Why don’t romance novels tend to feature religion?
To spin it another way, why is it that outside of inspirational romance, religion tends to be excluded from or mentioned only in passing in non-inspirational (or straight genre) romance?
This is a particularly salient question in the historical context as church membership was a significant part of culture–in fact, perhaps one of the most significant parts of culture, especially in some of the popular settings for historical romances.
(For example, in The Feminization of American Culture, a book which despite its title is largely about Victorian American theology, literary scholar Ann Douglass argues that three-quarters of mid-nineteenth-century Americans were active members of churches, perhaps the highest degree of religiosity in American history. The period was also one of great religious fervor in the UK. And while we’re having a bit of an aside, let me say also that for simplicity’s sake, and because it reflects the bulk of the genre, this post will assume a western lens. I would love love love for the genre to be more diverse in terms of ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, class, race, religion, and politics than it is, so don’t take my discussion of the genre “as is” as endorsement of the status quo.)
Even in the contemporary period, religion remains a significant part of the cultural landscape. So if romance is a realistic genre, if it is frequently set in the world that we know, and if it represents scenarios that could happen/are familiar to us, then what gives with the absence of faith?
My critique partner, Genevieve Turner, and I have been debating the question over email for more than a month now in response to several posts on religion and romance including this one by romance writer Ros Clarke and this one by romance scholar Laura Vivanco.
Initially, Gen and I theorized the elimination of religion from genre romance might be market-driven; that editors and publishers might pressure authors overtly or covertly to downplay religion on the presumption that such content might turn readers off.
If so, they might be right. At the beginning of this post I differentiated between inspirational romance and genre romance. After several negative experiences with preachy examples of the former, I rarely read inspies. In my admittedly-limited experience, inspirational romance tends to feature a conversion or reawakening of faith story running parallel to the romance, with the two narrative strands having tandem lows and highs that seem to flow into or even orchestrate one another.
And this is reified in the Romance Writers of America definition of the subgenre:
Novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are a major part of the romantic relationship. … the love story is the main focus of the novel, religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are blended with and form a significant part of the love story, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.
For example I’ve read at least three books in which the heroine must first convert the hero in order to marry/love him. The opposite exists (see Against the Tide), but there does seem to be an interesting gender component to conversion. There is always going to another participant in the relationship in inspie: God.
It’s perhaps worth saying that I am not religious so this sort of narrative doesn’t have a lot to offer me in the abstract. I left the church quite deliberately in college and haven’t looked back. So while I might care about such a plot if I care about the characters—as compelling romances have led me to care about a range of issues such as the modernization of farming infrastructure or the in and outs of the art market—it doesn’t have an inherent claim on my attentions.
I seem not to be alone in this. When inspies are reviewed on mainstream genre romance sites, reviewers tend to comment on whether the conversion plot is heavy-handed, whether non-believers are portrayed as comically materialistic or amoral, whether in other words there’s anything there for a non-religious audience (or at least one for whom religion isn’t the draw).
Additionally, while the RWA definition is careful to emphasize that the subgenre doesn’t have to be Christian, in my experience the theology and ritual in inspie is almost exclusively Protestant and evangelical, which may further alienate readers.
So if editorial and publishing gatekeepers encourage non-inspie writers to avoid religion in genre romance, there might be evidentiary support for that censorship. (As Gen will discuss, it may also be possible that gatekeepers ghettoize religious characters and writers into inspirational lines, further policing the boundaries.)
But for my purposes in this post, I suspect there might also be a structural, narrative reason why religion doesn’t appear in genre romance in addition to a market-drive one. In the piece by Laura Vivanco that I linked to above, she suggests that romance might function as Marx suggested religion does: as an opiate for the masses.** But what if, in addition to or in supplement of that, romance offers its own conversion narrative? What if love is being offered as a metaphor or substitute for religion?
In a Christian context, the faithful accept the love, limits, and laws of God the father in exchange for eternal life. The Bible is replete with conversion stories. In chapter 9 of Acts, Saul, traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, is struck blind, spends three days in darkness, and then is healed, baptized, and claimed for God by a man named Ananias. The now Paul became one of the most fervent promoters of the new church. An undergraduate religious studies professor of mine claimed he could imagine Christianity without Christ but not without Paul.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but I do want to set up the skeleton of the Christian conversion narrative and to suggest that there are some similarities between it and the structure of genre romance. After all, in genre romance the lovers meet, are often struck immediately with attraction for one another (which they often fight), and (often) find that they must change in order to be together.
Take Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase’s classic historical romance.
At the opening, our hero, Dain, is a rake. He drinks heavily, gambles, avoids polite society, cavorts with prostitutes, etc. until he meets the heroine, Jessica, who almost instantly ensnares him. Dain fights his attraction, tries to convince himself that it’s not love. He even experiences what turns out to be hysterical paralysis, which resolves itself when he works out his relationship with his illegitimate son and with Jessica. The Dain at the end of the book is not the Dain at the beginning—he has seen the light.
(END LoS SPOILERS)
Over the next few weeks, Gen and I want to discuss many things, including the importance of conversion narratives to the inspie subgenre, positive portrayals of religion in genre romance, and more about how romantic and religious conversion may be connected. Over the course of the series, we hope to get a handle on the relationship between faith and love in genre romance. We’ve both written religious characters and scenarios when our plots required them. The presence of religion in our books is just another dimension to the character, backstory, and atmosphere. We just wish we saw more of it within the genre.
** This isn’t correct. She’s summarizing critics of romance who have suggested this. See her comment and my response below.
44 thoughts on “On Religion and Romance”
In the piece by Laura Vivanco that I linked to above, she suggests that romance might function as Marx suggested religion does: as an opiate for the masses. But what if, in addition to or in supplement of that, romance offers its own conversion narrative? What if love is being offered as a metaphor or substitute for religion?
I’d agree that it often does seem to be the case that in (non-Inspirational) romance novels “love is being offered as a metaphor or substitute for religion”. As I argued in my post, the bit that was formerly in the RWA definition of romance, about “the idea of an innate emotional justice — the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love” seems to be getting very close to offering the types of promises offered by religion.
In my post, though, I didn’t mean to suggest that either religion or romance are necessarily an “opiate for the masses” (or valium for bored housewives). Rather, I was pointing out that various bits of romance scholarship/commentary appear to make that suggestion. They would seem to stand in contrast to Pamela Regis’s comments about the relationship between romance and comedy: she believes that one of the eight essential elements of every romance novel is “a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform” (14). On the other hand, those who describe religion as the “opium of the people” weren’t unaware of charitable works carried out by people who believed in God so presumably they felt that religion distracted people into providing palliative care for social ills rather than tackling their root causes. And similarly, some feminist critics of the romance might argue that trying to solve gender inequality on a one-by-one basis through the love of a good woman is an ineffective way to tackle a structural problem, while Marxist critics of the romance would argue that fairytale-like stories which offer women a dream of improving their social status by marrying a handsome prince/billionaire are not particularly likely to offer templates for action to improve the financial lot of the majority of working women.
Personally, I tend to shy away from offering opinions about the effect the romance genre has on readers (a) because I find it hard to make useful/accurate generalisations about such a huge number of novels and (b) because while I feel qualified to carry out literary criticism on individual texts, I don’t feel qualified to psychoanalyse and then produce generalisations about the many thousands of people who read them.
To get back to the religion/romance question, though, have you seen Catherine Roach’s article, published in JPRS in which she argues that:
The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness. Contemporary romance novels are popular because this religious nature of the romance narrative allows them to do deep work for the (mostly) women who read them, engaging readers in a reparation fantasy of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers deal with a paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and threats of violence.
Eric Selinger’s posted a bit about the topic too.
I’m really looking forward to reading more of your and Gen’s thoughts about religion and romance.
Thank you for clarifying that! I am sorry that I conflated your argument with those you were summarizing.
I’ll set the Marx aside because it’s buried somewhere in my house and I can’t find it at the moment. I’ll say that I find Reading the Romance (and the scholarship that followed) simultaneously quite brilliant and so very condescending that I hardly what to do with it. It was quite an accomplishment for English studies in the late 1980s, but it misses the mark in terms of respecting the readers Radway studied, always assuming that any sort of cognitive dissonance was failure on their part not a failure of her thesis to account for the complexity of what the readers were doing with texts.
I’m not certain, however, that arguing that romance is a “a reparation fantasy of healing in regards to male-female relations” as Roach does is any less of a generalization about what readers do with texts than to argue “romance [is] a symptom of the ongoing instability of the heterosexual solution to the oedipal dilemma, that is, a ritual effort to convince its readers that heterosexuality is both inevitable and natural that it is necessarily satisfactory as well” (Radway 14). Indeed Roach and Radway’s arguments actually seem quite similar **structurally** with only the assumption that this process is negative and the reader’s agency having changed. It’s as if all the switches have been toggled.
(But I hadn’t read Roach until just now, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m not actually a scholar of romance, so I’m not nearly as well-read on the secondary literature as I should be.)
Ultimately, all literary criticism does construct a reading and argue that it is most warranted, that a reasonable, informed reader would be most likely to believe that a text means X, but I agree it’s worth resisting the impulse.
I absolutely see there as being a connection between the romantic conversions in contemporary genre romance and, in particular, early women’s Christian conversion narratives (Paul and Thecla, etc.) and even the Medieval religious romance (Gawain, Roswall and Lillian, etc.). So perhaps what’s really happening when genre romance ignores religion is that the restorative justice is sublimated rather than foregrounded.
Regardless, I hope we’re able to make some contribution, or at least draw attention to an absence!
I just wrote a very messy thesis-y response at janeleeblair.tumblr.com
I hope it is helpful and not too un-edited. I wrote it after a day of travel and didn’t worry too much about grammar or coherence.
I’m so glad to see this conversation, whether or not my comments are helpful to the discussion.
Also I really have to recommend this other post of Ros Clarke’s. http://theoldshed.me/romance-is-my-religion/
I’m running around like crazy trying to get ready for class, but I wanted to say quickly that I loved your post, Jane, and I’ll respond to it tonight but in the meantime, everyone should read her post about why she as an evangelical doesn’t read inspirational romance.
(And I’ll say that your sense of the genre is why I think many people avoid it.)
Jane, your post was beautiful! And I think you illustrate perfectly the problem with faith in all types of romance–it is either too narrowly constrained (even for people of faith), as in inspies–or not mentioned at all, as in non-inspies.
I’ll likely have more to say later when I’ve chewed over your post a bit more!
Your entire post resonated with me 100%!
And 16 hours later: your post is terrific, Jane. Because your point of view is so different than mine I particularly value what you’re saying. I have a very serious impostor complex in talking about religion in romance because I’m actively not religious, nor am I am romance scholar. What the heck am I doing talking about it then?
I guess at core, as Evangeline discusses below, I get upset when we write complexity out of romance. (See my post on politics and romance.) I think genre romance has such transformative potentiality but I feel like we defeat ourselves and I just don’t know why we do it. Is it truly readers? Is it writers? Is it editors?
I want the genre that I think we, and culture, deserve, and that would include a more diverse portrait of religiosity.
Let me keep chewing your post over, Jane, but thank you so much for adding your voice!
Here here! I agree with wanting to change the genres. And I think this is where self-publishing can really help to push things forward. Without the hindrance of major publishing houses pushing typical definitions on authors, I hope that writers will take more chances. Granted, self-publishing is difficult for many other reasons, but conforming to genre is not one!
We’re having some technical difficulties (one of the Internet’s tubes must be stopped up), so I’m posting this for Laura Vivanco:
I tried to work out a way to reply to Jane’s post but I’m not sure that’s how tumblr works so I’ll do it here.
I haven’t read very many Inspirational romances; I don’t think they’re published much, if at all, in the UK. I wonder if historical-set inspirational romances might have a higher proportion of characters in them who are both already Christians than contemporary-set ones?
All I know about their readership comes from Rebecca Barrett’s article (archived online here) and which is well worth a read, since it addresses the question of what already-converted readers get out of the books and Lynn S. Neal’s Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, about which she’s written that:
“What I discovered, is that even though the choice to read this genre emerges from Christianity, readers need something to help them maintain their faith,” Neal said. “So even though there is a firm commitment to their religion, there are gaps in living that faith in daily life. That’s what really got me excited about the project. You can really see how these readers are trying to live their religion and how these novels help them do it.”
Readers told Neal that the heroines in the novel inspire them to better their spiritual lives, to forgive, pray, trust God or read the Bible more. “It’s a fascinating cycle of faith, of the tensions in living out faith and continually seeking to strength their faith,” she said.
And backing up what you said, Emma, about how “religion in the US remains “the most segregated hour of American life,” Neal notes that she mostly found her interviewees via a “snowball” method (i.e. people referred their friends to her, and those friends then referred their friends) and her snowball stayed almost completely white.
I also have a copy of Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels but unfortunately I haven’t got round to reading it yet. I have read some of the articles she wrote to publicise the book, though, and one of the things she said was that:
I’d wager that many North American Mennonites feel a flicker of pride in our theological and historical connection to the group that has become the buggy-driving superstars of popular culture. […] Yet as I read Amish novel after Amish novel, I felt a niggling sense of annoyance, too. It had something to do with the borrowing and benefiting at work in the fact that 60 non-Anabaptist novelists are advancing careers by locating their stories in Amish country. I felt uneasy that a culture and faith that I felt close to was being sliced and diced into loving glances over chicken pot pie and conversions in the cornfield, and I wondered whether readers were learning anything about Anabaptism’s communitarian ethics, nonresistant commitments and history of persecution. The near absence of references to nonresistance in the books made me suspicious.
Although I hesitated to blame romance novels for offering a partial view of a complicated and centuries-old religious tradition, I also wondered whether these gentle narratives of marriage and family and neighbor and land did more to illuminate or obscure the identity of a complex culture.
It’s hard for me to work out a reply that isn’t better suited for a long conversation but my first gut response was “that’s why I go to church!” And that’s probably indicative of my tradition’s emphasis on solid expository teaching/preaching. So because I am getting that from my church experience, I don’t feel like I need to reinforce it with didactic fiction.
Alternatively, as I read bits and pieces of that research article to the pastors’ wives I was rooming with this past weekend, we clucked a little about the lack of solid biblically-based preaching, and then one said “You know, reading Harry Potter really helped me learn to see God as a benevolent and wise father.”
So, I might be being too snooty and elite, which is certainly a failing in our tradition.
I would like to have coherent thoughts on race, romance, and religion, since I’m married to not just a pastor, but a black pastor, albeit in a historically white denomination, but my little preacher’s kids just took the baby gate down and are getting into EVERYTHING.
I’m going to veer away a bit from the discussions you’ve already started (which are excellent and thoughtful and give me a lot to chew on) and speak to my own experience writing Regency romance. I have thought long and hard about the questions of both sex and religion in my books, both of which come down to accepted genre conventions. In mainstream romance, it’s cool to have sex and not cool to have religion.
I have had mostly positive response to including a bit of religion in my first book, My Dear Sophy. It’s a Regency romance and is modeled after a Jane Austen character. In it, the hero’s father is a rector and in one chapter they actually go to church and hear him preach. I thought long and hard about including that scene in the book. In the end, I left it in because it was true to the characters. But much of the the sermon wasn’t really about religion, but more about being a good person.
Now, sometime in the future I’m going to continue writing about these characters and their life on board a warship during the Napoleonic era. And that will involve A LOT of religion, since shipboard church services were mandated by the British government. But I also feel freer to tackle the idea of religion in that context because it’s not trying to fit into a set genre like Regency romance.
In thinking about the conventions of romance genres today and where they may have come from, I have an idea: at least in the Regency genre, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer are frequently listed as inspirations (and happen to be my personal inspirations for writing this era). And in the work of both authors, religion is there, but seen as something to be laughed at. More of a profession for younger sons who need money rather than a vocation someone feels called by God to pursue. Think Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton or even Edmund Bertram in Jane Austen’s work. (I’ve read too many Heyers to list specific examples off the top of my head.) They are all laughed at as something ridiculous, nearly clown-like in the case of Mr. Collins. So though religion — and here I’m thinking about actively attending church and doing things like praying and reading the Bible on a regular basis — was there in real life, it doesn’t appear in a favorable or even very serious light in the works that the genre of Regency romance is modeled upon.
I know this is getting lengthy, so one last thought: It’s damn hard to get religion right, honestly. Especially the western Christian religion we see in most romances relies so heavily on the individual conversion experience, that I think it’s hard to narrate that in a way that feels authentic and relatable to most readers. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was one of those Christians who went on mission trips to “witness” to people. But without the audience having gone through something similar to me, it was very hard to connect with them on any kind of personal and emotional level. So I think maybe religion being absent from romance might be mostly because it’s easier to leave it out. Human passions like love are pretty universal. Religious conversion narratives are individual.
(Though I do think that you have something with the idea of romance itself becoming a convincing conversion narrative to replace that of a religious narrative in modern life.)
Whew. Okay, I’ll stop there. But this is a fantastic discussion and I’ll be eagerly awaiting more.
I think Austen’s feelings about religion are very complicated. I don’t know that she’s mocking it as much as mocking how clergymen were forced to condescend to landowners on whom they depended for a living. So Mr. Collins, for example, is a comic figure because he’s been distorted by his obsequiousness, but Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars get to be romantic heroes precisely because they are independent.
When I read Austen’s letters as an undergraduate, I came to believe that religion was personally much more important to Austen than I had assumed reading her books. Once I went into them with a more religious lens, I found more morality and faith there than I had previously. I think we’ve secularized her to some extent.
But I love, love, love your point that religious conversion is personal and I wonder if that’s why inspie hasn’t worked for me: because it seems to supplant a universal narrative structure for the individual. Precisely because inspie tends to fit a very narrow set of requirements (either because of marketplace pressures, the expectations of readers, the desires of authors, or something) maybe there’s less room for the individual.
What do you think?
Oh and also, I haven’t read any Heyer.
Go ahead and mock me now. ; )
Definitely mocking you for not reading Heyer ;) I do think you would love “Venetia”, if you ever wanted to start somewhere with her…
And I totally get what you’re saying about Austen being more religious than we give her credit for… and think of the Austen market that’s grown up and how many people now pretty much disregard a complex reading of the source material in favor of watching Colin Firth or reading an Austen adaptation. I do feel that the original intent has been morphed (I was going to say corrupted, but I really really don’t think any movies or adaptations will in any way damage Austen’s works) into what contemporary culture UNDERSTANDS as Austen. That’s what I was driving at… that the original doesn’t matter much anymore because we’ve appropriated Jane Austen in ways that are less complex than her original material.
Thanks for elaborating on the universal v. personal point. I agree with you that most inspirationals don’t strike me right because I can’t see myself in the story. I wonder if it’s a more contemporary thing, though, because LM Montgomery has some pretty religious stuff and I’m not bugged by it. Same as Grace Livingston Hill, another author I grew up reading. Her stories tended to be less about converting people or converting a hero in order to be with him and more about the heroine finding her own path and deepening her own faith.
P.S. I am definitely thinking more about your point on gender relationships in inspirational romance and maybe in conversion narratives in general…
I just want to expand on your point that conversions are a very personal thing–I agree, but the practice of religion is often a highly communal experience (going to church, serving charities, bible studies, etc). Your example of mandatory services on warships is a great example–I would suspect that the reason it was mandatory was as much to foster a sense of community on board as to tend to men’s souls.
Like Emma, conversion narratives don’t do much for me, but I would like to see more of that communal aspect of faith in romance–not religion as “This is how I come to God”, but rather, “This is how we live day to day.”
I think there are quite a few inspies which do focus on the communal aspect of religion. Often it’s intertwined with small town community (which is not my favourite thing) but it is there. I admit, I find it frustrating because often the faith part is left out or marginalised, but I do like seeing religion as a community thing. One book which does this well – in a Regency setting, too! – is Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under The Collar (NOT an inspie! And as sexy as you’d imagine with that title).
I’m reading the memoirs of an Edwardian footman and experienced a bit of dissonance over the constant reference to family prayer, because Downton Abbey features little to no religion unless it’s used as a plot point. Then I remember Manor House, which aired on PBS in 2001 or so, and how the reality program made it a point to include how prevalent family prayer was in the manor house–and the greater Edwardian society.
I struggle with Christianity in my historicals almost as much as I struggle with POC in them because, ironically, writing to the mainstream has basically meant erasing significant portions of myself from my books. I have a vicar hero in an upcoming WIP, and I also have a devout pastor as the anchor of my Wattleton Valley series, but I kept pushing them waaaay back over anxiety about the presence of their faith. I even have Jewish and Sikh characters on the back burner because of this anxiety, lol.
When I think about it, the issue of religion, even within the Inspirational Romance genre, seems hand-in-hand with Ruthie Knox’s latest Wonkomance post, “Writing Reality.” Romance novels aren’t supposed to jar a reader–they are to allow the reader to slip effortlessly between the covers with only minor bumps on the road to the HEA (and these minor bumps must still serve the fantasy…i.e. the scarred, one-armed hero is always shuffled into the “Beauty and the Beast” trope). The presence of religion means some may feel a particular belief system is being shoved down their throat, some may be offended because it isn’t how they worship or it doesn’t conform to their theology, and still others may be offended because of historical oppression of one religion by another.
No religion at all, or just a generic Protestant belief system, keeps everything copacetic, it keeps romances as one-book-fits all, it keeps the easy fantasy intact.
I totally agree with everything you’ve said here, but I am curious about two things:
1) Are we right when we assume this stuff, this sticky realistic stuff (religious or otherwise), will put readers off?
I adored that Ruthie Knox post. But what worried me most (and many com mentors pointed this out) is that authors will self-censor. That they won’t even write in the first place (rather than having an editor or reader complain). Maybe part of the problem with romance is that the market is so tangible that it constricts the writing to a greater degree.
2) How do we explain books that include religion and still find readers?
Ever since we started talking about the topic last month, Gen and I been putting a list of non-inspirational romances with religion in them. It was slow going at first, but we eventually put together a pretty good list ranging from the erotic (The Siren) to the contemporary (too numerous to list), the historical, etc.
These books absolutely get reviewed differently. Readers do ask in the comments, “How preachy is this?” But they do find readers and in many cases, I’ve seen the writers say on Twitter that that they hear all the time from readers who love what they’re doing.
So I guess I do wonder how real the backlash is.
(And incidentally, I feel the same pressure and think I limit myself in the same way. My Civil War historical has quite a bit of a religious content. My up-coming contemporary has none. Its sequel, which will be out in September, has a little bit.)
1. You’re right, the spectre of self-censorship does hover over us. I think it is simply the nature of the romance genre–at its core, we are selling a fantasy. Not the stereotypical fantasy non-romance readers lob at the genre, but a heightened version of real life (or of the past) that, in general, turns the everyday troubles burdening our shoulders into a mink stole for a few hours. And the nature of the beast is that if we try something different, we have to do it very well from day one, or we have to build readers’ trust book by book until we can slide that something different into the mix.
The business side of romance–agents, editors, art department, the whole shebang, also plays a whole, as many of the published authors on that Wonkomance post concede. They are there to maximize profits by giving readers what they say they want (based on sales numbers and reviews) and aren’t inclined to test boundaries unless they know how to sell the book.
But I do agree that the market is very tangible. Readers outright gravitate towards particular elements, regardless of quality (at first)–they just want that book set in the Highlands with a kilted hero, or a book where the hero kidnaps the heroine, etc. The up side is that we do have room to play within these reader desires, but that trust has to be firmly in place. (I’m reminded of the reaction to Jennifer McQuiston’s debut, What Happens in Scotland–very high concept plot with the perennially favorite Highland setting and Scottish hero…wrapped around a thoroughly unconventional structure. Readers either loved it or loathed it, not many inbetween reactions)
2. I think this goes back to tropes or romance sub-genre expectations. I read more historical than contemporary, and I expect religion in certain settings (Crusades!). Blurbs help–and vicars in British-set historicals are usually paired with the bad girl heroine, thus setting up that familiar dynamic (my vicar hero falls under this umbrella *g*). I freely admit that I’d look at a contemporary romance with a jaundiced eye, but only because I’m not familiar with those tropes or expectations–CR readers know them and can pick up on the right cues from the blurb, title, and cover.
I think I’m rambling. In a nutshell, I think religion in non-inspirational romances are welcome in general scheme of things, but for authors (maybe I’m projecting) religion feels just as exposing as sex–perhaps more so–in a way it wouldn’t in the inspirational romance world. You write inspirational romance and you’re mostly speaking the same language as your readers, editors, and fellow writers, but if you exist outside of that circle, you’re a bit of an outlier.
I wonder if some of the self censoring writers do in this regard will start to end as self publishing continues its rise. Because if you don’t have to worry about what your editor might say, then you could write in what ever you liked and let the reader decide.
And yes, some readers might be turned off by any mention of religion, but I think we’re proving here that many will actually welcome it.
(In my latest book, I have a scene where the hero and heroine very explicitly discuss their faith traditions and how it relates to how they approach science. I probably would have to tone down that scene for a traditional publisher–but it’s probably my favorite scene in the whole book.)
Noelle Adams is a good example of this. She was open about the fact that she wasn’t expecting to find many readers for Married for Christmas because of the faith aspect:
But it’s been received incredibly well by romance readers across the board. So I think the key is, as always, to write a great book with characters readers can relate to and care about, and not get hung up on what you think the market may or may not want.
A fascinating discussion. This becomes further complicated when you consider the omission of the perspective of the much, much heavier preachiness of contemporary African American Inspirational Romance which exists in a genre separate from the CBA, but takes a far heavier religious approach. And I will agree with what has been said earlier. Readers of these books are seeking that religious affirmation. So when they pick up a so-called “inspy” book, they are looking for that character to have that conversion experience. For them, reliving the conversion experience functions as a reaffirmation of their relationship with God.
As someone who reads and writes these books featuring African Americans in a historical context, I have found myself almost between two worlds with my books. Some in the CBA may see them as irregular, because my characters’ experience features the unfamiliar black church which is a crucial foundation for my characters’ lives. In the ABA the inclusion may be seen as too much religion. So there it is.
Another unusual aspect of the inspy market is the inclusion of the Amish romance, which is neither Protestant or evangelical, but still forms a large portion of the market. Why aren’t there more works dealing with the Jewish faith or Islam then? Even Catholicism is not allowed full expression. These “different” religions come across as foreign as the black church experience does, which is still Christian but is not included in the CBA as a viable business market. Some inspy writers have taken up self-publishing as a way to remedy these exclusions, and I am on my way to doing that as well.
There are rumblings of rebellion from RWA in some quarters of the inspy world. Membership in the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) has grown faster. The inclusion of the Erotica category this year for the Ritas and the Golden Heart and the cancellation of the Inspirational Romance category in the Golden Heart last year in the RWA did not set well with many inspy writers. So in the future, I see even less possibility for the portrayal of religion in the romance world, which is sad and especially in the case of historicals, unrealistic.
I hope that you take your research and apply for an RWA grant with it, because these disparities really should be addressed in an academic context.
You raise so many important points here! Once we see the problem as intersectional by looking at beyond the white evangelical church–as religion in the US remains “the most segregated hour of American life,” to steal a phrase–the issue becomes so much more complex than I’ve made it out to be.
Beverly Jenkins does discuss black liberation theology in novels like Indigo and she does seem to be pretty widely read, though her publishing history is really fascinating. She wrote for Avon earlier in her career and now she doesn’t. I haven’t done any real work on this other than to search for her backlist on Amazon, but it seems like she got her rights back and now is self-publishing or working with small presses, which perhaps indicates that religion and race together are maybe too much for romance to address.
But… in some ways the explosion of Amish romance is what gives me hope. I say this as someone who hasn’t read that many of them, and who also worries with the few I’ve read that it’s sort of an exotic/fetish thing, but the popularity of Amish romance is precisely the sort of thing that the market would never have predicted and is decidedly behind the curve on. So the gatekeepers and the received wisdom that leads us to self-censor simply isn’t always right. We need to trust ourselves and our readers.
I need to think more about this, but you seem to be suggesting that RWA and it’s fascination with definitions and genre purity is making the problem worse not better, and I tend to agree.
Love these points about the erasure of “other” faiths from even the Inspirational genre.
Bottom line: you’re all on my list of writers to read and I want your awesome genre-bending/breaking books like yesterday. :)
First off, I am so excited to hear you’ll be self publishing your books!
It sounds like there might be a possible split coming between parts of the inspirational romance world and RWA, which would be a shame.
Like you, I would love to see those “other” faiths represented in all kinds of romance–everyone being of one monolithic faith (or none at all) is nothing like what my life is like.
As for Islam, I doubt that we will see a Muslim romance hero anytime soon. Are there any romances with a Muslim hero? Even in the HP sheik romances, the “sheiks” aren’t Islamic. (At least in the few I’ve read.)
My sheikh was! I have a scene in the mosque and it is one of the sources of conflict with his Scottish Presbyterian heroine. But mostly I wrote that because I was so fed up of non-Muslim sheikhs in HPs who even prefer to have ‘Westernised’ marriage ceremonies, whatever that means. Ugh.
Ooh, I literally had no idea that there was a separate AA inspie market. Off to search for some now.
I remember the bafflement and bemusement from the media over Whitney Houston’s televised funeral service. It was like the people had stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia, lol. The apparently looming schism between non-inspirational and inspirational romance is going to be a blow to the general, mainstream romance community. And yay to your possibly self-publishing! You’ll do great. :)
Lol. you’ve got it right about Narnia, Evangeline. There’s a whole big world out there and that seems to be news to traditional publishing. Thanks for the encouragement on self-pubbing. I’m a bit nervous about it, but I’ve got all these stories–one of them to get out there and start showing what I can do.
That’s great! I’ve never thought before of the Amish romances as a potential opportunity for more inclusion, but you may be right on that one. Thanks for sharing that.
Beverly Jenkins still publishes for Avon though, as of her two latest series. (Destiny’s Surrender) Book two of her latest historical trilogy, came out last fall and the last book in the series will be out later this year with Avon as well. You are right though, she did self-publish some of those earlier works like Indigo, (much to the relief of my students who didn’t have to pay so much for it last year when I taught it).
In her more current Avon pubbed historicals, she seems to have moved away from the inclusion of Black liberation theology (some of my Inspy colleagues would have been beyond shocked by the opening of Book Two, for certain).
She also publishes (with Avon in trade) the “inspy inclined” Blessings series where she takes up Black liberation issues in a contemporary setting. However, as with other AA authors of the inspirational genre, these works are not considered part of the CBA world, which is too bad.
Yes, I noticed her latest Avon releases have fallen along more conventional, more “Avon-y” lines.
Y’all, I love this discussion.
When it comes to self-censorship, I know that I find myself doing it not in my manuscript, which is oh-so-slowly getting written, but even in my online interactions with folks. I am treading a fine line as a pastor’s wife in our tiny evangelical conservative denomination, especially because my husband raises support. So literally the food that we eat comes because people decide that my husband’s ministry is worth giving money to. (And it is! it’s awesome and I love it.) Many of those people still think of romance novels as bodice rippers and next-door-to-porn and ruiners of good marriages, etc., etc. So on the one hand, I in no way want to do things that will affect my husband’s ministry.
And then on the other hand, I don’t want the romance writing community with which I interact, and man, ya’ll are some gracious people, I don’t want ya’ll to think I’m weird because I believe the Bible is true, and that there are absolutes, and that I love Jesus and more importantly am loved by Jesus. I fully and totally subscribe to a Christian sexual ethic as the best plan for your life, and my favorite romances are the ones that follow that, even if they aren’t doing it on purpose. Reading romances has helped me grow and mature as a person by …I guess growing my appreciation for my own sexuality? (sexual abuse survivor here), and by showing growth of healthy relationships and vulnerability, etc., etc. Not to mention that in a life that’s fraught with hard things–ministry is hard, ministering to broken people is hard, our mixed race marriage can be hard–knowing that even as we believe that Jesus will triumph and “wipe every tear from our eye”, that this book I’m reading will end happily–well, to be a super churchy old lady, “What a blessing!”
But when I’m interacting with people on twitter with my real name, which isn’t Jane Lee Blair, I’m trying to manage expectations on these two totally different fronts–I don’t want you to think I’m weird–and I don’t think anyone has–certainly no one has called me that. But once romance authors started following me, I was certainly less likely to say or retweet things that felt super-churchy, even if I felt they were true. And then I felt convicted about it. But also then there’s important people who could potentially affect my husband’s ministry that I don’t want to make worry about me. (I also used my kids’ real names on my personal twitter so I needed to make a new one anyway.)
But yes to self publishing. Noelle Adams has a great interview somewhere (I googled for it and I can’t find it) where she talks about the decision to self-publish her book Married for Christmas. That book absolutely made me cry because it was the first book that had a pastor hero that felt anywhere close to my lived experience. And like every review ever says “it’s not an inspirational! it’s great!”
Julie Anne Long’s vicar hero, though, that book that almost everyone loved, drove me CRAZY. I had really hopeful expectations about that book, given the themes that showed up in her other books, and, especially as a pastor’s wife, they were dashed. But everyone else liked it. I wanted him to spend time with MY husband and grow up.
So, yes: if you write about religion, you will make some people mad. But maybe it’ll be worth it.
And yes, I’m going to say this and feel very vulnerable and churchy and evangelical, but as what an outside person would see as a “practicer of religion”, my experience of Christianity is not being a good person or even religion, it’s that I am a MESS and Jesus loves me. I can’t even remember if this is a buzzword phrase, but “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship” is what I say every time I see that word. And while certainly we embrace the laws of God, it’s not about being good, it’s that Jesus was good for us. so, sorry. end my little tiny caveats.
Also, here is a book by a pastor not in my denomination but in one that is not too far removed about Jane Austen and Christianity. (this is a link to a review)
And i’m sorry I’m responding to every comment at once. I’m actually at a pastor’s wives retreat so I’ve been getting email comments throughout the day and only now am able to sit down and respond.
But I love this conversation so much. Thanks for letting me be the weirdo Christian. Sorry that I’m responding to several different conversations at once.
Hah! I was going to recommend Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals with respect to the Jane Austen question. I didn’t know he’d written another one.
This vulnerabilities and hesitations you’ve expressed are precisely what i was getting at in my earlier post. You’re not a weirdo at all, and your posts have verbalized (er, literarized?) a lot of the turmoil I’ve wrestled with over the past year as I stopped being lackadaisical with my faith.
Jane, have you read Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish? It has a vicar hero, who struggles with his pastoral duties and his feelings for the atheist/agnostic heroine. And the church as a community institution is really beautifully done in it.
Ros, I have read Hot Under the Collar and enjoyed it! And I just bought your sheik romance! Thanks for mentioning it. :)
I haven’t, but I probably should…I just need to learn to separate my 21st century evangelical preacher husband from clergy heroes written by non-evangelical authors.
Wow! I had no idea so many people cared/wanted to weigh in on this. My minions woke up early (of course), so I won’t have a chance to properly respond to all these awesome comments until tonight, but I’ve been thinking about how socioeconomic class and regional identity might contribute (both in an American context, which is obviously an imperfect and exclusionary construction).
I need to do some research on church membership across class, but maybe there’s a disconnect between the class membership of writers and editors and readers–and related to that, their church membership–that leads to the market shaping the genre in such a way that’s out of step with readers.
Just a thought.
Finally, I very much second Ros Clarke’s comment about Noelle Adams (and Elizabeth Camden, to a certain extent): the enthusiastic response to these books makes me think there is room in the non-inspirational market for a diverse, textured representation of faith in romance.
Wow, what a gift to find such a wonderful and intelligent conversation on a topic close to my heart!
The idea of an inspirational romance where the ONLY block to the relationship was that either hero or heroine weren’t Christian sounds weak to me. That’s an issue, for sure, but the conflict needs to run deeper than that to satisfy me as a reader. I’m sure the right author could manage it skilfully though, like everything else in romance, it’s all in the execution.
Jane, thanks for your honest comments and post, I loved reading both.
Piper, very excited to hear you’re considering self-pubbing. Praying that’s amassive success for you!