Browse the inspirational-fiction section of most bookstores, and you will find cover after cover of comely young women wearing dresses with capes, and often pensive expressions . . . . Occasionally a male figure lingers in the background, his face obscured by a hat, but more often the Amish maiden is alone in her pastoral reverie, gaze averted and thoughts inscrutable.
So begins Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, an in-depth analysis of the appeal of Amish fiction. She looks closely at writers, readers, and the cultural changes at the heart of this phenomenon. And a phenomenon it truly is: 95 new Amish romance novels were published in 2012, at “the rate of about one every four days.” (4)
I met Valerie at a lecture she presented at Eastern Mennonite University in October 2013. She noted that some view Amish romance novels as fluff, nostalgic but formulaic concoctions. But novelists like Beverly Lewis, Linda Byler, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall must have tapped into the deep yearnings of many readers. Why else would their books fly off the shelves of bookstores?
“Are you curious too?”
“Okay, I thought so.”
Since her lecture, I have communicated with Valerie to bring you the essence of her lecture in a crisp Q & A format.
MLB: Why is Amish romance fiction so popular?
VWZ: As I talked to readers of Amish fiction, I heard lots of things about why they like Amish novels. But they mentioned two reasons over and over again. First, for loyal readers of the genre, the books offer a vacation, of sorts, to a “slow and simple life.” Many people articulate their love of Amish fiction as inversely related to the spiraling nature of modern life: that is, as contemporary life feels more and more sped up, chaotic, and complex, they are more drawn to narratives of a people who have apparently escaped the craziness. While the readers with whom I spoke didn’t use this term, they were expressing a thought similar to an idea French theorist Gilles Lipovetsky introduced in 2005: hypermodernity. He defined hypermodernity as “the frenzied escalation of ‘more, always more’ [that] has now infiltrated every sphere of collective life.” This hypermodern context is characterized by the high speed of technological change, information transfer, consumption, social change, individualism, global capitalism. Many of us experience it simply as the feeling that life is moving at a pace that we simply can’t keep up with. So Amish fiction, in an age of hypermodernity, offers readers the means through which to take a temporary vacation.
Second, readers said they like Amish novels because they are “clean reads”: that is, books devoid of the sexualized content that permeates much of popular culture products. Sociologist Kenneth Kammeyer employs the term hypersexual to describe a situation in which “sexual discourse, erotica, and pornography are present in almost all aspects of society.” Other observers have used terms like pornified, raunch, and striptease to characterize twenty-first-century culture, evidenced by thongs and push-up bras marketed to elementary-school-aged girls. So readers, many of whom are evangelical Christian women, find in Amish novels a respite from the feeling of being bombarded by hypersexualized culture.
But there are other reasons too. Some of the reasons have to do with the fact that publishers can get more books into the hands of more readers more quickly than ever. So the fact that there are more Amish novels being published likely means that more readers are finding them. That is, there’s a greater demand for Amish novels than ever; there’s also a greater supply.
MLB: What are these novel readers seeking?
VWZ: As I said above, I think there’s a great appeal for many readers in the feeling of a temporary, imaginative vacation from hypermodern, hypersexualized life. The novels allow readers to vicariously participate in an Amish life without actually having to give up their Kindles and their life insurance and their cars. The more technologically saturated our lives become, the more intrigued we are, I think, by people who have escaped at least some of it.
MLB: Do these stories reflect real Amish life?
VWZ: That’s a complex question, actually, and one that is difficult to answer. I have a whole chapter in my book about that question. Some of it depends whether you’re talking about the genre as a whole or about the work of a particular novelist and whether you’re talking about the tangible details of Amish life, or the more intangible cultural and religious sensibilities of the Amish. Also, there are so many different ways of being Amish these days that if readers think that reading a novel set in one community—even a quite accurate novel—makes them knowledgeable about the Amish: well, they’re probably wrong.
Overall, I would say that most readers likely learn more that is correct about the Amish than information that is incorrect. Having said that, there are lots of misperceptions about Amish life that circulate in the novels and get passed on to readers, especially related to shunning and rumspringa. And then there’s the larger question of whether we as outsiders can understand Amish life from the inside-out well enough to craft a narrative that accurate reflects the internal life, spirituality, understanding of the church and family, etc., of an Amish person. That is, a novel might get all the “facts” of Amish life right, but still miss the more abstract, intangible feel of looking at the world from an Amish perspective. So that’s not a very good answer; but those are some of the reasons that the question is a hard one!
MLB: Obviously you read some of these novels during the course of writing your book. Did you enjoy reading them?
VWZ: I enjoyed some of the novels and disliked others. I actually don’t read a ton of fiction in general; I tend to read more nonfiction. I’m now working as a book editor for the Mennonite publisher, Herald Press, and I have really enjoyed editing a historical Amish novel entitled Jacob’s Choice by Ervin R. Stutzman. It comes out in February 2014. It’s based on actual events in the mid-1700s: an attack on the Amish Hochstetler family during the French and Indian War. I’m a descendant of the Hochstetler family, as are many Swiss-German Mennonites and Amish in Pennsylvania and other states, so I and many other readers have a special interest in reading this novel. It’s the first of three in the Return to Northkill series.
MLB: In general, readers of inspirational fiction are evangelical Christian women. Who else is included in the demographic of Amish romance novel readers?
VWZ: I talked to men who love Amish fiction, Catholic women who love it, and African Americans who read it. And as I did my research, I kept hearing about more and more people who don’t fit the evangelical female demographic. Old Colony Mennonites (both men and women) in Bolivia, for example. Old Order Mennonite readers. Amish readers. A missionary doctor. A librarian. An at-home mom. The readership is diverse, even as evangelical Christian women still constitute the bulk of the audience.
MLB: How do Amish readers themselves respond to these novels?
VWZ: I have a whole chapter on that question too! I also reflect on that question in this piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Amish people I interviewed had opinions all over the map. Most were at least semi-critical of the novels, especially the fact that most are being produced by outsiders.
MLB: Your book, which you dub “narrative scholarship,” is a marvel of research with a 9-page bibliography, which includes books, magazine articles and interviews. Though well-documented, the book is witty and often reads like a story. How much time did this project require?
VWZ: Yes, I spent a lot of time on the research and writing of this book. I researched and wrote over the course of about a year, and then spent about six months working on revisions of various kinds. But I loved the entire process, despite moments of being unconvinced that I’d be able to pull it off. The variety of things I got to do—talk to readers, visit a book group, chat with Amish folks, read novels, read theory, and of course write—was just lovely. It was indeed very hard work, but very fulfilling. I loved the challenge of blending a narrative nonfiction voice with an analytical/scholarly lens.
MLB: You are busy mother of three young boys and an author husband. How did you manage to write this book along with your family obligations?
VWZ: It wasn’t easy. But I was freelancing at the time, so I was able to decline editing projects or just take on the ones I had time for and then devote the rest of my time to research and writing. Our kids are all in school now, so I wrote during the day while they were at school and sometimes early in the morning or occasionally (very occasionally!) late at night. I do much better getting up early to work rather than trying to stay up late. Also, I got a fellowship from the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College during the fall of the year I was working on this book, and that helped me to prioritize the project and begin to wrap up the writing.
About Valerie Weaver-Zercher
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is author of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Christian Century, Sojourners, and The Mennonite, among other publications. She is also managing editor of trade books at Herald Press. She and her husband Dave have three sons and live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. They attend Slate Hill Mennonite Church.
Enter to win a copy of her book by entering the book giveaway contest!
If you would like to enter for a chance to win a copy of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher, simply leave a comment at the bottom of this post. Valerie has graciously offered to donate a copy of her book to the winner!
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The deadline for this contest is Saturday, November 9, 2013, at noon. The winner will be chosen using Random.org and will be contacted privately via email as well as cited in an announcement in a blog post here next week.
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Make a comment or ask Valerie a question about Amish romance novels or about her other writing.