Welcome to the AAR Roundtable Discussion on Inspirational Romance novels!
According to RWA these books make up 17% of print sales and 14% of e-book sales of all romance novels sold annually. Reviewers Maggie Boyd, Kristen Donnelly, Lynn Spencer and Caz Owens talk about their first experiences reading Inspirationals–often called Inspys– what draws them to this particular type of book, and how they see the stories overall.
Maggie: When I needed to find a sub-genre I typically didn’t read for a reading challenge back in 2009 I determined to suck it up and read three Inspirational books to complete the challenge. I’d had some bad experiences with a few Inspy novels before so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy them much. I was stunned. Deeanne Gist, Cathy Marie Hake and Lynn Austin penned books I completely loved. I began to expand into more authors and found that the Inspirational market of the last few decades was actually rich with fantastic authors, beautiful stories, and fabulous settings. About a third of the books I read are Inspirationals now.
What is your history with the Inspirational Market? What were the first books or authors you fell in love with?
Caz: The first time I read an Inspirational romance, I didn’t even know it existed as a sub-genre of romance! I had just started book reviewing, and I liked the description at NetGalley, so I picked up Julie Klassen’s The Tutor’s Daughter, which had a Jane Eyre-ish gothic/mystery vibe going on and which I enjoyed. Looking back at my review, the one criticism I had was with the parts in which the hero (Henry) questioned the heroine’s (Emma) faith – or lack of it. I said in my review:
Clearly, this is a book with a Christian message, and I have no problem with that, provided that message is handled subtly – which for the most part it is. I just felt that the passages in which Henry tried to restore Emma’s faith in prayer were somewhat jarring when set alongside the presentation of the rest of the story. I would almost say that those sections felt like conscious “insertions” rather than an organic part of the novel as a whole.
One of the best Inspirationals I’ve read – and one that sticks in my mind because of the originality of the story and the way in which the elements of faith are so well incorporated into the book – is Deeanne Gist’s It Happened at the Fair. Set at the World Fair of 1893, it’s the story of a young man who goes to the fair to exhibit his new invention only to discover that the noise in the hall is too great for him to be able to actually speak to anyone about it, and who as a result hires a young teacher of deaf children to help him learn to lip read. I remember a sweet and tender romance and a very realistic presentation of the sorts of obstacles facing a young couple who weren’t rich and would have to work for their livings.
I’ve since read, reviewed and, for the most part, enjoyed a number of Inspirationals, but I pick them up depending on whether the premise of the story attracts me – as you said in your review of Lynn Austin’s Waves of Mercy, Maggie, a story is a story regardless of genre, and that should be the main focus.
Kristen: I’ve been a complete bookworm since I was probably about 5. Stories were, and are, magic to me. I was also raised in a really faith-centric household and we went to a church which was heavily involved in the evangelical subculture when I was in middle and high school. I was open to reading just about anything and couldn’t really see an issue with the romance novels my mother was reading, but some ladies at church took issue with an 11-year-old reading Catherine Coulter and recommended my mom buy me the Christy Miller series. My mom generally trusted me to make my own reading choices, but bought me the Christy Miller books as well. I adored them and they formed a lot of my ideas about what dating and romance and such would look like in high school and college. So Robin Jones Gunn was the first, and then I went on to Francine Rivers, Beverly Lewis, all the greats of the bonnet ripper genre.
I went through a faith crisis in my 20s that led to me largely walking away from anything classified as “Christian entertainment”, and have only recently started reading Inspirationals again. While I never stopped classifying myself as a person of faith, and professionally research religion, I just couldn’t continue with the saccharine Jesus language of the books I had grown up on. I have a super low tolerance for any book that’s going to have God as the solution to the conflict. Which is why I loved An Elegant Facade, by Kristi Ann Hunter, which was my first Inspirational in probably ten years. The integration of faith for each character was authentic, and while the salvation of the heroine was a key feature in the story, it was only an element of the happily ever after.
Lynn: My family always had plenty of Inspirational fiction around the house growing up, so I read a lot of it as a child and teenager. In terms of romance, I remember loving the Love Comes Softly series by Janette Oke. I also adored Christy by Catherine Marshall. Those books all made strong enough impressions that today I still remember them fondly. However, I started to tire of Inspirationals as I got older; the plots seemed to have a lot of sameness to them and the language was too saccharine for me to handle. Too many heroes sounded like Ned Flanders, I guess.
However, I gradually started drifting back to them in my twenties, after I finished school. A friend recommended Home Another Way by Christa Parrish, and I loved it! Though Parrish’s book is not a romance, I enjoyed finding a novel with characters who actually seemed like modern-day people and who spoke regular English, rather than evangelical Christian-ese. I found myself starting to incorporate more inspirational fiction into my reading as I’ve enjoyed books by authors such as Deeanne Gist, Susan May Warren, Tricia Goyer, Elizabeth Camden and Susan Meissner.
Maggie: Caz, you’ve mentioned an important point which is how the faith message is handled in the text. You used the word subtly but I tend to think of the term “naturally”. As a Christian who attends church, I am familiar with “God” conversations and when they occur in the life of real human beings. Most of the Inspirational authors I follow have a good grasp on this as well. I agree with Kristen that Kristi Ann Hunter did a great job in An Elegant Façade, which included a strong salvation message but did so in such a manner that the romance, characters and adventure were the primary focus of the story. God was an important aspect of the characters’ lives and we were introduced to him through them but he was never the focal point of the tale.
Caz: As anyone who knows me or reads my reviews knows, I read mostly historicals, so it will come as no surprise when I say I haven’t read a contemporary Inspirational. But it strikes me that it must be easier to incorporate faith elements into a story set in the 19th century in England when church-going was much more a part of life than it is today. Mary Balogh, who I wouldn’t class as an Inspirational author incorporates elements of faith into many of her books, especially those that take place around Christmas, but because of the time period the books are set, it’s seamless and feels completely natural.
Maggie: I have read several (many?) contemporary Inspirationals and I would have to say that for me, I find the faith conversations as believable in them as in the Regency historicals. Of course, setting plays a role in this. In the US, our laws, politics and entertainment can all be heavily influenced by where we stand on the faith spectrum so conversations that mention God are actually fairly frequent. It’s not unusual for people to flat out ask about someone’s faith affiliation where I live and I live in a liberal community. And don’t even get me started on Facebook- I have friends who seem to endlessly promote their atheism and other friends who post scripture verses every morning.
So it seems natural to me for people to talk about God in either a positive or negative way. In terms of Contemporary Inspirationals, I apply the same rules as I do with historicals. In Harm’s Way by Irene Hannon and the O’Malley Series by Dee Henderson are both examples of books that handle faith in present day romance right. I’ve read several romances, though, where the book was only a cover story for a rather long winded sermon and that is never okay. In fairness, this has happened a few times in non-Inspirational books where an author’s politics or stands on an ethical issue drive the story as opposed to the actual plot. It always bothers me. It’s irritating to have my entertainment time usurped by some author’s homily but adding insult to injury they often are no more qualified than I am to speak on that subject. So not only am I forced to pay for someone’s opinion piece but it is an inexpert one at that!
I should add that I read books on all different faiths from the Muslim religion depicted in Love Comes Later by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, the Hindu faith of Invisible Lives by Anjali Banerjee or the Amish faith of Olivia Newport’s Valley of Hope series. It is not a question of being unwilling to be exposed to new ideas but a determination to separate my fictional reading from any other kind of spiritual reading. I can handle hearing a point of view that is different from mine; I can’t handle being lectured to while reading a romance.
How important is it to you to agree with the character’s ideology and what are your own feelings on spiritual/ethical/political monologues in romance novels?
Caz: Given that I regard myself as an atheist, the answer to that question is obviously that it isn’t. If I had to agree with the ideology of the characters, then I wouldn’t read Inspirational romances. That said, the subject of faith and religion interests me a great deal, so when, in a book, the characters live their lives in a way that reflects their faith, I can easily respect them and understand why they act the way they do, even if I don’t share their beliefs. That’s exactly what I found in that Deeanne Gist book I mentioned; the characters don’t sermonize or preach – there is simply the sense that these two characters are striving to live a good life and honor their beliefs in the best way they can.
The thing guaranteed to put me off is exactly the same thing as for you, Maggie – when characters ‘step out’ from the proscenium arch, as it were, to preach AT me, and start hammering home a message. As we’ve said before, the important thing is the STORY – I will read practically anything as long as the story is good, and I am quite willing to be exposed to religious tenets and ideology in the course of a story, but not when it’s being stuffed down my throat. The best authors – the ones we’ve mentioned – are the ones who are able to put the storytelling first, while still being able to convey the importance of faith to the characters without having them mention God every two paragraphs!
Ultimately, the purpose of fiction is to entertain and, perhaps to educate, but mostly the former. And romantic fiction is specifically about the journey of two characters towards finding their love and HEA. I most definitely don’t want to read a sermon in the middle of that journey!
Kristen: This question made me giggle a little. I’m in the middle of a research project asking romance readers a version of this! Thus, I’ve thought about my own answer quite a bit. A character’s religion is not necessarily important to me – it rarely ranks on a list of why I did or did not connect with them – but it can be crucial if the argument of the author is that this person is defined by their faith. If that’s the case, then the treatment of that is something I care about a lot. If the author is claiming that someone’s Catholicism is essential, for instance, but that character never goes to confession nor is there a comment about the guilt about not going to confession, or jokes about it, or anything, I’m skeptical. I’m delighted when I discover religion handled well in non-Inspirational works as well. It’s something which is so very important to so many people, even the active absence of faith in someone’s life, which is not often addressed, I think it’s something fiction should work more with.
However, if someone is writing a book to use as a platform for anything – their faith, their passion for environmentalism, their belief that purple is the only appropriate trouser color choice for toddlers, whatever – it had better be integrated into the characters very well. If I feel that they’re using me as a captive audience for their agenda instead of telling me a story about characters with lives separate from theirs, then I will DNF that thing so fast. It’s just not what I’m here for in fiction of any sort. Like, for example, in Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair, Mili said a lot of things about her values, her morals, her faith, her culture, and her food. They were said emphatically or calmly, in inner monologues or dialogues. At no point in that book did I feel like Dev was preaching. Instead, she was telling Mili’s story and those things were important to Mili. That difference is, as they say, all the difference.
Lynn: Honestly I don’t need for characters to agree with my own viewpoint. I have enjoyed reading fiction across a wide variety of genres and I like that it lets me slip inside characters’ heads and see the world through their eyes. Understanding a character’s faith can be a large part of who he or she is, so I appreciate being able to see what that person’s beliefs are. However, I don’t like it when characters turn about and start preaching to me as the reader. It makes the story feel unnatural. The inspirational novels that inspire me most are the ones where I see characters’ faith flowing naturally through their lives.
Caz: When I read Roseanna M. White’s A Lady Unrivaled one of the things that didn’t work for me was the way in which both hero and heroine, at various points in the book, seemed to be depending on God rather than their own agency to help them to sort out a problem. Of course, someone can ask for guidance, but this was more than that, and I felt that the characters – especially the hero – were weakened as a result. Pray for strength, wisdom or whatever, but then get out there and DO.
Maggie: It sounds like we can all agree that sermonizing is the big “don’t” in Inspirational fiction. One of the big “dos” for me and what often draws me to these books is rich settings and superb historical detail. Elizabeth Camden is the queen of this in my opinion when it comes to Inspirational fiction. Her books always discuss historical issues that are as fascinating as the love story. With Every Breath and Beyond All Dreams are my favorites, but really I’ve liked almost everything by her. Deeanne Gist, whom Caz mentioned, is another who writes fantastic historical details and settings. Siri Mitchell does a fabulous job with this as well.
What are your “dos” for Inspirational books?
Caz: Put the story and characterization first. If the setting is believable and the characters are well-drawn so that their faith is an intrinsic part of their lives, then the book is likely to hold my attention. And that goes the same for any book. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what religion is espoused by the characters – the story is the story is the story, and if those characters are believable and their beliefs are fully integrated into their lives and personalities, then readers will no doubt enjoy the book. But the minute someone starts preaching at me, regardless of their agenda, then I’m out.
Kristen: I agree with Caz that the story and characters have to come first. If this book is being written primarily as a sermon illustration, I’m going to tap out pretty quickly. However, if the characters feel real, the details are rich, and the dialogue is snappy, I’ll follow an author pretty much anywhere.
Lynn: Telling a good story goes on my overall list of “dos”. We all mentioned the sermonizing above, but sometimes the message overshadows the story to such an extent that I feel like the story is merely an illustration for a sermon. That’s not great reading for me. I enjoy reading books that make their world come alive for the reader. I enjoy romantic suspense, for example, so while an inspy romantic suspense novel may have a powerful message running through the story, there should also be good pacing in the plotting. Dee Henderson does this well. I really enjoyed Traces of Guilt, her most recent novel.
Like Maggie, I also want to see rich settings and great historical detail. The authors she mentions all do this well, as do a number of others in the inspirational market. This is one of the reasons I found myself coming back to inspies after several years of not reading them. Not only has the inspirational market started to loosen up a bit, but one can find a wider variety of historical settings there. As with all corners of publishing, there are some less than stellar books out there, but I did like being able to find historicals that incorporated historical events and details into their stories.
My last big “do” would be to use real people. Older inspirational novels sometimes had protagonists who seemed more like archetypes. However, the most memorable and effective books I read have three dimensional characters who feel like they fit into their settings. For me, that means getting to know the characters and their pasts, their families, their dreams and goals. In addition, they should speak and act like actual people – and actual people generally aren’t perfect.