It’s not often that we read more than ten novels all through in quick succession, particularly when we haven’t chosen them, but that’s what the ten judges on the Panel for the inaugural Festival of Romance Reader Awards had to do – and the experience was an eye-opener. As Moderator for the Awards, my privilege was to oversee the whole process, and that included reading all the books shortlisted for the Best Romantic Read, and the Best Historical Read for pre-1960’s set romantic fiction. Since the members of the Panel were all well-read women with a penchant for the romantic genre, we expected a degree of clear consensus. Observations such as, ‘You must have liked…’ were common currency between us, yet there was no ‘must have liked’ at all, or ‘must have disliked’ for that matter. Scoring the novels against ten defined criteria, no two Panel judges came up with the same ranking of books, and the reasons for loving a read or losing interest were as diverse as the colours of the rainbow. If ever proof were needed that a good read cannot be determined by reference to absolute standards then this was it. But over the course of the judges’ dinner on the Friday evening of the Festival we did arrive at unanimity. Everyone put the case for their favourite reads; everyone listened. In the end we all agreed.
So what factors were most significant in endearing these books to the judges? To have got as far as the shortlist, all the novels had to be well-written, but what made them winners? – Character and plot, which comes down to character in the end because, as Robert McKee says so succinctly in Story, ‘Structure is character; character is structure.’ The judges wanted well-formed multi-layered characters they could empathise with and get right inside, to understand their motivations for the way they responded to challenges, and to see conflicts unfolding between their public personas and their true inner natures. For romantic fiction in particular a strong and attractive hero is a must, and the heroine mustn’t be a wimp either even if she does need to evolve through the course of the story; she should be continuously interesting and intriguing, and not behave in ways that unravel the reader’s suspension of disbelief. That’s trying to pack an awful lot into a few sentences, but there’s the nub of what swayed the judges. In the final analysis they wanted champions.
The Festival of Romance was held on 21-22 October 2011 at Hunton Park near Watford. The winners of the Reader Awards were Sue Moorcroft with ‘Love and Freedom’ for the Best Romantic Read, and Jean Fullerton with ‘Perhaps Tomorrow’ for the Best Historical Read.