Check out Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s great piece on Amish romance novels at LA Review of Books. Weaver-Zercher is the author of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (John Hopkins UP).
I must confess that I knew nothing about Amish romance novels before I looked at Valerie’s essay, but I am now eager to read her book. I must also confess that I still have no real desire to read an Amish romance novel. Sorry, Valerie!
(OK—as I am typing this my fifteen-year-old daughter is telling me all about Amish romance novels, although she claims she has never read one.)
Here is a taste of Valerie’s essay:
In 2012, a new Amish romance novel appeared on the market about every four days. Sixty more were published in 2012 than in 2009, and 83 more than in 2002. The top three Amish-fiction authors — Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall — have sold a combined total of more than 24 million books.
As a subgenre of inspirational Christian fiction, Amish romance novels’ commercial success has garnered the attention of The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and ABC’s Nightline, most of which have pointed out their largely evangelical female readership. One blogger suggested that the readers are “non-Amish religious women who somehow wish they could be even more repressed by a traditional Western religion than they already are.” Others are more sanguine. A marketer for one of the Christian publishing houses characterized the readers of their Amish-fiction author as evangelical women in their 50s and 60s. “These are not hipsters,” he said. “They’re very Christian, very ministry-oriented. There is lots of church talk in line [at book signings]. It’s sort of that rural, Saturday Evening Post crowd.”
And unlike the audience for reality series like TLC’s Breaking Amish or the Discovery Channel’s Amish Mafia, readers of these novels don’t want to see their Amish wasted, tattooed, touring sex museums, swearing, or packing heat. They want chaste heroines, tender heroes, devotional content, and maybe the suspense of a family secret or a forbidden Amish-English love. Amish romance novels offer readers three dimensions of chastity: chaste narratives about chaste protagonists living within a subculture that is itself impeccably chaste, refusing seduction by the car, public-grid electricity, phones in the house, higher education, and modern fashion. Despite the suggestion by some that the appeal of Amish fiction must lie in the arousal of coverings coming off, or suspenders being suspended — hence the coy industry term “bonnet rippers” — most Amish novels are as different from Fifty Shades of Grey as a cape dress is from a spiked collar. A line from Cindy Woodsmall’s When the Heart Cries is about as erotic as it gets: “The longer he stood so close to her, the stronger the need to kiss her lips became. But he was afraid she might not appreciate that move.” Readers frequently express appreciation that Amish novels are “clean reads,” and that they can leave them lying around the house without worrying that one of their kids might pick them up.
Evangelical women aren’t the only ones looking for chaste fiction for themselves and their daughters, as the Gordonville store’s shelves attest. No one knows for certain how many Amish people are reading Amish fiction, but, as I discovered while researching my book about Amish fiction, more than a few stray Amish readers are doing so. So if Amish readers are encountering fictional versions of themselves in the pages of Amish fiction, will they begin donning evangelical habits of romance and language of faith.
How does a culture change when outsiders launder its most cherished values and practices — community, tradition, simplicity, and Rumspringa — and sell them back to the people themselves?
Is it possible for a genre of fiction to re-dress a people?
One final thought: