Who is the greatest Catholic novelist in the English language? Is it Flannery O’Connor? Graham Greene? Walker Percy? Muriel Spark? Evelyn Waugh? Caroline Gordon? A quick survey of 112 years of America content shows that this magazine has spilled a trillion gallons of ink on the question, even though the obvious answer was and is and always will be J. F. Powers.
But what about in the generation after that? That question, too, has been asked every few years since the glory days of the early 1960s, when J. F. Powers won the 1962 National Book Award for Morte D’Urban, Edwin O’Connor the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Edge of Sadness and Walker Percy the 1963 National Book Award for The Moviegoer. Who in recent decades has joined those ranks as a great Catholic novelist? Mary Gordon? Ron Hansen? Alice McDermott? Jon Hassler? Toni Morrison?
Who is the greatest Catholic novelist? This magazine has spilled a trillion gallons of ink on the question, even though the obvious answer was and is and always will be J. F. Powers.
If reviewer Ciaran Freeman is to be believed (this is known grammatically as an “unreal conditional”), the millennial generation now has its own challenger to the throne: Sally Rooney. I know, I know: You can’t wait for the latest Chosen One to appear drinking a White Claw. But Freeman is being serious. “If the goal of art from the Catholic perspective is to reveal beauty, truth and light—to point in the direction of God,” he writes in his America review of Beautiful World, Where Are You, “then Sally Rooney is my generation’s great Catholic writer.”
Whoa! A bold claim, considering Rooney only has three novels to her name, all published in the last four years: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018) and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). But to be fair, Flannery O’Connor only wrote two, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Ditto for J. F. Powers, whose second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, took him 25 years to write. So length of years or abundance of words aren’t the only qualifiers to be a great Catholic writer.
Freeman, a former O’Hare fellow at America Media, suggests that “Rooney is writing within the context of a post-Catholic Ireland. She and her characters grew up in a world where the church’s firm grasp on every aspect of life rapidly weakened after revelations of physical and sexual abuse.” In a 2017 interview with The Irish Times, Rooney commented that “we got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways that was a good trade off, and in other ways, really bad.”
Rooney writes, Freeman notes, “for an audience that lacks faith in an institutional church, yet yearns for something to believe in. She writes for me and my friends.” One of Rooney’s characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Alice, says that “beauty, truth and goodness are properties of being which are one with God.” Catholic enough for you? It is a moment of straightforward catechism that might have come from the pen of St. Thomas Aquinas himself.
Ciaran Freeman: “Sally Rooney writes for an audience that lacks faith in an institutional church, yet 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 remembered that the literary buzz around Rooney’s Conversations with Friends in 2017 made him worry about the quality of Normal People. “Rooney was marketed as Salinger for the Snapchat Generation, greeted as one of the first great millennial writers,” he wrote, so he was nervous when her second novel was announced so soon after. “Sometimes a debut novelist will capitalize on her fame and rush to publish an inferior work, some old manuscript that had been shunted aside or buried deep on a hard drive.”
Not so in this case, he writes. “It took me a while to realize that Normal People is not a watered down version of Conversations with Friends, but instead a smoothly refined sample of Rooney’s writing.”
One of the clearest examples of the sacramental sense that infuses all of Rooney’s writing, he argues, comes from her presentation of our human corporeality in Normal People: “The Catholic imagination is latently present in the way that Rooney writes about the body,” Freeman writes, and her characters are no disembodied souls fleeing worldly experiences. “Their experience of God, of what is good, is rooted in each other and expressed through their bodies. Throughout the story they find mercy and grace and love through each other. Their bodies serve as extensions of their souls.”
Rooney’s novels are all set in her native Ireland, and over the years America has written much about that country’s ongoing relationship with the Catholic faith that 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 drop in religious practice and vocations. René Ostberg recently reviewed Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics In The World, which offers a “portrait of a once ultra-devout country undergoing rapid spiritual decline.” And while there are many other options to be found in our archives, we had little choice but to close with this love letter of sorts from 1934, in which an America editor denounces James Joyce: “Ulysses the Dirty.”
If you noticed that this week and last we have taken a bit of a deeper dive into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. This is the second effort in what we hope will become a weekly column on all things books. In this space every week, we will feature reviews and literary commentary (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
James T. Keane