The short list for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction was remarkable, including a number of works today regarded as classics, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Yet the prize went to an obscure first novel by a 45-year-old Southerner, a doctor who contracted TB during his residency and turned to writing instead. No one predicted The Moviegoer by Walker Percy would win, and 50 years later, as we prepare to hear this year’s winner, it remains one of the great upsets in the history of the National Book Awards. But was the fix in?
I talked to some of the players in that surprising decision, hoping to find out how The Moviegoer was crowned and whether it is true, as alleged, the novel won thanks only to shady backroom politicking. Percy’s victory set off a controversy that involved the most powerful man in publishing, a famous journalist eager to take credit for the award, and a cub reporter who would go on to become one of the most celebrated writers of our time.
Catch-22 was considered the favorite, and yet Percy’s greatest opposition, ironically, came not from Heller or any of the other nominees but his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. When the charismatic, mercurial founder of the house that bears his name learned it was Percy the judged had tabbed, he exclaimed, “They’re running the prize into the ground!” Knopf, who had been in the business since 1915, was known for his acuity and taste, for taking a chance on authors other publishers were loath to sign but later wished they had. He had failed, though, to recognize Percy’s talent, and had recently fired Stanley Kauffmann, the editor who acquired The Moviegoer and worked with Percy through four rewrites. In the days before the winner was announced Knopf endorsed another one of his books, The Château by William Maxwell, and knew it reflected poorly on him to be seen missing the mark so widely.
Knopf had no idea how The Moviegoer had been nominated to begin with. According to National Book Awards protocol, only judges could put forward a book. Yet with Kauffmann fired, neither Knopf nor anyone in his house had brought Percy’s novel to the attention of the jurors, and no one—in such a fertile, competitive year especially—was talking about The Moviegoer. The book had not even sold through its initial printing. When Knopf did find out how it ended up on the short list he was mortified. The man responsible was none other than A.J. Liebling, the great sportswriter and New Yorker reporter—and an author Knopf had published before the two had a falling out.
The day after the awards ceremony Liebling told a gathering at Columbia University The Moviegoer “got in by the sheerest chance.” Percy’s victory, it turned out, could be traced to a single morning. On May 28, 1961 Liebling was paging through the New York Times. He had just completed a book about Earl Long, the conservative, erratic governor of Louisiana, brother of Huey, and with his mind still on that state, Liebling paused over a review that began, “Every night at dusk, when the Gulf breeze stirs the warm, heavy air over New Orleans, a 29-year-old wanderer named Binx Bolling emerges from his apartment, carrying in his hand the movie page of his newspaper, his telephone book and a map of the city.” Liebling went out and bought the book under discussion: The Moviegoer. Later he recommended it to his wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, who happened to sit on the National Book Awards fiction jury.
Liebling had a Falstaffian presence, was fat and jowly, brilliant and egoistic. He wanted in this context to be seen as a crusader for justice. Knopf, he told the audience at Columbia, had failed in its promotion of The Moviegoer. Without A.J. Liebling, one was left to presume, a masterpiece may have been forever lost to posterity. But there was more to the story: A decade before, Knopf had published Liebling’s book Chicago: The Second City, and Liebling had never forgiven Knopf for not pushing the book vigorously enough. Now, given the opportunity to embarrass his old publisher for failing to champion Percy’s text, he did not hesitate to put the boot in.
But in his hauteur Liebling underestimated Knopf, and did not foresee how craftily the magnate would respond. Rather than confront Liebling directly, Knopf decided to use the media, and he would do more than just issue spin.
Gay Talese was 30 years old in 1962, and had recently moved from sports to news in his coverage for the New York Times. The book awards was “the worst possible assignment you could get,” he says. “The sanitation department would be much better than book publishing. Athletes never complained. People in the literary world are always complaining.” But a letter to the editor or an aggrieved call to the Times office was nothing compared to what Talese was about to experience. Reporting on the seminar at Columbia he wrote, apropos of Liebling and Stafford: “Judging what he deemed inferior novels for the National Book Award, he told her about The Moviegoer. She picked it up and also liked it. Apparently she convinced the two other fiction judges of the merits of the novel.”
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.”