Famous Literary Fails that Became Successful

My program has tentatively received the grades for our portfolios (nothing is official until the board confirms it at the end of July). I got a good grade but not as good as I would’ve liked. That’s life, right? Even when we’re doing well we always wish we had done a bit better. Things could be worse, though, and just because things aren’t exactly how you want them to be now doesn’t mean you won’t succeed–or have more success–later. That’s why I’ve decided to talk about famous literary fails that flopped when they were first released but are now considered classics.

I knew of one without any research–Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick–but I had to perform a quick search to learn any others. What I found was a list on Cracked which discussed the following:

  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  6. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can only remark on a few of these famous literary fails, so I strongly recommend following the link I’ve provided to learn more about them and how poorly they were originally received. The ones I can discuss from personal experience are Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, Moby-Dick, and some of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Lord of the Flies

Good book but disturbing as all get out. I read it in high school (freshman year, I think, but maybe sophomore year, I don’t know) but have not dared pick it up since. It was engaging, fascinating, and an exciting read. The problem? It messed me up pretty badly, more than 1984 but not as badly as The Giver (I’m not kidding, The Giver gave me weird dreams). I don’t know about outside the United States, but I’m sure that all of my U.S. born-and-raised readers can remember being made to read Lord of the Flies.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Image retrieved from edtechteacher

But how well was the Nobel Prize Laureate’s novel received in its first running? Less than 3,000 copies were sold.

I suppose I can see why. I don’t imagine that there was that big of an audience for dystopian, faithless novels centered on children back in the day. Frankly, if this book hadn’t been inside in school, I don’t know how many people would have a taste for such books today. Still, there’s definitely a readership for dystopian novels today (and it’s no mystery why).

The Catcher in the Rye

I read this book for a young adult literature class as an undergrad and, to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. It isn’t a bad book; I just wasn’t into it enough to remember anything without re-reading it. It amused me, that much I remember, and Holden annoyed the crud out of me. Maybe it’s because I never felt the need to drink, maybe it’s because I thought Holden was an idiot who didn’t think things through, but no matter the reason I just did not like him. I felt sorry for him in many ways and I didn’t really want anything bad to happen to him but that certainly does not mean I have to like Holden as a person.

This book was not knocked down by the numbers as Lord of the Flies was. However, critics had a field day with it. Among other things, they took offense to how vulgar it was. Funny thing is that the language was what felt most real about this book, at least to me. I guess The Catcher in the Rye shows us that when we question society there will be push back; in the long run, though, you will be seen as one of the greats.


I’ve been waiting a while to talk about this one. My essay that was accepted into the UC Davis Prized Writing Anthology was written on a chapter of Moby-Dick. That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the book. In fact, I don’t see myself revisiting in anytime soon. Melville mostly lost me in all the in-depth explanations of the technical sides of whaling. I understand the necessity of the reader knowing about whaling in relation to the story but I had to try really hard not to fall asleep reading those passages. I will give Melville this, Queequeg and Captain Ahab were fascinating. I also loved the end to Ahab’s story, which I won’t discuss here due to spoilers. Still, much of the narrative is too slow and dry for me to return to it before I complete my long, long “to read” list.

How was it received? Very, very, very harshly. It went over people’s heads, many critics flat out didn’t like it and thought it was a “catastrophe,” and some even lobbed personal attacks at Melville. I have yet to come across a classic that was received worse by contemporary critics than Moby-Dick and if you know of any, please let me know in the comments. It seems like a miracle that this book went from zero to hero so drastically. Still, all writers can take heart in that such miracles can and do happen.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I saved this one for last because it doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve only read The Hobbit all the way through–and that was when I was a child–but I loved the movies and plan to return to the books as soon as I can. Still, it’s hard to imagine that a series with such a cult following, one which may consist of every fantasy geek in the first world, could have flopped as badly as Lord of the Rings first did.

Mainstream critics panned it and many of Tolkien’s friends grew tired of it when he would read samples to them. One atrocious objection to it was the fact that he was a “career linguist,” not a professional writer. Such elitism is ridiculous and, unfortunately, can happen today, too. However, the vast majority of writers I’ve encountered have been very warm and welcoming no matter what your “other careers” might be, so here’s hoping this divisive trait dies out soon. Another objection was the theme of “industry versus the environment.” I can’t say that similar books won’t receive the same sort of welcome today, at least in the current United States.

Lord of the Rings movie poster. Thank you, hippies, although I could do without Gollum.

Image retrieved from IMDb

Still, the hippie movement demanded the return of Lord of the Rings and, thanks to these “tree-huggers,” we can enjoy this franchise today.


Maybe your book won’t sell many copies in its first run. Maybe critics will crush your ego beneath their shoes like a cockroach. Maybe you’ll feel like your work isn’t good enough to see the light of day and want to quit. Before you give up, please remember these books, now considered classics, and how poorly they were received during the authors’ times. These famous literary fails became successful, why not your work?


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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