What’s not to love? Why the romantic novel has found new heart

With four Irish authors shortlisted for the 2015 Romantic Novel Awards, we look at a much maligned genre and how it’s evolving

 

Strikingly beautiful heroines and hero tycoons with pointedly symbolic names. An age gap between lovers for the mentor-pupil dynamic. Feisty females who claim they can take care of themselves, until they can’t and need to be rescued.

Long before 50 Shades was getting the literary world hot under the collar, the romance genre had been taking flak for its cliched characters and storylines. The British-based Romantic Novelists’ Association was established in the 1960s to reclaim the genre and disprove the critics. With its annual awards scheme, it promotes the best writing in romantic fiction and aims to showcase the diversity of a much maligned form.

Four Irish authors are on the shortlist for the 2015 Romantic Novel Awards (RoNAs). The ceremony takes place on March 16th in the Gladstone Library in London, with Barbara Taylor Bradford presenting a £5,000 award and trophy to the overall winner.

This author will be chosen from the six category winners, who will also be announced on the night. The categories include contemporary romance, historical romance, epic romance, romantic comedy, young adult and the Rose Award for the best in a series of shorter romantic fiction.

Three of the Irish nominees are debut authors, shortlisted in the historical romance category. Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers, Stephen Burke’s The Good Italian and Hazel Gaynor’s The Girl Who Came Home are among the six novels contesting the category. Popular fiction author Ciara Geraghty is nominated in the contemporary category for her fifth novel, Now That I’ve Found You.

Of the 36 writers nominated for the 2015 awards, three of them are male. Stephen Burke, a Dublin filmmaker now living in Sardinia, is the only male nominee in his category. His novel, The Good Italian, is set in the Italian colony of Eritrea in 1935, with Mussolini’s pillaging of Africa as its backdrop. The book’s lonely narrator, harbour master Enzo Secchi, begins a morally questionable relationship with a local woman, Aatifa, that brings trouble for both parties when Italy forbids such liaisons.

Edgier material

With a story that focuses as much on politics and war as it does on romance, was Burke surprised to find himself among the nominees? “Pleasantly surprised,” he says. “The RoNAs don’t just include what would traditionally be considered as romance novels. The awards have expanded over the years to include edgier material and comedy, anything that includes a love story, which probably covers more than half the novels published each year.”

How have friends and family reacted to the romance tag? “My partner thinks it’s funny I’m up for a romance award,” he says. “I can’t imagine why.”

Burke was initially drawn to the history of Eritrea and its people as he saw similarities to Ireland’s colonial past. “But as I researched, I was intrigued by the fact that Mussolini had criminalised relationships between Italians and Eritreans,” he says. “Forbidden love has been the basis for so many works from Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, all the way to The English Patient and Twilight. I chose a love story as the spine of my book because it had a real historical foundation.”

The same can be said for the other two Irish novels shortlisted in the category. Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers tells the story of a young woman, Eva Downey, whose relationship with her teacher Christopher at an upper-class English finishing school is thwarted by the outbreak of the first World War. A bleak family situation adds to Eva’s predicament, as a wicked stepmother and opportunistic sister use the war to separate the lovers. At the centre of the story, referenced in the book’s title, is the real-life campaign in wartime Britain in which groups of women pinned feathers on non-uniform-wearing men to shame them into enlisting.

The third nominee with Irish links is Hazel Gaynor, a Yorkshire writer who lives in Kildare. Gaynor’s debut The Girl Who Came Home, a New York Times bestseller, relates the sinking of the Titanic from the perspective of passenger Maggie Murphy. After surviving the journey, Maggie cuts herself off from her life and sweetheart back in Ireland. With dual narratives that shift between 1912 and 1980s Chicago, where Maggie’s great-granddaughter digs up the secrets of the past, the novel blends fact and fiction to explore a loss felt over generations. Gaynor has a new historical novel out this month. A Memory of Violets recounts the lives of two orphaned flower-seller sisters in late nineteenth-century London.

The historical fiction genre has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, helped along by the centenary of the first World War. “Ten years ago no one wanted historical fiction,” says Pia Fenton, chairman of the RNA, “but now it’s everywhere and in many different sub-genres, which is great. Ireland has a very rich history for authors to draw upon so I’m not surprised so many Irish authors are tempted to write about it.”

Storytelling tradition

Irish authors also do well internationally in contemporary romance and popular fiction genres, with writers such as Sheila Flanagan, Cathy Kelly, Patricia Scanlan and Marian Keyes among the household names. Fenton says it’s down to the storytelling tradition in Ireland: “Irish authors always feature. Cecelia Aherne has been shortlisted, Cathy Kelly won in 2001 and we were honoured to present Maeve Binchy with an outstanding achievement award in 2010 for her exceptional contribution to romantic fiction.”

This year the Dublin writer Ciara Geraghty is flying the flag for Irish contemporary romance. Now That I’ve Found You follows Vinnie, a single father in his forties who suffers from panic attacks as he tries to start over and raise his teenage daughter and young son alone. Geraghty says the term “romance writer” has an old-fashioned ring to it: “One thinks of a fine-boned lady with a kaftan who keeps her cigarettes in a silver case and does a lot of middle-distance gazing in the direction of the sea, or a lake, or a large puddle. I classify myself as a writer. A teller of tales.”

Like Fenton, Geraghty believes that the storytelling gene is embedded in Irish culture. “When people meet in the street, they don’t say, ‘hello’, they say, ‘any news?’ And by God, you’d better have some.” Although a good story remains a constant, the perimeters for romantic novelists have widened, according to Geraghty. “In the ‘olden days’, there was the manly man,” she says. “Broad shouldered, monied, luxury hair and dangerous eyes. Then a damsel in distress, in desperate need of the manly man. Nowadays, our heroes and heroines are a lot more diverse. We allow our characters to be flawed, we expose their vulnerabilities, we let their bellies spill over the waistband of their underpants. They are fully-formed, three-dimensional human beings.”

Bestselling author Cathy Kelly, a former RoNA winner, agrees that the genre is much broader than perceived. “I’ve written about depression, infertility and dementia,” she says. “And my books are never about a woman’s search for the perfect man.” Kelly says awards like the RoNAs are important because they laud a type of fiction that doesn’t typically get recognition at mainstream literary awards.

“From a purely feminist point of view, books written by women and about women are reviewed far less than ones by men and this says that women’s lives and what women want to read don’t matter. I certainly don’t think that and the figures don’t support it, so yes, women writers need these awards.”

Digital devices

Sparked by the success of EL James’s 50 Shades trilogy, the first book of which was published in 2011, one of the most noticeable trends in recent years is the growing popularity of erotic fiction. Vanessa O’Loughlin, literary scout and founder of writing.ie, says that while this trend has grabbed the headlines for obvious reasons, a more significant change was the arrival to the mass market of e-reading devices.

“Romance is one of the biggest selling genres in digital because no one can see what you’re reading,” she says. “Publishers have long recognised the need for discretion with certain aspects of the genre. Many of them started selling PDFs online before ebooks had even been thought of.”

O’Loughlin says romance is evolving into multiple sub-genres, with everything from robot romance to cowboy romance finding a readership: “It’s a market that keeps growing and for writers that’s very exciting, as readers and publishers are always looking for fresh voices.”

Maria Dickenson, managing director of Dubray Books, says romance is a much more complex genre than the stereotypes allow for. “Romantic fiction, for those who don’t read it, tends to conjure up images of Mills and Boon novels of the ’80s, but the genre has certainly moved on from there. Readers demand more depth than ‘boy meets girl’, and this is reflected in the Irish RoNA nominations. High quality writing, interesting historical context, social issues, and characters struggling with personal challenges.”

Dickenson says there’s a significant appetite among readers for Irish romance novels, noting the earthiness and pragmatism of Irish authors when it comes to the genre.

“It makes the protagonists of Irish novels easier to relate to than more traditional romantic heroes and heroines,” she says. “Readers of romance want escapism but they also want to identify, and Irish authors have been successful in allowing for this accessibility in their characters and stories.”

Strikingly beautiful heroines and billionaire heroes be damned.

The full shortlist for the 2015 RoNAs is available on the RNA website

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