Friday, March 22, 2013

Valerie Weaver-Zercher's "Thrill of the Chaste"

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Orion, Publishers Weekly, and The Christian Century. Her work has been nominated for and received special mention for a Pushcart Prize, and she received a 2009 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, and reported the following:
My book, Thrill of the Chaste, investigates the rise and reach of Amish-themed romance fiction, which has gone gangbusters during the first and second decade of this millennium. In 2012, a new Amish romance novel appeared on the market at the rate of about four per week; twenty-three new Amish romance series began in the same year.

When people ask why Amish fiction is so popular, they usually look at the consumption side of the equation: why are so many people reading the books? Equally important to consider, however, are the production strategies of Amish fiction: how are so many books appearing on the market? I owe this line of thinking to Janice Radway, whose investigation of romance readers in the early 1980s asked this critical question.

Thus, in the chapter in which page 99 appears, I look at the ways that Amish romance novels function as commodities, with special attention to how producers—literary agents, editors, marketers, booksellers, and “influencers” like bloggers—have contributed to the blockbuster success of Amish fiction. Page 99 continues a discussion of a central force in modern American capitalism, commodification, and how it relates to the production of Amish fiction.

From Page 99:
Commodification, the transformation of goods or people or ideas into commercial goods, remains an instructive concept with regard to the process by which the Amish or any other religious group are rendered into cultural products. Although books are literary events in a way that quilts, faceless dolls, and furniture are not, novels about the Amish function much as these more easily recognizable Amish-themed commodities do: they are products that those in the publishing matrix and those who are buying books exchange not only books but, in some sense, the Amish themselves.

This is John Bomberger’s concern when he talks about his organization’s “ambivalence” regarding Amish fiction. Bomberger is CEO of Choice Books, a book distributor with Mennonite roots that stocks book displays in airports, supermarkets, gift shops, and travel centers across the United States and sells 5.2 million Christian books annually. “There is a concern among many in Choice Books about exploiting the Amish,” Bomberger told me on the phone, pausing occasionally as if carefully choosing his words. Some of Choice Books’ staff grew up Amish, and many are Mennonites. “It’s always a question of what is being communicated in a particular book,” Bomberger said. “What will the reader find in this book about Jesus, and about the Anabaptist-Christian tradition? Or is it written by somebody who is trying to profiteer? Now anything about the Amish will sell.” One young Amish woman in Indiana told me something similar: “It seems like word has gotten out that if you write about the Amish, you can sell books. I think it’s getting out of hand.”
Amish romance novels are much more than commodities, of course. In Thrill of the Chaste, I examine the many ways they function in the lives of readers: as devotional texts that augment readers’ faith, as methods of transport away from hypermodern lifestyles, and as “clean reads” in what journalist Pamela Paul has called a “pornified” culture.

But Amish romance novels can’t be fully understood apart from the production matrix in which they are conceived and sold. Although I loved all aspects of my research—including interviews with readers of the novels, study of the history and content of the genre, and conversations with Amish people about their opinions of the books—I found researching the production of the novels to be one of the most fascinating parts of the project. So while page 99 does not contain the thesis of Thrill of the Chaste (people will have to buy the book to discover what that is!), I was glad to learn that this page at least touched on this formative stage in the life of an Amish romance novel.
Learn more about Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels at the Johns Hopkins University Press website and Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue