When a Mennonite reads Amish fiction

Guest post by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

Academic research of readers and writers and books can take one to far-flung places: musty archives in Turkey, literacy circles in São Paulo, collections of incunabula in Mainz. But research for my book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels propelled me toward rather than away from my own history, genealogy, and identity. By investigating this blockbuster genre of inspirational fiction, which calved a new novel every four days during 2012 and which has garnered wide attention in the media for its commercial success, I ended up inching closer and closer to the people and places that formed me.

As a Mennonite who shares ecclesial and theological roots with the Amish, and as a friend to several people who love Amish romance novels, I found myself unable to employ the distanced gaze of the traditional researcher who stands at a safe remove from her subjects. Rather than erasing myself from the analysis or pretending I had nothing invested in my data, I decided to do what literary theorist Scott Slovic calls “narrative scholarship,” in which writers do not strive to absent themselves from the text. Ian Marshall, expanding on this idea, suggests that an awareness “of our role not just as an observer but as a participant, as part and parcel of the world” is critical to explorations of literature.

So one June day, when I found myself driving the back roads of Holmes County, Ohio, on a research trip to discover whether Amish readers are reading Amish fiction, I chose to view the trip itself, not just the transcriptions of interviews, as data. I was traveling roads near where my Amish grandfather had been born and that my mother remembers from her childhood, when she would go with her father to attend family funerals and other functions. Rather than pretend that my research commenced when I pulled out my notebook or turned on my digital voice recorder, I wrote the journey into the book.

Interviewing loyal readers of Amish novels meant chatting with my uncle, who likes reading the books, at a family reunion, and listening in on conversations among women at church, who check out the novels from our church library. Researching the history of Amish fiction meant interviewing a former supervisor from a Mennonite publishing house where I worked in the 1990s, when Amish-themed novels made up a significant part of our publishing program. And simply reading Amish romance novels, which are often set in Lancaster County, took me to the landscape of my childhood, where my forebears settled in the 1700s and where I grew up.

There is risk involved in doing narrative scholarship: one’s prose can scooch almost imperceptibly toward self-absorption, or the flavor of personal investment can overpower the broth of data and analysis. But there’s danger in ignoring one’s personal location in one’s research, too, as feigned objectivity can result in a critical posture skewed by subconscious bias or unacknowledged proximity to the issues at hand. When one’s research agenda overlaps with personal life, I’ve found it better to name one’s location and loyalties on the playing field than to pretend one has no skin in the game.

Academic discourse is much more hospitable to the “I” of the researcher than it was in previous eras, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to write myself into invisibility when I wrote Thrill of the Chaste. Researching Amish fiction, and bringing to bear on it the illuminating powers of literary theory and cultural criticism, was a fascinating intellectual sojourn for me. It was also a visit home.

weaver-zercher rev comp.inddValerie Weaver-Zercher has written about Christianity and culture, Anabaptism, the environment, and parenting for a wide variety of outlets, including the Los Angeles TimesChicago Tribune, and Christian Science Monitor. The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels is her first full-length book. Head over to our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for your chance to win one of three copies of the book.