Literary fiction, cult and popularity

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 did all right when it was published in hardback in 1961. It didn’t take off until it was published in paperback and became a cult book.  It eventually sold eight million and with the income from the movie rights Heller became a millionaire.

Miller didn’t. A Canticle for Leibowitz did well but not nearly as well as that.

The curiosity is that both novels had their origins in active service by their authors in bombers in World War II, and in both cases that experience was made into something wider.

There are differences between the books. Catch 22 is not science fiction. It is more literary in some ways and while I don’t think it is more intelligent many readers may have seen it as more intellectual.

It is said to have become a cult book with baby boomers in the sixties. That would have been quite an achievement. Books were not cool in the sixties. Movies were cool. Comic books were cool. Books were not.

What was cool in the sixties was irrationality. Catch 22 – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – is profoundly irrational.

Miller deals with the profound irrationality of the willingness to use nuclear weapons in war but his criticism was rational. It was also religious. Religion, in the sixties, was not cool.

This raises some interesting questions – about merit, fashion, perception and the market. I haven’t got a clue what the answers might be.

Photo credit: antonychammond via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA