Over the years, I found her reviews in Christian Century, her articles about practical spirituality in Sojourners (you can purchase at Amazon through the link) and her op-eds in major newspapers across the country. Now she’s the author of her first book.
I’ve reviewed her Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels myself at Goodreads and Amazon (mostly identical reviews).
When I gave her the chance to respond to Saloma Furlong’s review (see Part One and Part Two), I didn’t know she would have an essay featured in the Wall Street Journal right before this post is published. But I’m not at all surprised. Her writing resume includes some of the largest newspapers in the country, so I’m doubly honored that she wrote this essay just for this blog. Enjoy! And do read the book, too.
A Response to Saloma Furlong’s review.
By Valerie Weaver-Zercher
First, I’d like to thank Saloma for her very thorough treatment of my book, Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, and for the genuine questions she raises about some of my approaches. I appreciate the fact that she has taken my book seriously enough to give it such an engaged review, and she has captured much of what I was attempting to do in its pages. Having lived an Amish life and also having departed from it, Saloma has a unique and valuable perspective on the genre, and I was grateful that, during my research, I stumbled on her insightful blog posts about Amish fiction. Thanks, too, to Shirley for hosting this discussion! These posts have generated some really interesting comments, which I’ve greatly enjoyed reading.
I likely can’t answer all the issues that Saloma and others raise about Amish fiction, but I can try to address a few thematic strands that seem to be emerging from the discussion.
1) Amish novels as fairy tales. I think there’s something to the comments about Amish novels functioning as fairy tale or myth. Most of the novels hew quite closely to particular conventions of Christian fiction, just as fairy tales do. Understanding the mythic quality of Amish fiction also enables us to see why readers aren’t disturbed by the assurance of a happy ending or perhaps even by knowing how the book will end. Theorist Janice Radway observed in the 1980s that romance novels functioned as mythic texts, and that this parallel helped to explain why readers didn’t mind knowing the end of the story before they finish the book. Myth and fairy tale function to comfort, as well as to help us answer large questions about why things happen and how we should behave. Amish fiction performs these tasks: it is in many ways a “comforting” genre, and it serves didactic functions as well. The parallel between Amish fiction and fairy tale shouldn’t be used, in my opinion, to patronize readers of Amish fiction or to suggest that they’re somehow childlike in their desire to “escape” reality. But it can help us understand the appeal of a fairly standardized form of narrative to readers.
Having said that, there is quite a bit of variation in subthemes in the novels. When I asked loyal readers if all the books feel the same to them, they usually cocked their heads, said no, and then began listing off the differences between novels they read and loved. The books deal with a variety of issues that might surprise outside observers, including premarital pregnancy, autism, deafness, adoption, domestic abuse, dwarfism, crime, etc. (And yes, there are a variety of Amish novels that don’t fit in the inspirational genre, including gay Amish fiction, Amish erotica, and Amish sci-fi and paranormal fiction.)
2) Demographic of readers. Someone wondered about the demographic profile of readers of Amish romance novels. In general, readers of inspirational fiction are evangelical Christian women; since most Amish novels belong to a subgenre of inspirational fiction, this is also largely the readership of Amish fiction. Having said that, I kept stumbling on lots of readers who don’t fit that profile: white men, Catholics, agnostics, African-Americans, Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia—you get the picture. Many college students love the novels, and mothers talk about giving Amish novels to their middle-school and high-school-age daughters. So while we can talk about the broad contours of the Amish-novel readership as evangelical and female, there are lots of exceptions to that.
3) Issues of authenticity/accuracy. Saloma’s major concern about Thrill of the Chaste appears to be the fact that I didn’t deal with questions of accuracy and authenticity until quite late in my book, and that then I did not do so adequately or completely. This question—“How accurate are Amish romance novels?”—is indeed one that plagued me throughout my research, and Saloma clearly sensed my reluctance to face it head-on. I describe my decision not to prioritize this question in the beginning of chapter 8. Part of my reticence was that people—even scholars who spend their careers studying the Amish—can have endless disagreements about what, exactly, constitutes an “accurate” portrayal of the Amish. And individuals’ lived experiences are so unique and partial that even Amish folks disagree about which novelists are inept and inaccurate in their representations and which ones do a good job.
Certainly some things that some authors write about the Amish are just plain wrong—and I pointed out several of these in my book, including representations of shunning, the role of bishops, and an invented cultural practice called a “man swap.” But I wasn’t sure that I was qualified to create some kind of “accuracy” scale along which Amish novels can be judged. Also, dealing with that concern in a major way would have required a different theoretical lens than the one that I used (cultural theory). And frankly, I thought that if I enumerated all the ways in which Amish romance novels “get it wrong,” my book might become rather boring to read. That is, while I’m sure that Saloma or I or someone else could make a long list of all the inaccuracies in Amish-themed novels (okay, very long), I wasn’t sure that such a list would be very interesting. Far more intriguing to me was the question of why the books are popular, and what loyal readers are saying about them.
Ultimately, Saloma—and several other people I’ve talked to—maintain that I was too generous to the authors and readers of Amish fiction. They think that I should have provided a close read of the novels that revealed all their inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and bad prose, and that I should have taken the authors to task for presuming to know enough about the Amish to write about them and for benefiting from a people group to which they do not belong. I do raise some of those questions of commodification and appropriation and inaccuracy in my book, particularly in chapter 9. And I certainly don’t see myself as an apologist for the genre; in my book I try to illumine both the appeal of Amish fiction to its readers and the problems that the genre contains in the eyes of many Amish folks and other observers.
It may indeed be the case that I was too generous and not critical enough of those who are creating the Amish fiction industry. But early on in my research, I decided that I was more interested in figuring out why the books are so popular than in why they are so wrong. That approach required that I listen closely to the words of readers and writers of the novels rather than dismiss them, and it meant focusing more on my conversations with readers and production strategies of publishers than on whether the authors get their facts straight. I think there could be value in a book about the accuracy of Amish novels; it’s just that it would have to operate from a different theoretical framework than the one I chose.
4) Wanting to have it “both ways.” Saloma and Shirley and many of the folks who have commented on Saloma’s two-part review have made this point well already, and I’m not sure I can add anything very helpful. I agree with Saloma that some of the authors want two rather contradictory things: they both sacralize the Amish and their way of life and critique the Amish as not necessarily “saved.” This question intrigued me quite a bit, and I address it in my chapter “Is Amishness Next to Godliness?” Along with Saloma, I was disturbed by some authors’ representation of the Amish faith as something that the protagonist has to escape before she can become a “real” Christian. Historian Eric Miller offered a very astute analysis of some of the reasons this might be in a 2011 article in Christianity Today, and many of the Amish people I spoke with expressed frustration with this as well.
I also appreciated Saloma’s attention to hyperindividualism, which is one prong of what theorist Gilles Lipovetsky calls hypermodernity. In that sense, many of us are like Amish-fiction authors: wanting to pick and choose which part of an “Amishesque” life we want to live and which ones we don’t. As Saloma aptly points out, perhaps the novels are so popular because those of us who are not Amish want to both have our Amish cake and eat our hypermodern one too. And like Shirley, I’d usually prefer sitting on a porch, enjoying bucolic rural scenery, to doing any of the actual tasks of a farmer.
Those are some brief thoughts; Saloma and others raised many more valuable and interesting questions and ideas, of course, than I can address here. One of the most interesting questions, I think, is how Amish folks themselves are responding to the novels. If you’re interested in this question, read my recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. That piece also addresses some of the issues related to possible harm to Amish communities. Of course, you can always read my book, too….
Thanks again to Saloma and Shirley and to all those who weighed in to make this such a lively discussion!
Readers: Now it’s your turn. What do you want to ask Valerie?
P. S. My New Beginning today? I gave my niece who lives far away a hug. We shared a moment of vulnerability. I encouraged her to make a new beginning, which becomes my new beginning also. Funny how that works.
P. P. S. Don’t forget to register your New Beginning today.