Writing the Romance Novel: History of the Inspirational Romance
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).
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?