers and critics. Upon learning of the victory, Maggie O'Farrell tweeted: "I keep thinking it must be some kind of elaborate prank". But on the same day, she saw her pictures in all the British newspapers.

The Women's Prize for Fiction is awarded for a novel written by a woman of any nationality in English and published in the UK one year prior to its presentation. The prize has been awarded since 1996. The jury of the award consists of men and women - journalists, observers, agents, publishers, librarians and booksellers. The prize value is £ 30,000.

Perhaps the most famous nominee for the Women's Prize for Fiction is Margaret Atwood, famed for the The Handmaid's Tale dystopia. She ultimately won the Booker, but never got the women's award despite three nominations. In our library there are as many as 11 novels by this author.

One can endlessly argue about whether literature is divided into “female” and “male”, whether books have a gender lining, or whether they are written for an abstract reader. However, sales statistics show that the very existence of a women's award and the announcement of a shortlist of applicants immediately spurs readers to meet new authors. Thus, readers get variety whereas authors find their audience.

There were times when female authors had to camouflage themselves behind male pseudonyms so that publishers would take them seriously. This is how books appeared under the names of George Eliot (Mary Evans), the Bell brothers (the Brontë sisters), George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin), and Max Fry (Svetlana Martynchik and Igor Stepin). Even Joan Rowling was in two minds whether to publish the Harry Potter series under her full name or not and finally came up with a short gender-neutral version - J.K. Rowling.

According to research on the New York Times bestseller list, in 1960, women accounted for a quarter of the total number of authors, in 1970 - 38%, and in 1975 - only 14%. The highest percentage of female authors was recorded in 2001 – half of the list, long-awaited equality. Will the "feminization" of literature continue?

Here is the list of the Women's Prize for Fiction winners that you can borrow from our library:

  • 1996 - Helen Dunmore
  • 1997 - Anne Michaels
  • 2000 - Linda Grant
  • 2002 - Ann Patchett
  • 2005 - Lionel Shriver
  • 2006 - Zadie Smith
  • 2007 - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • 2015 - Ali Smith
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