• Herman Melville, infamous in his lifetime as the author of turkeys

Broadly speaking, failed creative efforts that get labeled turkeys fall into one of two categories. There are the purely insipid movies, books, songs, et cetera, that convey incompetence more than anything else; they’re generally unambitious, but their sheer lack of craftsmanship or good taste situates them outside the familiarly bad. Then there are the overreaching failures, which feel particularly embarrassing because they fall so short of their obvious aspirations. These turkeys have the distinction of being the more interesting to think about; in considering what went wrong, you end up better aware of why other artworks succeed—or, at the very least, don’t offend.

Yet history has shown that popular ideas about artistic success and failure don’t always stick. For instance, Herman Melville’s last three major novels—Moby-Dick; Pierre, or the Ambiguities; and The Confidence-Man—were such critical and commercial flops that Melville abandoned his literary career just two years after the publication of Confidence and took a job as a customs inspector on Wall Street, which he held until retirement age. When he died in 1891, most of his novels had been forgotten; nearly 30 years would pass before a new generation of writers proclaimed him one of the great American authors. Vincent van Gogh’s artistic reputation experienced an even greater turnaround in the half century after his death.