It’s hard to imagine a septuagenarian Canadian author inspiring squeals of excitement in scores of teenage girls. If you attended this year’s BookCon, though, you would have seen just that when Margaret Atwood took the stage. There to discuss the Hulu adaptation of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood was one of the big headliners at the show. It was a fitting reception for someone who has, this year, become a cultural icon.
Canada’s best-known author (at least according to a 2017 survey from BookNet Canada), Atwood has always been incredibly productive. While The Handmaid’s Tale may arguably be her most famous work, her résumé is bursting with titles across genres; in addition to her 14 novels and 10 works of nonfiction, she has written children’s books, poetry, short fiction, a graphic novel, TV scripts, and an opera. (As it happens, The Handmaid’s Tale is just one notable Hollywood adaptation of Atwood’s work this year; Alias Grace was released as a six-part miniseries by Netflix in September.)
Atwood has not gone without recognition, either, having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, been awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and earned a place on Canada’s Walk of Fame. But 2017 was different.
The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood started writing in 1984, became a frighteningly prescient story, for some, this year. The book is set in a near-future America, ruled by a totalitarian regime, in which women are treated like property and divided into classes with tasks ranging from housekeeping to reproducing; the “handmaids” of the title are responsible for the latter. With the election of Donald Trump, who ran on various conservative platforms (including the call to defund the women’s health provider Planned Parenthood), The Handmaid’s Tale seemed, to certain factions of the American public, a novel very much for the here and now.
The love the book got from Hulu—its 10-episode series adaptation, made available by the streaming service earlier this year, picked up eight Emmy Awards—certainly helped drive the book’s renewed popularity. According to NPD Bookscan, The Handmaid’s Tale has sold more than 500,000 copies in paperback in 2017 to date. But something else happened, as the novel became a symbol for groups fighting against the positions being taken by the White House. Lines from the novel appeared on signs carried by participants in the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. Protesters stormed the Texas Senate in March dressed as Atwood’s fictional handmaids.
To capitalize on all of this attention, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (which licenses the paperback rights to Anchor Books) released a new hardcover edition of The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year that has sold about 35,000 copies; the e-book edition has sold more than 736,000 copies year to date. Ken Carpenter at HMH’s Mariner Books imprint said the new edition reflects the fact that the book has gone from bestseller to something more. It has tapped into the zeitgeist and, as he rightly summed it up, “become a sort of cornerstone of the resistance.”