When he heard that I finally earned my Ph.D., my grandpa told me those three letters meant “Piled High and Deep.” He didn’t have a lot of respect for speculation and abstraction.
My field is an interdisciplinary one, called American Civilization, at the University of Texas at Austin, where I did my doctoral study.
A Ph.D. in American Civilization encourages curiosity about underlying causes of cultural phenomena and offers analytical options — historical, aesthetic, psychological, religious and economic lenses. For the last three years I’ve been curious about why Amish fiction is so popular now and what that popularity says about both Anabaptist religion (Amish and Mennonite) and the cravings of the larger culture in America.
I’m not the only person curious about this, of course. Recently I came across Saloma Miller Furlong’s review of a new book, Thrill of the Chaste, by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. I’ve invited both the reviewer and the author to engage with the readers of this blog in a series over the next few weeks. First, the excerpted review, split into two parts. Then the author’s response. I hope you’ll bring your own curiosity and questions to both.
Review of Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)
For anyone not familiar with Amish romance novels, they are those books you see in the Christian section of bookstores or in the gift shops of Amish-style restaurants with demure women in Amish garb, some leaning on fences in a pasture, others hovering above an Amish landscape, and still others with a male next to or behind her. Almost invariably, though, there is the proverbial Amish head covering. The reason for this was articulated by one publisher when he said, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”
Sales numbers and bestseller lists confirm the vigor of the Amish-fiction category. The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists—Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall—has sold a combined total of 24 million books. At least seven of Lewis’s Amish novels have sold more than 500,000 copies each, and one of those, The Shunning, has sold more than 1 million copies. Brunstetter’s fifty books, almost all of them Amish titles, have sold nearly 6 million copies. [Pg. 5]
The content of these books are formulaic: the protagonist grows up Amish, she arrives at a place in her life (usually through a crisis) in which she questions the Amish faith, and then she has a conversion experience and becomes a born-again Christian. Somewhere along the line, there is a romance, often one in which she has to choose between an Amish boyfriend and an English one. These stories invariably end happily.
Weaver-Zercher has a humorous description of her friend, Margaret’s, reaction to her research when she tried to explain what she was studying: “’So let me get this straight.” Margaret pauses, her forefinger raised above her chicken and rice. “You are writing about us, who are reading the books that other people write about the Amish.’” It is obvious that this project strikes her as a tad funny, amusing in both its degrees of separation from the Amish and the endless ripples of research it suggests.” [Pg. 231]
I enjoyed Weaver-Zercher’s wit throughout the book. She describes her own enjoyment of reading the books this way, “Eager to keep reading my latest Amish romance but unwilling to admit it, I would sometimes tuck the book under my sweatshirt when going to the gym or under a notebook when entering a doctor’s waiting room. … The deeper I got into this project, the more fascinated I became by the surreptitious nature of my Amish romance reading.”
I felt like she left me hanging on this question. Perhaps answering this question for herself might have given her insights into the “typical” reader’s interest in these books. She does give us several good insights as it is. One she terms hypermodernity. “The speed, anomie, and digital slavery of contemporary life have sent many readers, weary of hypermodernity, to books containing stories of a people group whom readers perceive as hypermodernity’s antithesis: the Amish.” The other term she uses is hypersexualization in which “sexual discourse, erotica, and pornography are present in almost all aspects of society.” She wrote, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these “hyper” cultural developments.
I agree that hypermodernity and hypersexualization are two reasons why people are drawn to the Amish in general and to the Amish romance novels in particular. I would add another aspect, which Weaver-Zercher named but did not define or give as much attention as the other two: hyperindividualism. I feel this cannot be underestimated. In mainstream culture, we are taught that if we want something badly enough we can either achieve it or acquire it. We think if only we had enough money, then we could have anything we want.
We isolate ourselves in front of screens how many hours per day?
For however long it is, we are not interacting with other people during that time, which means we’re sacrificing community. We cannot possibly have meaningful interpersonal interactions in a community setting and be in our own world, too. People try, but they don’t succeed. Unplugging and living a simpler life is not as easy as reading an Amish romance novel.
Weaver-Zercher’s best example of this phenomenon is Suzanne Woods Fisher, host of the TogiNet Radio show Amish Wisdom, who invites her listeners to “slow down, de-clutter, find peace, and live a simpler life” each Thursday afternoon. However, Fisher’s life is anything but simple. She is the author of numerous Amish books and is contracted with her publisher, Revell, through 2016. In 2012, she had ten books on the market with eleven in the works. In one particular busy stretch, five of her books appeared in seven months. She writes them at about the rate of one every three to four months.
Besides being a radio host and author, Fisher is mother of four children and she has a little grandchild, a dad with Alzheimers and a mother who needs lots of help. Her husband is a finance executive who travels frequently. It is Fisher’s hypothesis that Amish fiction is “a response to the feeling people have of being out of control with technology and change that is coming so fast. The feeling that you have a cell phone and you are never off the hook, you are responsible to be available all the time—it’s just overwhelming. I think there’s a longing for a life in which you’re unhooked and detached, and we can’t do it; it’s too hard.”
The irony of “fast texts about a slow culture” is not lost on Weaver-Zercher. Several authors are contracted to write at least two books per year, besides Fisher writing at least three per year. So the people who want to read Amish books to fantasize about slowing down their lives are causing the already hyper capitalist publishing industry to go into overdrive. This is one of those incongruities of Amish romances.
In Part Two of this review, Saloma Miller Furlong will discuss the theological assumptions of these novels.
Now it’s your turn to analyze American Civilization. Do you crave simplicity? Does our culture in general? Do we need the Amish to remind us of what we want but are unwilling to sacrifice for? Do you have your own explanation for this amazingly popular form of fiction? Or are you like Grandpa, skeptical about such attempts to understand what we can’t know for sure?