Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was not an immediate success, critically or commercially, when it was first published fifty years ago. Novelist Richard Stern, writing on page 50 of the October 22, 1961 New York Times Book Review, said Heller’s book was “no novel.” It was, rather, an “emotional hodge-podge” and its author “like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto the canvas” to “compensate for the lack of design.” The review caught Heller and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, by surprise. They thought they had “the fix in,” as Heller told a friend.
In advance of the book’s publication, Gottlieb had taken Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, to lunch. Gottlieb impressed upon Brown the unusual and special nature of Catch-22 and urged him not to assign a conventional reviewer to the novel. Brown assured Gottlieb he would give the matter careful consideration. He chose Richard Stern to review the book because Stern was considered a “black humorist,” just the type of writer who could appreciate what Heller was up to in crafting a comic take on war.
The catch was, Stern saw Heller as a competitor, and used the review to try to squelch him. In years to come, stories circulated (until they became myths) that Heller had been extremely confident about Catch-22’s success, so much so that bad reviews never bothered him. In fact, he was terribly anxious about the book’s reception; after all, anxiety is the core subject in all of his novels. Years later, he could quote verbatim lines from his negative reviews. Alice Denham, a friend of Heller’s and an aspiring writer, remembered him stopping by her apartment on Manhattan’s west side shortly after Stern’s review appeared. She said he was exceedingly glum and she gave him a stiff drink. He’d been hoping the book would skyrocket and allow him to quit his job as an advertising copywriter.
The day would come when he would be able to live off his books, but in the meantime Catch-22 gained traction slowly. Initially, the novel sold better in England than it did in the United States. The Cold War was at its height, and Europeans saw Americans as bellicose and blinkered in their paranoid views of Communism. British reviewers couldn’t believe that a scathing anti-war novel would come out of the United States, and they were delighted. Catch-22 shot to the top of the British bestseller lists.
Immediately, Robert Gottlieb purchased ad space in American newspapers, urging American readers, “Come on! Don’t let the English beat us! Come on Yanks! To your booksellers! Help close the Catch-gap!” Heller was lucky that his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had just weathered enormous personnel changes at the top, the result of several deaths and retirements. No senior authority figure was around to oversee Gottlieb’s ad campaign for Catch-22: he spent money freely and publicized the book for an unusually long time. He had once confessed to a fellow editor, “I don’t really understand popular fiction.” But he knew how to create a sensation.
Despite moments of despair over negative reviews, Heller enjoyed the positive responses he got more than any other author Gottlieb had ever witnessed. He took an “innocent and marvelous, happy, wholesome enjoyment in his success,” Gottlieb said, once the book finally took off. “He loved being the author of Catch-22.” By the end of the 1960s, once the novel had been embraced as a book about Vietnam (its absurdities now seemed to match the daily newspaper headlines), Catch-22 had achieved critical eminence as well as popular success. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose was one of the earliest critics to note the novel’s importance. In January 1962, he wrote Heller, “For sixteen years I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WW II must produce. I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you.”
Also of interest:
- Morris Dickstein on how Catch-22 changed America on The Daily Beast
- Robert Gottlieb, Mike Nichols, and Christopher Buckley discuss the 50th anniversary of Catch-22 on The Charlie Rose Show
- A. J. Liebling, Jean Stafford, Walker Percy, and the 1962 National Book Award for The Moviegoer (Catch-22 was a nominee), a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Transcript of Playboy interview with Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (“Both men wear khaki shorts.”)