Amish romance novels are big business, with the top authors selling millions of copies. From the 1990s to 2004, one or two Amish novels were published each year. By 2008, there were 12 new titles published annually, and by 2012 the yearly output was 85. Puzzled by this phenomenal growth, Valerie Weaver-Zercher researched the novels, the writers, the readers and the Amish themselves in order to understand who is reading these books and why.
The popularity of this genre has been puzzling to me because I find Amish fiction almost impossible to read, even though I enjoy the occasional old-fashioned romance. Weaver-Zercher’s analysis helped me to understand that part of my problem is that I know too much about traditional Old Order culture. I can’t get into the story because the lack of authenticity is distracting and I keep saying to myself, “No Amish person would think like that!”
Weaver-Zercher does not take a position on accuracy and recognizes that there is sharp disagreement over whether or not the authors portray true Amish culture. Those who enjoy the novels obviously find the plots and settings convincing. Some readers find the rural, family-based settings particularly attractive. Weaver-Zercher concludes that whether or not you enjoy reading this type of novel depends on individual taste. She is ambivalent herself, but implies that millions of readers can’t be wrong.
Perhaps the most profound insight offered by Weaver-Zercher is that these are novels written by evangelical Christians to be read by evangelical Christians. Not only do they provide a chaste alternative to the risqué literature of our modern culture, the spiritual themes offer a kind of devotional reading. While earlier novels often emphasized the idea of a born-again personal conversion, more recent stories find the protagonist struggling with her own faith in some way. Weaver-Zercher writes, “Evangelicals are reading about the Amish to learn how to be better evangelicals.” She points out that most of the literary agents, publishers and marketers are also evangelical Christians.
While there is evidence that some Amish people read these romance novels, Weaver-Zercher found that most of the Amish had little good to say about the novels, and “approached the topic with a mixture of resignation, bemusement and exasperation.” It seems that many of the Amish also find the novels lacking authenticity, except for the stories written by Linda Byler, the one writer who is Amish.
The title, Thrill of the Chaste, refers to Weaver-Zercher’s theory that the appeal of these books is a reaction to the hyper-modernity and hyper-sexualization of modern culture. The old-fashioned values of purity and simplicity found in an Amish setting are appealing to those who are looking for a simple and wholesome reading experience.
Thrill of the Chaste helped me to see that Amish romance novels are designed for a specific audience that isn’t really interested in whether or not the portrayal of Amish culture is accurate. Although I don’t find the characters and settings convincing, I shouldn’t look down on those who enjoy this type of reading experience. After all, millions of readers can’t be wrong. Can they?