The initial reviews of the book ranged from very positive to very negative. There were positive reviews from The Nation ("the best novel to come out in years"), the New York Herald Tribune ("A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book") and The New York Times ("A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights"). On the other hand, The New Yorker ("doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper", "what remains is a debris of sour jokes") and a second review from the New York Times ("repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest") disliked it. One commentator of Catch-22 recognized that "many early audiences liked the book for just the same reasons that caused others to hate it". The book had a cult following though, especially among teenagers and college students. Heller remarks that in 1962, after appearing on the Today show he went out drinking with the host at the time, John Chancellor, who handed him stickers that Chancellor had got privately printed reading "YOSSARIAN LIVES". Heller also said that Chancellor had been secretly putting them on the walls of the corridors and executive bathrooms in the NBC building.
Although the novel won no awards upon release, it has remained in print and is seen as one of the most significant American novels of the 20th century. Scholar and fellow World War II veteran Hugh Nibley said it was the most accurate book he ever read about the military. Since its release in 1961, the book has sold 10 million copies.
Although he continued writing, including a sequel novel Closing Time, Heller's later works were inevitably overshadowed by the success of Catch-22. When asked by critics why he'd never managed to write another novel as good as his first, Heller would retort with a smile "Who has?"