Think “women’s literature,” and something akin to “Fifty Shades of Grey” probably comes to mind.
But one trend in women’s literature that’s just as prominent falls at the chaster end of the spectrum — and has shown itself to have staying power. For about 15 years now, Amish fiction has become increasingly popular, not to mention profitable for publishers.
“If you put a head covering on the woman on the front, you’re going to sell a lot more copies,” Salon quotes Steve Oates, vice president of marketing for the publishing company Bethany House, as saying. “It’s that simple. Even if the book isn’t about the Amish — maybe it’s about a Mennonite girl or even a young woman living in John Bunyan-era Europe — if you put some sort of bonnet or hat on her, it’s almost like magic.”
A number of other media outlets have also written about this trend. The Los Angeles Review of Books, for one, reported that a new Amish romance novel hit the market every four days in 2012, with 60 more published in 2012 than in 2009, and 83 more than in 2002. (The Review also coined the term “bonnet ripper” — a play on “bodice ripper” — for the genre.) Not surprisingly, the number of authors of Amish fiction has also risen dramatically and even includes a few men, despite the fact that the books’ protagonists and intended audience are fairly exclusively female.
What’s most interesting about any trend, of course, is where exactly it’s rooted. What has drawn so many women to partake in the Amish fiction phenomenon, despite the books being so different than other bestsellers marketed to the same audience?
According to Valerie Weaver-Zercher, the author of the recently published book “Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels,” being different is precisely what appeals about the books to a sizable portion of their readers. She writes that evangelical Christian readers, in particular, appreciate them as “some of the squeakiest clean romances around,” which may be why Amish fiction sometimes accounts for 30 percent of the slots on Christian fiction bestseller lists.
“Reading Amish fiction ... results in an even stronger experience of chastity than reading other Christian fiction, since the virtues of the protagonist and her community extend beyond sexual innocence to cultural purity,” she writes in an article for First Things. “Not only are Amish novels ‘clean reads’ about modest young women; they are novels set within a subculture conceived of as unsullied by hypermodernity.”
But the Christian subculture doesn’t account for all of the readership of Amish novels, and Christian publishers and bookstores aren’t the only ones to profit off of them. Case in point: Walmart accounts for 50 percent of the sales of Amish fiction’s top authors.
The broader appeal of the genre may lie in the fact that for most readers, the stories take place in a world that’s as different from theirs as one inhabited by vampires and werewolves. In this, the novels offer the same kind of fantasy experience as “Twilight” and the like. But unlike that series and any number of other romances marketed to women, they also encourage something beyond escapism: Aspiration in the context of the ordinary.
“Everyone gathers around the table for the evening meal,” Oates says in the Salon article. “Life is first and foremost family-oriented, and ... in these books everyone belongs to a close, tight-knit community, which is very appealing to women.
“The books are aspirational,” he adds. “It’s the ‘I wish my family were like this’ kind of thing.”
Ironically, one demographic the books do not particularly appeal to is the Amish themselves. Some see no need to read about the lifestyle, since they’re living it. Others have found the books to be an inaccurate reflection of their communities — a sort of soap-opera version of real life.
That criticism probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those in the Amish fiction industry. It may not be “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but at the same time, no genre earns the name “bonnet ripper” by being boring.
Erin Wisdom can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPWisdom.