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Dominance of Christianity in Romance

Kate Breslin’s For Such A Time and the Dominance of Christianity in the Romance Fiction Industry

By Emma van Bergen (2021)

Introduction

Kate Breslin’s debut novel For Such A Time was published by Baker Publishing Group in April 2014. The inspirational romance tells the story of “blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin” who is forced to assume a false identity and work under SS Kommandant Aric von Schmidt at Theresienstadt transit camp in 1944 (Breslin). A retelling of the biblical story of Esther, Hadassah and Aric eventually fall in love and find a new sense of faith (Breslin).

The novel initially received rave reviews, particularly from Christian readership who praised it as being well-researched, composed of beautiful language, and emotionally impactful due to its plot, character development, and religious influences (Sarah K.; Bekah). For Such A Time went on to receive numerous accolades, including two 2015 RITA nominations from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) for Best Inspirational Romance and Best First Book categories (Schonfeld). In spite of this positive reception, there were also some negative reviews which appeared after the book’s RITA nominations such as one by a guest reviewer on the popular blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, as well as in the form of comments on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; Aidyl; Jennifer). However, it was not until Sarah Wendell’s letter to the RWA Board was published that the true scandal was sparked.

Shortly after the RITA awards ceremony was held in July 2015, Sarah Wendell (RWA member, romance author, and co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) published a letter she had sent the RWA Board on her personal tumblr (Wendell). This letter directly criticized the RWA for nominating For Such A Time, highlighting the book’s antisemitic material, appropriation of a historical tragedy, and implications that Christianity should be viewed as the superlative religion. Wendell also addressed the larger romance publishing industry as a whole, acknowledging that For Such A Time “did not happen in a vacuum,” but was instead approved by a number of people involved in its writing, editing, publishing, and marketing (Wendell).

Wendell’s critique sparked an Internet controversy and generated an enormous amount of debate within the romance community, even getting picked up by major news publications such as Bustle and The Guardian (White; Beckett). Romance authors, readers, and critics alike heatedly discussed (and sometimes blatantly argued over) For Such A Time, deliberating about a range of topics including the morals of using the Holocaust as a setting for a romance novel, connections to the lack of racial diversity within the romance industry, and the question of whether or not novels can be separated from their content to be deemed “good” based only on their formal literary techniques. Despite the multitude of widespread opinions that emerged, several particular comments began to surface: confusion over why the RWA nominated the novel, beliefs that the novel perpetuated a hostile environment, and anger over the novel’s underlying evangelicalism. Each of these remarks probes investigation into the presence of Christianity within For Such A Time itself, as well as within the greater romance publishing industry. Ultimately, the conversations and reactions generated by the controversy surrounding For Such a Time bring to light the degree to which Christianity dominates the romance industry.

 

The Inspirational Genre vs. Christianity in Secular Romance

It is important to note that Christianity in romance will be considered twofold in this report, the first of which is as part of the Inspirational and/or Christian romance subgenres. These subgenres include books that are fundamentally rooted in Christian faith, written for a Christian audience, and subscribe to a particular set of rules that maintain Christian values. Such rules commonly include an emphasis on emotional intimacy between the hero and heroine (who as the main characters almost exclusively conform to heteronormativity), little to no sexual content, and no drugs, alcohol, gambling, or profanity. Importantly, these books make Christian faith and belief “integral to the story” (Harlequin Submission Manager).

The second way that Christianity will be considered in the romance genre is in texts published outside of the Inspirational and/or Christian subgenres. These are books which are considered secular and do not conform to the expectations of these subgenres, yet still feature characters who are Christian or plotlines that have to do with Christianity. One example of this type of text is The Christmas Fix by Lucy Score. Score is a #1 Amazon Kindle store and Wall Street Journal bestselling romance author who has written twenty-nine published novels. Each of her novels have been well received, with every one of her Amazon listings having an average review greater than four stars (Score, 2021c). She also has a significant social media presence, with over 48,000 followers between Instagram and Facebook (Score, 2021b; Score, 2021a). The Christmas Fix, like all of Score’s works, is part of the contemporary romance subgenre. Religious faith and traditional Christian values are not fundamental to its narrative, and it includes sexual content and profane language (Score, 2017). Score is an example of a mainstream romance author whose works are not intentionally meant to promote religious values, nor are they written for any particular religious group. However, books such as Score’s, which is centered around a Christian holiday, still contribute to the overall presence of Christianity within the romance genre and publishing industry. Furthermore, given that Score’s books are intended for a diverse audience of romance readers, her incorporation of Christmas into this successful novel is demonstrative of how the presence of Christianity has become normalized within secular romance fiction.

 

A Celebration of Christian Stories

One of the first common reactions to For Such A Time’s nominations was a sense of disappointed puzzlement over why the RWA found the novel, which actively promotes the narrative that Christianity is fundamental to a non-Christian character’s Happily Ever After, appropriate to celebrate with a RITA nomination. On Goodreads, reviewer Christina stated how “the fact that so many people… found this [novel] acceptable baffles me,” while commenter Joanie simply called For Such A Time’s nominations “unbelievable” (Christina; Joanie).

Historically, this sense of shock is not particularly justified. Without even considering the RITA’s Inspirational category, books with Christian characters and narratives have been celebrated by the RWA for years in enormous proportion to books including other religious identities. From 1990 to 2019, seven works of romance including the word “Christmas” in the title were nominated for RITA awards – none of which was in an Inspirational or religious category (Romance Writers of America). Meanwhile, there have been no nominated novels whose titles even allude to other religions, much less include the names of particular holidays within those faiths. Therefore, the RWA’s tradition of regularly celebrating and awarding predominantly Christian stories across all romance genres is one that has been proliferating the field for decades.

It is also important to consider the demographics of the RWA. Unfortunately, there has not been much data collected regarding religious diversity in the RWA. In a time when questions regarding diversity are becoming all the more prominent and a greater emphasis is being placed on the necessity of increasing the number of romance stories written by authors and featuring characters who are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, fat, and differently-abled, the lack of data and comparatively small amount of conversation around religious diversity is telling (Beckett). Furthermore, in 2018 the RWA’s membership was reported to be 73% White/Caucasian and 12% Black/African American (Rothschild). Given that approximately 70% of White Americans and 79% of Black Americans are Christian according to the Pew Research Center, an inherent bias emerges (Pew Research Center). The particularly overwhelming number of White Christian women in the RWA has been acknowledged colloquially, with RITA-award winning romance author Suzanne Brockmann once calling out “‘white, able, straight, cis allegedly Christian women’” during her acceptance speech for RITA’s lifetime achievement award (Beckett). Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the majority of the RWA is likely Christian. This may create conscious or unconscious prejudice within the RWA that contributes to novels about Christian characters being so frequently nominated and awarded.

 

A Hostile Environment

Another critique that has been voiced, most frequently from romance authors themselves, is that the celebration of For Such A Time contributed to an industry environment that is hostile toward non-Christians. In her letter, Wendell exclaimed how she believes For Such A Time’s nominations “creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome” (Wendell). While the major players in the industry may be fighting against this perception, publishing standards and statistics show that romance novels containing Christianity are actively encouraged over those that include other religions.

One way that the industry perpetuates favoritism for Christianity is in its continued promotion of the Inspirational romance subgenre. This subgenre first began to gain significant popularity in the American romance fiction market in the late 1990s when rising feminism, stemming from the 1970s and 1980s, resulted in an increased number of published romance novels featuring explicit sex. Adverse reactions to this content by more conservative romance readers grew, prompting the growth of Inspirational romance novels which “deliberately reject the values and subject material of their more sexually explicit counterparts, and which often reject sex itself in favor of an increased focus on the family and God” (Darbyshire 75). Initially, smaller, exclusively Christian publishing houses were the primary distributors of Inspirational romance fiction. However, larger publishers began to see the appeal of Christian fiction given the $43 million in sales it produced by the end of the 1990s (Markert 271).

Harlequin’s own Love Inspired line was established in 1997 and has maintained strong popularity in the decades since its inception, with Harlequin executive editor Tina James calling the line a “strong franchise with faithful readers” in 2017 (Garrett). Today, Harlequin continues to encourage writers to produce Christian fiction, both within the Inspirational genre and outside of it. On their submissions page outlining specific, bullet-point guidelines for potential authors, two of their lines – Love Inspired and Love Inspired Suspense – explicitly ask for Christian content. However, outside of Harlequin’s Inspirational lines, the general language used by the brand points to the exceptional way that Christianity is treated and other faiths are ignored. For instance, in describing the Harlequin Heartwarming line, Harlequin notes that “No explicit religious or Christian content” is permitted. By singling out Christian content from that of all other religious groups, it is treated as an entirely separate entity – a privilege which is not afforded to any other religion (Harlequin Submission Manager). No other religions are mentioned by name in any context, much less in guidelines that encourage content about characters of those religions. Despite the romance industry’s slow moves to diversify, Christianity remains the only religion to be given its own category. It is easy to see how prospective writers may feel discouraged from including characters or plots involving other faiths given that Christianity is the only religion that is actively deemed desirable by Harlequin.

There are also particular recurring elements of Inspirational fiction that have made readers uncomfortable. One such element that was repeatedly brought up in reviews of For Such A Time was undertones of evangelism that appeared through Hadassah’s supposed conversion. There has been debate over whether or not Hadassah converts from Judaism to Christianity at the end of the novel, or whether she simply embraces Christian ideals. Certainly, many readers blatantly read Hadassah’s arc as one of conversion. Author Rose Lerner sarcastically commented on tumblr, “The takeaway is that you should DEFINITELY try to convert Jews I guess,” clearly expressing her discomfort and anger with For Such A Time’s narrative (Lerner). In a statement for Newsweek in response to the controversy, Breslin emphasized only Hadassah’s “strength and faith in her God,” not specifically addressing either Judaism or Christianity as central to her heroine’s story (Schonfeld). However, this did not stop many Christian readers from viewing Breslin’s narrative as an evangelical one. Reviewer vintagebeckie noted how “[Hadassah’s] memories of best friend Marta sharing the gospel will encourage the reader in his/her own encounters with those who need to know God’s love” (vintagebeckie). It is precisely this sort of positive reaction to evangelical tendencies in romance fiction – which, in cases like this, may encourage real-world evangelism – that apply to the Inspirational subgenre as a whole.

Some Christian romance writers have openly acknowledged that they hope to convert non-Christian readers through their stories. An article from the L.A. Times archives supports this notion, stating how “authors hope non-Christians who pick up their books will be inspired to become Christians themselves” (Los Angeles Times). A Writer’s Digest article exploring “who reads Christian Romance and why authors choose to write it” explains that “almost half [of authors] write Christian romance because of the opportunity to promote Christian values and share their faith… [as] Christian romance offers an amazing opportunity to spread God’s Word” (Martin). By continuing to publish and reward works that include evangelical narratives or undertones, the romance publishing industry appears to be supporting Christian evangelism to some degree. While the morality of fiction written with the intent of religious conversion may be extensively debated in its own right, this validation from editors and publishers is undoubtedly a factor in feelings of discomfort expressed by non-Christian readers and authors.

However, it is not only the presence of singularly Christian subgenres that contributes to an industry-wide sense of hostility toward non-Christian content and characters. As put by Peter Darbyshire, the “increase of Christian themes throughout other [non-Inspirational] Harlequin lines” since the creation of the Love Inspired line is demonstrative of how Christianity has permeated the entire secular romance industry (Darbyshire 76). Many non-Christian authors have personally experienced the repercussions of this. As Leah Koch, co-owner of the Los Angeles bookstore The Ripped Bodice, summarized the issue in an interview with Forward, “The tough thing with romance is this: It’s not what’s written, it’s what’s assumed. If a character’s religion is not expressly stated, they’re presumed to be Christian. The default is white. There’s arrogance in that assumption” (Chernikoff). Even in secular romance novels, it has become the norm to perceive all characters as Christian until proven otherwise. In direct response to Wendell’s letter, author Corrina Lawson described a judge in a “major RWA contest (not the [RITAS])” who “questioned why [her book’s] heroine had to be Jewish.” She also claimed that the judge told her she simply did not have “a good enough reason” not to make the heroine Christian (Lawson). It is experiences and feelings such as those expressed by Koch and Lawson that demonstrate how, much like Whiteness, thinness, and able-bodiedness, Christianity has become the norm for almost all romance novel characters.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, the discussion sparked by For Such A Time speaks to systemic and inherent religious bias in the romance fiction industry. In both the Inspirational subgenre and in secular romance, Christianity dominates narratives, often leaving authors and readers who wish to see representations of other faiths feeling excluded and diminished. While the widespread criticism of For Such A Time indicates forward momentum in acknowledging this religious imbalance, the innumerable positive responses it received demonstrate how ingrained and favored Christianity remains in romance fiction and in the industry that creates it.

 

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