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Writing the Romance Novel: History of the Inspirational Romance

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In 2004, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) estimated Christian Fiction sales around $2 billion per year. Eleven percent of this was inspirational romance, and that figure grew to about 25 percent in 2005 and has been growing steadily since. The millions of women represented by these percentages have grown tired of the explicit sensuality in mainstream love stories; however, when they pick up an inspirational romance, they are still looking for a ROMANCE novel—a story that follows standard plotlines, uses familiar language, and gives a satisfying ending, all with a Christian worldview that doesn’t preach at them.

Although many critics, commentators, and publishers consider “inspirational” or “Christian” romance to be a new genre, the true origins of the genre can be traced to the beginning of literature itself. While many evangelicals call the Bible the romance between God and His people, taking a closer look at three individual books within the Bible point toward humans’ fascination with romance: Ruth, Esther, and Song of Solomon. Each of these books, Ruth and Esther being stories and Song of Solomon a poetical conversation, explore the relationship between men and women in the context of Jewish society and religion.

As literature developed apart from sacred writings, the exploration of the relationship between men and women continued to be a recurring theme. In their article “The Inspirational Romance,” Ellen Micheletti and Rachel Potter explored the beginnings of what is now considered a “thriving sub-culture within the mainstream.” They defined inspirational romance as a story that shows not only the developing relationship between hero and heroine but a focus on their spiritual growth as well.

Literary criticism of the earliest English language novelists points toward the Christian elements in the writings of the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and many others. Micheletti and Potter delved into the history of American literature and pointed out the pressure of the conservative religious society on fiction, with preachers denouncing the reading of fiction as sinful. However, fiction production and readership grew, and a majority of this number were women wanting to write or read about romantic relationships. To assuage guilty consciences on both sides of the equation, writers incorporated large doses of a Christian message in their novels.

For most of the genre’s history, the standard plot has been a coming-of-age story of a young woman who must redeem the playboy hero before the happy ending can occur. Grace Livingston Hill became the master of this and is considered by most scholars of the genre to be the “mother” of inspirational romance, with more than one hundred titles published between 1877 and 1947—most of which remain in print and popular reading material. Published in 1967, Christy by Catherine Marshall is also considered to be one of the milestones of the inspirational romance genre, even though it is more about the coming-of-age of the eponymous heroine and less about her romantic interests (in today’s genre definitions, it fits more closely in the Lits category than romance).

By the time Christy hit bookshelves, the mainstream romance genre was exploding and the demand for “sweet” or inspirational romance declined—at least most publishers of romance felt no need to continue to print romance novels with a focus on any religious theme which did not include increasingly graphic sensuality. But the market for moral and/or Christian-themed romance had not disappeared. In the late 1970s, Bethany House Publishers acquired a book that would be ground-breaking not just for inspirational romance, but for the Christian fiction industry: Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke. This “prairie romance” not only eschewed the popular trend of overt, graphic sexuality in a romance novel, but also included a complete presentation of the gospel message. For the next decade, based on the bestselling success of Love Comes Softly along with its many sequels, Christian fiction gained a stereotype from the proliferation of covered wagons, characters speaking in moralizations, full gospel presentations, quoted scripture, and exclusion of anything that might be found remotely offensive to even the most fundamentalist Christian. Then, in 1986, things changed.

Although rejected by just about every other Christian publisher, in 1986, Crossway Books published a groundbreaking novel, This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. Using a not-before-seen style and plot device, Peretti created a world where spiritual warfare was real and the boundary between the physical world and the spiritual was paper-thin and eventually breached. I remember first hearing about the book at church from people who didn’t know whether to consider it prophetical or fictional. The book succeeded by this word of mouth, eventually becoming a best seller by the time the sequel, Piercing the Darkness, was released in 1989. The response to these books acted as a wake-up call to the somnolent Christian publishing industry. Publishing houses began looking for “out of the box” ideas and authors for their fiction lines. While most of the titles they published were still romances, the market began to see fewer “prairie romances” and a greater variety of eras, including contemporary settings, which followed the trend seen in the mainstream market.

As the quality of writing and story increased, so did the demand for titles. As CBA publishers produced multiple million-or-more-selling titles, the secular publishing houses have stood up and taken notice, and have either acquired smaller Christian imprints or started inspirational or “moral” fiction imprints of their own to compete for this ever growing market. William Robinson attributes the growing Christian fiction audience to a shift from the stories being “aggressively evangelical” to more of a “Christian worldview.” Christian novelist Meredith Efken agrees, stating, “Most of us want to write about what it means to be a Christian in reality. Our lives are more than what happens on Sundays in church. . . . My faith is part of who I am. We’re not trying to write ‘Christian fiction’ but fiction from a Christian worldview, because that’s our worldview” (from a 2006 Pioneer Press article).

Many CBA publishers have moved away from guidelines that require their authors include a full presentation of the gospel. When Alan Arnold was head of Thomas Nelson Publishers’ cutting-edge fiction line WestBow, he stated the house’s philosophy of Christian fiction is returning to its roots: “Great writers wrote from their Christian worldview and created novels that still sell today. . . . That’s what we’re reclaiming today” (qtd. Veith).

For Discussion:
How long have you been reading inspirational romance? During that span of time, what changes have you seen? Are the changes for the good? What changes do you think the inspirational romance industry still needs?

8 Comments
  1. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 10:01 am

    I read all of Janette Oke’s prairie romances…and I loved them! I’ve read Grace Livinstone Hill…and still have a couple of favorites of hers today that I read and re-read.

    Changes…sheer variety of choice. No matter what your preferred genre, there is an inspirational genre to match it. Also, the quality of the writing has escalated. Christian fiction stacks up well against the best secualr fiction out there.

  2. Melinda (Marmie) Smith permalink
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 10:28 am

    I’ve read every Grace Livingston Hill book & every Janette Oke book & love each one.

    I agree with Erica. Variety in genre & quality of writing are the big changes I see. There are so many really good authors now I can’t read them all.

  3. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:01 am

    Erica and Marmie took my answer–variety. I remember when I first started reading inspy in the 90s it didn’t take long to get through all of my favorite authors’ books, then there was nothing left to read. In fact, I stopped reading fiction for several years for that reason. I’m so thankful that there’s so much available now–I know I’ll never run out of good reading material.

    PS. Did you assign us each a character in the picture box? I keep getting the green alien with the long nose.

  4. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:10 am

    LOL — no the images were assigned randomly by WP.

  5. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:16 am

    Like pretty much everyone else over a certain age, the first inspirational romances I read were Janette Oke’s as well—which I read in the early 1980s, because they were just about the only novels in the little library at the small Christian school I attended 7th-9th grades. (I liked the series with the Canadian Mountie hero better.)

    Then, from about the mid 1980s through the late 1990s, all of the romance novels I read were secular—I believe I’ve mentioned my three favorite authors from that era: Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, and Catherine Coulter. In the late 1990s, the Lord convicted me that as a single woman who was, at that time, leading the singles group at my church, I perhaps needed to set that kind of reading material aside and look for something more wholesome. I picked up Stephanie Grace Whitson’s Walk the Fire—and read it in one sitting. After reading everything she had out, I started reading Tracie Peterson’s Ribbons West series. Then I read Danger in the Shadows and the O’Malley series by Dee Henderson. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been hooked on inspirational romance ever since.

  6. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:36 am

    I knew nothing about Janette Oke or Grace Livingston Hill growing up. Not sure I would have read them if I did. The prairie romance is not my thing.

    I think I first read inspirational romance in the mid-1990s. I stumbled upon Lori Wick, Terri Blackstock, and the Heartsong anthologies and couldn’t get enough. Then I found Steeple Hill Love Inspired. The rest was history.

    I love that inspirational romance keeps expanding to include new, contemporary voices trying new things. I love that Christians are no longer presented as one inch away from perfect, to the point of even being pretty gritty, and that every story doesn’t have a salvation message. There are stories for believers that strengthen their existing faith.

  7. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 2:57 pm

    I too started out with Janette Oke, Lori Wick and Grace Livingston Hill. Mama had a HUGE box of GLH books. My favorite is Girl in the Woods. Favorite Janette Oke was The Bluebird and the Sparrow and I’ve got a soft spot for The Princess and Pretense by Lori Wick.

    Most of the changes I’ve seen are good. There is definitely more variety out there now. I very quickly “outgrew” the sweet romance and wanted something with more substance, something that wasn’t set on the prairie or in the American West. I’ve loved reading about other countries since I learned to read, so I very quickly jumped over to Gilbert Morris, Michael Phillips and Judith Pella.

    The one thing I still want to see more of is historical romance set in NON-American settings. There is so much wonderful history to write about. We don’t need to be restricted to just American history. This is slowly starting to change though, with LIH’s willingness to look at proposals for non-US settings. I think other publishers will begin to follow suit.

    I also agree with Patricia’s last paragraph. But I want to see even more freedom to portray less-than-perfect characters, characters with a tragic past, “harder” subject material. (for lack of a better word)

    And like G, I pretty much stopped reading CBA fiction for awhile a few years back. It seemed like everything was the same and there was very little romance coming out that grabbed my attention with setting, time period or characters. But that’s all changing now and the quality of writing in CBA fiction has improved so drastically in the last 5 years that I truly think we have some of the BEST writers in the world writing for a Christian audience. It also challenges me to write better. And everybody wins when we play that game!

  8. MaryBeth G. permalink
    Saturday, June 27, 2009 1:47 pm

    I just love your site–just ran across it. I’m so torn! I’m just finishing my first novel, it’s leaning in the inspirational romance direction–but because of several “non-traditionally Christian” elements, I fear I won’t be able to get it published by a Christian publishing company. And I really just have a character whom is broken, and needs the faith of friends, but who doesn’t plan on marrying her new love (in the first book, plan on it in the 2nd one)…does this matter? Are there publishing companies out there who will be willing to take on “scarred” women? Divorced?
    Thanks so much for any suggestions. This fear has me completely stumped and BLOCKED in finishing the novel! haha
    mbg

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