Plain Talk about the Amish: Why is Amish Fiction so Popular?
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is the author of the newly-released Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Johns Hopkins Press). Valerie is a writer and editor whose work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Mennonite Weekly Review, and other publications. Valerie has been kind enough to answer some questions about the popularity of the sub-genre of Amish fiction.
Why is it important to know what draws readers to Amish fiction?
The sheer number of Amish-themed novels on the market made me realize that something substantive was going on in terms of readers' desire for this particular kind of novel, and I knew it was an important part of my task to figure out what was driving readers to yearn for Amish stories. Readers of Amish fiction frequently told me that the novels provide "escape" or transport away from their daily lives. So as I began to question them about what, exactly, their daily lives consisted of, or what they were trying to "escape" for a while, I listened carefully to try to hear any common themes that might emerge. I became convinced that two main factors-hypermodernity and hypersexualization of popular culture-were at the root of Amish fiction's appeal to its readers.
"Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels" (Johns Hopkins Press)
What significance does the popularity of Amish fiction tell us about modern society?
The concept of hypermodernity-the idea that our era is characterized by the rapid pace of technological change, consumption, information transfer, and social change-captured much of what readers were telling me about their lives and their sensation of contemporary life as excessively fast. And hypersexualization of mainstream culture-what one journalist has called the "pornification" of America-is making evangelical readers feel embattled and frustrated by the lack of consonance between their own values and the popular culture products available. Things like the Beyonce SuperBowl halftime show, or the fact that push-up bras are being marketed to tweens, are sending many, many readers looking for "clean reads": books that won't offend their sexual ethic. I found it really illuminating to look at the appeal of Amish fiction through the lens of these two social forces.
What are the 3 R's you discovered about why readers flock to Amish fiction?
As I researched the history of Amish fiction, I figured out that the thematic elements could be (perhaps oversimplistically) grouped as: rurality, romance, and religion. That is, throughout the twentieth century, as Amish-themed fiction slowly gathered itself into a subgenre, these three elements began to accrue. The first several Amish romance novels, published in the early part of the 1900s, only contained the rural setting and the romance-driven narrative. It was only in the 1960s that the spiritual faith (religion) of the protagonist became a central feature of the novels. Of course, religion would have been present to a certain extent in the early novels, but only in the 1960s, with several novels written by Clara Bernice Miller, does religious piety become a hallmark feature of Amish romance fiction.
What were some interesting discoveries you found about readers?
I found out a lot of interesting things as I interviewed readers of Amish novels. I found out that they're a quite diverse lot, and are not all evangelical Christian women. There are lots of male readers of the novels, and high school and college students, and readers in other countries. I found out that many of them read quite widely, and that Amish fiction is only a portion of what many of them like to read. I discovered that, for many of them, Amish novels function almost as devotional texts. That is, they like the story and the romance and the way that they learn about Amish life when they read the novels, but they also like the way that their faith is strengthened by reading the novels, and the way that they are challenged in their Christian lives through reading about the protagonist's spiritual journey.
Are there any red flags you've observed?
I do have a few concerns about Amish fiction as a whole. Along with other observers, I sometimes wonder whether certain authors have done enough research to warrant writing a book about a culture of which they are not a part. And those of us on the outside of Amish life can fairly easily, without even knowing it, make the Amish out to look a lot like us. We can make them into "good Americans" who stand for everything we think is good about America-one literary agent told me that he thinks Amish fiction is popular because the Amish believe in good American values like hard work, family, achievement, and community.
But here's the thing: the Amish have, especially at certain points in history, taken what some would consider very "un-American" stances, such as refusing to fight in the military. And certain central aspects of Amish life-the authority of the church in the lives of individuals, for example-are also very "un-American"!
In other words, we sometimes make the Amish out to be whatever we need them to be-either finding meaning in parts of their lives that we feel are lacking in our own, or perhaps magnifying certain aspects of their lives (shunning, for example) in order to more positively view our own lives (as being more tolerant or grace-filled). Since the Amish generally don't work to publicly correct the misperceptions that we as outsiders have about them, they're kind of at our mercy in terms of what we say about them. So those of us who represent them have to do our work very, very carefully, I think.
What would a publisher or agent learn after reading your book?
Most publishers and agents of Amish fiction know a lot about the genre-they were some of the authorities to whom I turned when I was trying to figure out the contours of Amish fiction. So I don't think they'll learn a lot from my book about the readers; most of them have talked to lots of readers themselves, and have their fingers on the pulse of reader preferences and dislikes. But I do think publishers and agents might learn a few things from my book: about the larger cultural context of hypermodernity and hypersexualization that has contributed to the growth of the subgenre, and about some of the concerns I raise in my book about appropriation of the Amish. I think they might also be interested in finding out the diversity of Amish perspectives on Amish fiction, and how it might be changing their communities. And if they're interested in some general statistics about the phenomenon, they'll find some of those in my book as well.
What do you see as the fate or future of Amish fiction?
From all appearances, Amish fiction is going strong! Twenty-three new series began in 2012 alone. No editor or publisher or literary agent told me that they thought the trend was over; some suggested that the market may be getting saturated in terms of number of authors writing in the field, but every indication is that the novels are continuing to sell very well. I think as long as readers of Christian fiction are negotiating these powerful cultural forces of hypermodernity and hypersexualization, they will continue to turn to Amish-themed fiction as a mode of imaginative transport away from those forces.
How do you feel about the role of books in the world today?
Those of us who work in writing and publishing think a lot about this question, don't we? Our jobs depend upon the hope that people will keep reading books-not just blog posts or Facebook status updates. As an editor and writer, I need to trust that people will keep reading books; otherwise I'd get too depressed! And I do think they will. Obviously the proliferation of digital platforms may change the way many people access their books-my preteen son has begun begging us to let him buy a Kindle-but I don't think that long-form fiction is disappearing, despite those who have forecast the death of the novel. My own children love finding new series that they like, and knowing that they have hours ahead of them during which they can live with those characters. As long as we can keep successfully turning kids onto fiction, I think we'll be okay!
Valerie Weaver-Zercher lives with her husband and three baseball-playing sons in Pennsylvania. You can order Thrill of the Chaste at your favorite bookstore, or on-line at Amazon BN.com, and CBD. You can learn more about Valerie at her website: www.vweaver-zercher.com.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a bestselling author of books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. She hosts a weekly radio show and has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Amish proverb. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Suzanne on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.