Why we appreciate art

I met a friend after a couple years in Bangalore last weekend, and he told me an interesting fact about how one of my favorite authors, Joseph Heller, became a bestseller. He said that Robert Gottlieb, the publisher of Catch-22, Heller’s first and most famous novel, took a five-column full-length ad in The New York Times on the eve of the release.

I can’t find the image on the web (it’s probably behind nytimes.com’s archives paywall), but I did find a bunch of other ads that ran in newspapers in 1961 – the year of the book’s release – with a prominent line going “What’s the catch?”

Catch-22 is widely regarded to be a bestseller and one of the best wartime books of all time today. The question is if it would’ve been recognized by such a wide audience at all if not for the surreal and, as writer Christine Bold describes it, “giddy” promotion campaign:

On October 11, 1961, rising stars of Madison Avenue launched Catch-22 with a slick ad campaign (“What’s the Catch?”) splashed across an unprecedented five columns in the New York Times. Joseph Heller and his wife Shirley did their part by dashing around Manhattan bookshops, surreptitiously switching displays so that copies of his novel obscured betterselling titles. Some of the giddiness of the moment is captured in the handsome fiftieth-anniversary edition, which reprints the ads devised by Simon and Schuster’s Nina Bourne and Robert Gottlieb – later famous as, respectively, advertising director at Knopf and Editor of the New Yorker. The laudatory reviews likened the novel to a collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Hieronymus Bosch, combining the genius of Dante, Kafka, and Abbott and Costello. Harper Lee said it was the only war novel that made sense to her. Philip Toynbee declared it “the greatest satirical work in English since Erewhon”.

In 1998, the noted art critic Melvyn Gussow highlighted an alternative scenario, one that actually played out, from 1950 when another book about the ruthlessness of wartime psychology received a positive review from The New York Times Book Review but then faded into obscurity (while Heller’s work received a negative review and went on to rock the charts):

When Louis Falstein’s “Face of a Hero” was published in 1950, Herbert F. West reviewed it favorably in The New York Times Book Review, calling it “the most mature novel about the Air Force that has yet appeared. . . . a book that is both exciting and important.” Still, the book and its author faded into obscurity.

When Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” was published 11 years later, Richard G. Stern gave it a negative review in the Times Book Review. He said that it “gasps for want of craft and sensibility” and called it “an emotional hodgepodge.” Despite that indictment, “Catch-22” eventually became a phenomenal success — a best seller, a film and the cornerstone of a major literary career.

Now, in a strange twist, the two books have come together, and their meeting has led to a provocative debate. In a recent letter to The Times of London, Lewis Pollock, a London bibliophile, wondered if anyone could “account for the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents” in the two books.

Heller denied the allegation that he’d springboarded off of Falstein’s book, but that’s not the point. The point is that the way Catch-22 was marketed makes it impossible for us know if it would’ve garnered worldwide notice (and notoriety) hadn’t it been for the ad campaign. There are two ways to look at this.

  1. Did the world read Catch-22 only because a notable literary agent thought the book was so good that it deserved almost a full-page ad in The New York Times?
  2. How many books like Face of a Hero have slipped under the radar for want of an indulgent publicity crusade?

And both ways betoken an introspection about how we find our books – rather, our art – and whether it is anything about art itself that draws us to it or the ostensibly psychological marketing efforts that push a form of appreciation of art that someone else would like us to practice.