Eighty-five new Amish romance novels were published in 2012 alone; that is about one every four days. (And I arrived at those numbers using a very conservative definition of “Amish romance novel”; depending which books you count, that number would be much higher.) In 2002, only two new Amish romance novels were published. On a recent Christian fiction bestseller list, five of the top ten titles were Amish. And the top three novelists of Amish fiction have sold over 24 million books.
So that’s why I wrote my book: to try to figure out what was going on between 1997—when Beverly Lewis published The Shunning, which was the first contemporary, commercially successful Amish romance novel—and now. Although the Old Order Amish are doubling their numbers about every twenty years, they still represent much less than one percent of the U.S. population. How did fictional Amish protagonists end up as the superstars of an entire genre of popular literature? What, exactly, is the thrill of the chaste, and why are readers finding it so thrilling?
Okay, but still. A whole book about Amish romance novels? Couldn’t you just have written an article instead?
Sure. And I’ve written some articles, too, including this one and this one and this one. But early on in my research, I became convinced that there was definitely enough going on in this phenomenon to warrant book-length treatment. There were just too many interesting questions. Why are white evangelical women novelists writing so many books about the Amish? Why are so many people reading them? Why does my aunt love to read them? Why does my uncle? What happens in the minds and imaginations of readers as they read about young Amish women in identity crises, romantic dilemmas, and family conflicts? Are the novels any “good”—and by what literary standards should they be judged? As a subgenre of inspirational fiction, do they follow or depart from the conventions of that genre? Do they depict Amish life in accurate and authentic ways? How do they deal with issues of gender and romance and theology? Are the Amish reading Amish romance novels, and if so, what do they think of them? And what happens to a fairly private religious subculture when outsiders write so feverishly about it?
Plus, I’m long-winded.
So these are called Amish romance novels not because Amish people are writing them but because they’re set in Amish communities?
Yes. There is currently only one Old Order Amish writer of Amish romance novels that are available to a wide audience. Some authors have familial or ancestral or friendship ties to the Amish or other plain groups. I think some of the most interesting questions about the whole phenomenon relate to this very point. I’m unaware of any other literary genre that centers on a particular culture but that is being produced by members of another culture. I’m not saying that novelists should stop writing these novels entirely because of issues of cultural appropriation. But I do think that most novelists of Amish fiction could be more attentive to them. When members of one culture are borrowing and benefiting from another culture, even via fictionalized means, do they owe that culture anything? What might be lost from a faith as it is translated into popular romance novels? And how might a culture evolve as its members read fictionalized accounts of their lives written almost entirely by those outside the culture?
You sound a little defensive. Are you Amish or something?
No, I am Mennonite. I was raised Mennonite in Lancaster County, and I’m a member of a Mennonite congregation. Mennonites share some theological and ecclesial roots with the Amish, but some contemporary Mennonite groups, like the one to which I belong, no longer wear distinctive clothing, reject technology or higher education, or separate ourselves as much from the rest of the world as the Amish do. Most Mennonites today actually live outside of North America.
But my mother’s father was raised Amish, and my mom remembers having a hard time communicating with her Amish grandmother, who spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch. My grandfather ended up a Mennonite, too, having left home to follow the wheat harvest and becoming enamored of the more evangelical milieu of midcentury Mennonitism. I did grow up wearing a prayer covering to church and with some Pennsylvania Dutch phrases on my tongue. I gave up the covering in late high school, but the Pennsylvania Dutch phrases still come out sometimes.
As far as defensiveness: you may be right. As I researched and wrote Thrill of the Chaste, I asked myself frequently whether my Mennonite identity and affiliation was flavoring my analysis. I wondered whether I was somehow feeling territorial about the fact that outsiders were representing “my” people. I decided I could either ignore my proximity to the phenomenon I was studying, obscuring it behind a body-less scholarly voice, or I could name, claim it, and even use it. I chose the latter, and decided to write my Mennonite-ness into the book. Frankly, it came in useful at times—as when I was interviewing Amish folks and could find a family or churchly connection with them. And since many Mennonites are appreciative readers of Amish fiction, when I was looking around to find out what readers of Amish fiction were saying about the novels, sometimes all I had to do was eavesdrop on conversations at my church or among acquaintances. For example, the story about one elderly Amish-fiction reader with which I end the book comes from a conversation I had with my mom’s cousin at a family reunion.
The argument about whether narrative scholarship is rigorous, objective, or unbiased enough will continue, and deserve a lot more space than I can give it here. Readers will have to decide whether I was too close to the phenomenon to illuminate it clearly. Ultimately, however, I decided that a Mennonite writing about Amish fiction should not pretend that she doesn’t have any skin in the game.
Speaking of skin: doesn’t the allure of Amish romance novels have to do with buttoned-up evangelical women wanting a discrete outlet to fantasize about hunky Amish men? Isn’t Amish fiction basically Fifty Shades of Grey for church ladies?
Frankly, no. That is a common misperception of the genre, however, and one I heard frequently. The headline of an article about Amish romance fiction in Bloomberg Businessweek embodied it most clearly: “Getting Dirty in Dutch Country.”
There is indeed Amish erotica now—with titles like Amish Stud Seduction—and Danielle Steel’s newest novel is set partially in an Amish community and has some Amish characters. But racy Amish novels are mostly outliers. The commercial success of Amish fiction lies squarely in the inspirational fiction market, which adheres to fairly strict standards of sexual content, language, and behavior. There is hand-holding, and hugging, and perhaps some kissing behind the shed. But even marital intercourse is off limits for narration, and the relationships between the protagonist and the love interest are almost always chaste and romantic rather than suggestive or sexy. Premarital or extramarital intercourse may be the basis for a storyline or a device the author uses to create intrigue about the mystery shrouding a protagonist’s birth, but sexual encounters of any kind are never narrated. Most readers of literary or other genre fiction might feel a little disoriented by the G-rated nature of inspirational Amish fiction.
Readers of Amish fiction with whom I spoke were as clear about what they don’t want in their novels as what they do. They told me over and over again that they want a “clean read”: a book that doesn’t offend their conservative sexual ethic. They want books they can share with their teenaged daughters and their friends at church.
Aren’t Amish novels just so much anodyne, didactic, religion-filled schlock?
Perhaps. Amish novels do tend to operate within a fairly narrow theological and literary register. The authors are writing for a largely evangelical Christian audience, and that vocabulary of faith is very present throughout the novels. For people unaccustomed to reading inspirational fiction, reading an Amish romance novel can feel like a cross-cultural experience, perhaps less because it’s about the Amish than because it operates by a different set of aesthetic standards than literary fiction.
But as I studied cultural criticism, especially the work of Herbert Gans, Janice Radway, and Terry Eagleton, I became quickly convinced that schlockiness is an extremely relative notion. “One can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing all the way from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing,” Eagleton has famously written. “The suggestion that ‘literature’ is a highly valued kind of writing is an illuminating one. But it has one fairly devastating consequence. It means that we can drop once and for all the illusion that the category ‘literature’ is ‘objective,’ in the sense of being eternally given and immutable.”
So yes, judged by the standards of literary fiction, most Amish fiction falls short (similarly, many readers of inspirational fiction find contemporary literary fiction quite lacking). But judged by the aesthetic standards internal to inspirational fiction, Amish romance novels perform just fine. It seemed only fair to me to refrain from applying the standards of one genre—literary fiction—to another. I spent a lot more time investigating the cultural and religious work that Amish romance novels do in the lives of readers than in evaluating the books as to whether they are any “good” or not.
Speaking of whether books are any good or not: most writers care about how readers are evaluating their work. Does your Mennonite humility prevent you from clicking on your online articles about Amish romance novels every four hours to see whether they have gotten any more Facebook likes?
No. I’m just as neurotic as the next writer, only more so. Not only am I obsessed with whether people like my writing; I feel guilty for being obsessed with whether people like my writing. My husband is convinced that Mennonites aren’t happy unless we’re feeling guilty about something.
But I’m learning, slowly, to be less compulsive about the promotion and reviews and other aspects that are extrinsic to the writing task itself. Wondering how people are responding to my work so quickly spirals into self-doubt and self-absorption, and I’m learning that the ego trip of seeing my work in print is strongly counterweighted by a million other things in my life: sons who still think of me mostly as the mom who should hurry up with dinner, for example. I also find that I get much more of an endorphin rush from crafting a good sentence or paragraph than from reading a positive review.
Now that you know so much about Amish romance novels, when are you going to write one yourself?
This is among the most common questions I am asked. I have no plans to write an Amish romance novel. I don’t write fiction, so any Amish novel I’d write would be quite bad, according to both the standards for literary fiction and inspirational fiction.
Having said that, I am beginning an editorial position with a small publishing house this fall, and I’ve already had several writers approach me to pitch their Amish novel proposals. So while it’s unlikely that I’ll end up writing an Amish novel, it is possible that I will end up editing one.
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, Christian Science Monitor, Orion, and Publishers Weekly, among others. She and her husband and three sons live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.