Who is the greatest English-speaking Catholic novelist? Is this Flannery O’Connor? Graham Greene? Walker Percy? Muriel Spark? Evelyne Waugh? Caroline Gordon? A quick overview of 112 years of America the content shows that this magazine spilled a trillion gallons of ink on the matter, even though the obvious answer was and is and always will be JF Powers.
But what about the next generation? This question has also been asked every few years since the glory days of the early 1960s, when JF Powers won the 1962 National Book Award for Morte d’Urban, Edwin O’Connor the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1962 for The edge of sadness and Walker Percy the National Book Award 1963 for The cinephile. Who, in recent decades, has joined these ranks as a great Catholic novelist? Marie Gordon? Ron Hansen? Alice McDermott? Jon Hassler? Toni Morrison?
Who is the greatest Catholic novelist? This magazine dumped a trillion gallons of ink on the question, even though the obvious answer was and is and always will be JF Powers.
If critic Ciaran Freeman is to be believed (grammatically called an “unreal conditional”), Millennials now have their own challenger to the throne: Sally Rooney. I know, I know: you can’t wait for the Last Chosen to appear drinking a White Claw. But Freeman is serious. “If the purpose of art from the Catholic point of view is to reveal beauty, truth and light, to point in the direction of God,” he writes in his America review of Beautiful people, where are you, “So Sally Rooney is the great Catholic writer of my generation.”
Wow ! A bold claim, considering Rooney only has three novels to his name, all published in the past four years: Conversations with friends (2017), Normal people (2018) and Beautiful people, where are you (2021). But to be fair, Flannery O’Connor wrote only two, Wise blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Ditto for JF Powers, whose second novel, Wheat spouting green, took him 25 years to write. So the length of years or the abundance of words are not the only qualifiers for being a great Catholic writer.
Freeman, a former O’Hare member at America Media, suggests that âRooney writes in the context of post-Catholic Ireland. She and her characters grew up in a world where the church’s firm grip on all aspects of life quickly weakened after revelations of physical and sexual abuse. In a 2017 interview with The Irish Times, Rooney said that âwe got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways, it was a good compromise, and in other ways, really bad.
Rooney writes, Freeman notes, “for an audience that lacks faith in an institutional church, but yearns for something to believe in. She writes for me and my friends.” One of Rooney’s characters in Beautiful people, where are you, Alice, says that “beauty, truth and goodness are properties of the being which are one with God”. Catholic enough for you? It is a moment of pure and simple catechism which could have come from the pen of Saint Thomas Aquinas himself.
Ciaran Freeman: âSally Rooney writes for an audience that lacks faith in an institutional church, but yearns for something to believe in. She writes for me and my friends.
Rooney’s second novel, Normal people, was made into a miniseries for Hulu in 2020. In his review of the series for America, Freeman recalled that the literary buzz around Rooney’s Conversations with friends in 2017 made him worry about the quality of Normal people. âRooney was marketed as Salinger for the Snapchat generation, hailed as one of the first great writers of the millennium,â he wrote, so he was nervous when his second novel was announced so soon. after. âSometimes a first novelist capitalizes on her fame and rushes to publish a work of inferior quality, an old manuscript that has been put aside or buried deep on a hard drive. “
This is not the case in this case, he writes. “It took me a long time to understand that Normal people is not a watered-down version of Conversations with friends, but instead a refined sample of Rooney’s handwriting.
One of the clearest examples of the sacramental meaning that permeates all of Rooney’s writing, he argues, comes from his presentation of our human body in Normal people: âThe Catholic imagination is latently present in the way Rooney writes on the body,â writes Freeman, and his characters are not disembodied souls fleeing the experiences of the world. âTheir experience of God, of what is good, is rooted in each other and expressed through their body. Throughout history they find mercy, grace, and love through each other. Their bodies serve as extensions of their souls.
Rooney’s novels are all set in his native Ireland, and over the years America has written extensively on this country’s continuing relationship with the Catholic faith which once made it “the land of saints and scholars”. This 2018 article tells the story of Ireland’s rapid transformation in recent years, including a massive decline in religious practice and vocations. RenÃ© Ostberg recently reviewed Derek Scally’s book The best Catholics in the world, which offers a “portrait of a once ultra-devout country in the process of rapid spiritual decline”. And while there are plenty of other options to find in our archives, we had little choice but to conclude with this sort of love letter from 1934, in which a America the editor denounces James Joyce: “Ulysses the Dirty”.
If you’ve noticed that this week and last we’ve digged a little deeper into an author or topic, you are a careful reader of Americaliterary criticism. This is the second effort in what we hope will become a weekly column on all things books. In this space each week, we’ll feature literary reviews and commentary (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that is not featured in our newsletters.
James T. Keane