Just Shrug It Off

In 1961, Walker Percy published his great Stoic-inspired novel The Moviegoer. Like all classics, the book’s success was by no means guaranteed. In fact, it became the subject of one of the strangest controversies in publishing history. You see, even though the novel was brilliant, its publisher, Alfred Knopf, was no fan. He even fired the editor who acquired it and had been so instrumental in shaping it into the masterpiece it became. 

When it came time to nominate one of his titles for the National Book Awards that year, Knopf submitted The Château by William Maxwell, a now mostly forgotten book. It was only a bit of random luck for Percy that followed—the husband of a woman on the committee happened to have read a review of Percy’s book in the paper, read the book, loved it, gave it to his wife, who gave it to the other committee members a few days before the final decision needed to be made. Out of nowhere, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—the first novel of a doctor, not a trained writer—ended up winning the National Book Award. 

Again, you’d think that Knopf would have been ecstatic. One of his writers won book of the year! But he wasn’t. Even as the book started selling like crazy. He was too jealous. He thought it reflected badly on his judgement that he missed this, that he was obviously wrong. So he began to spread the rumor that the prize had somehow been fixed that year—that the husband (someone Knopf didn’t like) had forced his wife to vote for the book just to show him up. It was an ugly mess for everyone involved.

Everyone, that is, except Walker Percy. Because, like a true Stoic, he just laughed at the whole thing. He accepted the award with gratitude, marvelling at all the good and bad fortune that had occurred beyond his control with this book. And then—as we should do today, whether we’re the recipient of a huge honor or an utterly unfair controversy—he got back to work on his next project.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 21, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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