Thus a legend was born: that The Moviegoer emerged victorious because of the partisanship of a husband-and-wife team, one that bucked procedure (and ethics?) to railroad home a book others were reluctant to anoint. A lot of bluster and outrage ensued. The magazine Show printed an editorial protesting that the judges had cheated Heller of an honor that was rightfully his, and both Stafford and Liebling had to issue statements averring the process had been conducted fairly. Stafford admitted to nominating The Moviegoer on her husband’s recommendation but added, “What is not true is that I ‘convinced’ or made any attempt to convince my colleagues of the merits of the book. Our meeting was not long and it was conducted in remarkable peace and agreement.”
Herbert Gold, a novelist who was also a member of the fiction jury that year, confirms Stafford’s description. Talese’s report, he says, “is complete bullshit. The fact was I loved The Moviegoer. I went to New York with that book under my arm hoping to convince the other two judges. But I can’t claim credit because Jean also loved the book.” The third judge, Lewis Gannett, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, was reportedly happy to comply. In fact, according to Gold, Gannett was not on intimate terms with the books on the short list. “My wife liked that one” was about all he could muster in response to some, and The Moviegoer won unanimously on the first ballot.
But Talese’s story was the version on record, and it was cited for years after. Stafford had to answer to the controversy until her death in 1979, and to this day Talese stands by his report. “If I wrote it,” he told me last month, “then it’s true. I am not a fiction writer like Walker Percy.” Which means the only explanation for the affair is that Talese was fed bad information. When an irate Liebling asked how he knew Stafford had coerced the other judges, Talese said his source worked at Knopf. He might as well have said his source’s name was on the spine of Knopf’s books. Several had heard Knopf complaining of “a conspiracy engineered by Joe Liebling,” and it seems the publisher was eager to deflect some of the attention he was getting for not supporting The Moviegoer.
Percy’s novel, in other words, was simply caught in a joust between two proud, self-assured men bent on slighting the reputation of the other. But that novel was given new life, with thousands of copies sent out in paperback. So if what happened in 1962 reminds us of the worst of what a literary fete can entail—infighting, a cliquish grievance made into national news—we should remember it also demonstrates the best. What are prizes for, in the end? Sure, the culture machine needs them, publicity departments and the gaggle of blogs, but does literature? The glitzy rah-rah of the awards dinner, the indignation suffered on the losers’ behalf: None of it factors into the progression of tradition. What the Booker, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards pretend to accomplish—identifying which works of poetry and prose are superior—takes generations to work out, and we can all name authors, the Julia Peterkins and Conrad Richters, who are known today only for being forgotten, who claimed one medal or many in their lifetime but whose work no longer resonates. Rescuing an overlooked but deserving title—that’s the most these awards can do, and Percy, though he had gotten a late start, would never have to worry about securing a publisher or a readership again.
Percy knew that, and responded to the fracas with nothing more than a shrug of bemusement. Of all the principals he behaved with the greatest aplomb. After accepting the award he returned home to Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and resumed work on his next novel, The Last Gentleman. In a letter of thanks to Stafford he acquitted Knopf of any neglect and, marveling at the fortuitousness of his situation, reflected on how unlikely the ultimate source of his gratitude was. “If I understand it correctly,” Percy wrote, “had it not been for Mr. Liebling (and his recent interest in Louisiana) The Moviegoer might never, would never have been considered. To think then, that if it hadn’t been for old Earl, etc. For the first time, I feel kindly toward the Longs.”