July 07, 2013
So wherein lies the cache of the fictive Amish Mädchen on the shelves and in the imaginations of contemporary readers? By what means have the Old Order Amish, who comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, catapulted to literary stardom, so that novels about them represent 15 percent of the top religious fiction titles sold by Barnes & Noble and 30 percent of a Christian bestseller list? What, exactly, is fueling the thrill of the chaste—this wildfire popularity of Amish romance literature and the virtues it contains? And what does it reveal about fiction, the Amish, and the rest of us?
Nearly everyone I talked to about this project had a theory about why Amish fiction is hot, and nearly everyone was eager to share it. Those in the Christian fiction business had theories at the ready, my brother launched into his at a family Christmas gathering, and I began to wonder whether my first-grader might also have an opinion. One writer of Amish fiction I interviewed pointed out that I had forgotten to ask her, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hadn’t forgotten but was simply bored by all the theorizing. Indeed, the interesting thing about the rise of Amish fiction is not that no one knows why it is popular; it is that everyone knows.
The theories I heard carry the weight of common sense. “People are reading Amish books because society is so fast-paced and people need to slow down,” one writer told me. “These books take people out of the world of cell phones and being on 24-7,” a marketing manager suggested on the phone. “The family gathers around the table for meals and they pray together and they go visiting and it’s all family, family, family. For a lot of people, especially moms, they’re saying ‘Gee, that’s the life I wish I had.’” I heard countless versions of this theory, almost all of them including the sibilants simple and slow.
Another theory surfaced as well, expressed less frequently but with equal conviction, that relates not to the simplicity or slow pace of the Amish but to the sublimated sexuality of readers. An acquaintance e-mailed his opinion that by writing Amish novels, “prim and proper evangelical women use the Amish as a foil for their own stories of conflicted romance and sex.” One of my friends was convinced that the subgenre’s popularity lay in the submerged erotic desires of its readers and that I really ought to interview a psychologist about the psychosexual development of evangelical women. Another friend’s husband passed along similar wisdom: “Amish fiction is for horny evangelical women,” he told her to tell me; “Judging from the popularity of Amish fiction, evangelical women are apparently quite horny.”
At times, the readiness with which people supplied their theories gave me pause. If the allure of Amish fiction was so obvious that it could be wrapped into one of two seamless sentences—(1) Amish fiction is popular because contemporary readers want to escape a fast-paced, alienated, and technologically saturated society; or (2) Amish fiction is a form of soft female porn that offers a discreet outlet for the longings of a sexually repressed readership—then what was left to investigate? And why did anyone need to write an entire book about it?
But as writers are wont to do, I became suspicious of swift or orthodox answers of both varieties. Sometimes common sense is a cloak that can hide—as well as define—the shape of the wearer. So although these theories held in their pockets elements of truth about Amish fiction’s allure, I began to wonder whether they also might obscure the body of a deeper— and perhaps more interesting—rationale for the way Amish fiction was going gangbusters.
Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. Copyright 2013 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
VALERIE WEAVER-ZERCHER is the 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 other venues. She and her husband and three sons live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.