Amish Fiction: How important is “authenticity”?

“Are they accurate?” In Thrill of the Chaste, Valerie Weaver-Zercher observes that the question of factual accuracy was the most frequently asked of her during her research.  It’s one which, she explains in a late chapter of the book, she was reluctant, for various reasons, to address.

She does cover the issue in much depth, though.  One quote in support of Amish fiction authors:

Many novelists of Amish fiction demonstrate impressive knowledge of the Amish, their practices, and the distinctions between Amish settlements. One Amish person wrote to Wanda Brunstetter that it was hard for her to believe that Brunstetter wasn’t Amish herself, so authentic did her books feel, and an Amish reviewer wrote in the Connection, a periodical with a primarily Amish audience, “Wanda, you have definitely done your homework and I can tell you have a feel for our community.”  The authors I spoke with were both solemnly committed to extensive research and humble about any claims to exhaustive knowledge of Amish life.

Those research sources include Amish people, non-fiction academic books, Amish publications, and first hand observation.

Authenticity is clearly of importance to authors, based on the efforts they make to verify accuracy, and then convey these efforts to readers.  Credibility comes, most commonly, through “the vetting of a manuscript with an Amish informant or friend before (or in some cases after) the book goes to press.”

Having written non-fiction on the Amish, I can understand the feeling that you need to do this.  In addition to catching mistakes, I suppose it acts as a sort of “credibility cover”, though you can’t place the onus on the Amish reader to identify all your errors.

On the other hand, an Amish reader points to the challenges inherent for non-Amish writers in an Amish literary landscape:

One Amish woman who reads prepublication manuscripts for an Amish-fiction author suggested to me that although it’s easy to fix small inaccuracies, such as details of dress or technology use in her community, it’s more difficult to help an author create authentic-feeling dialogue and practices, a character’s thought life, or a community’s ethos.

There is a lot more to this discussion in Thrill of the Chaste than I can do justice to here, such as issues with how certain cultural/religious practices are portrayed.   I’ll just share one of Valerie’s conclusions when it comes to minor errors:

In fact, it is likely that Amish fiction clears up more popular misconceptions than it creates…if readers walk away thinking that the Amish in Lancaster County drive black buggies instead of gray, or that Amish people write letters in Pennsylvania German than in English, has any real harm been done? To the extent that readers of these novels are looking for an “Amishish” experience rather than a watertight nonfiction analysis, the subgenre, in general, delivers.

I’ve also wondered whether a perfectly accurate depiction of Amish life is even the point.  I would think readers would approach the novels with a similar mindset. Based on people’s comments, it sounds like there are other, more powerful reasons for reading Amish fiction, including personal inspiration and for the values the books convey.

What do you think?

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    17 Comments

    1. Sandra Kathleen

      Lack of authenticity detracts from the message

      Well, I think if you want to have fantasy stories, you can…there’s nothing stopping you.

      That said, I think the witness of the Amish community is made valid and not “of the world,” the closer to authenticity the author can achieve.

      Even more, it’s the shared struggle as humans we all have that gives us better grounding…the recognition that in all human endeavors, as we try to find our place under the sun … under God’s will, there are obstacles we all relate to.

      We are intrigued by the Amish exactly because those living its tenets have a different viewpoint from which we can glean a perspective that offers us a way out of our “circular” (insular) thought process.

      As I read those authors who (to me) seem to be more “authentic,” I can see the blessings, as well as the potential for failure, of the Amish community. The community is fleshed out and not so “ideal.”

      What the authors need to be attuned to market pressure to pen books based on what their readership wants/believes/desires at the expense of writing books based on truth. Balance is key.

    2. Balancing Act

      As the author of a number of novels with Amish settings, I’ve been reading Valerie’s book with great interest, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in June. Most of the writers of Amish fiction I know struggle to ‘get it right’ and go to great efforts to do so.
      But in the end, we’re writing fiction, and fiction has to be true to the constraints of good story-telling. If we gloss over certain aspects of Amish life and emphasize others, I believe that’s part of the experience the reader wants from the books.
      That’s probably true in all genres of popular fiction. We read different kinds of stories because we long for different experiences at different times. For me, as long as the author pulls me into the story and gives me that experience, I’m willing to overlook minor errors!

    3. Christy

      I believe it’s important to be true to your characters. I find a lot of authors these days are mixing English people with Amish characters. Eventually in the end it seems the Amish person decides to be English. In my opinion you’ve ruined what could have been a great Amish novel. I want it as true as can be; and in my mind I’m able to keep the troubles that so often come in non Amish books away. I am a avid reader of Amish fiction and non-fiction. This is all I read at this moment. Once you read more that two Amish fiction books you can tell what’s not quite right in the story. I usually stop reading this particular book and usually move away from this author. I have just recently read some really fine Amish non-fiction that includes Amish: In their own words; and House Calls and Hitching Posts. These I thought were very informative but also very story telling. Just thought I’d give you my authentic opinion; it matters in a story even fiction.

    4. My critique would be that Amish fiction does not present Amish theology accurately. Since the books are written primarily for EvangelicalChristian women, the values presented are reflective of the audience rather than of the the subject culture. At the same time, the romances encourage the audience to seek out and interact with Amish, and this is one of the contributing factors in a shift in Amish theology, away from core Anabaptist principles to a more mainstream Evangelical understanding of faith. In this way, I believe that the uniqueness of Amish Anabaptism is being lost.

      1. I’m reluctant to give away too much of Valerie’s book, but she does get into the potential effects upon Amish readers including the influence on Amish spirituality and theology.

        She also makes an interesting comparison to the effects of tourism (which may actually reinforce Amish culture) but notes that “tourism represents Amish people largely to non-Amish ones. Amish novels, created almost entirely by non-Amish people, are now representing the Amish to the Amish.”

    5. Jamie

      Important

      I love reading Amish fiction but while I know the storyline is fictional I want the facts about the Amish to be authentic. I’ve always had a fascination and respect for the Amish culture. Lots of people are curious about the Amish and by combining a great storyline and authentic facts you make the story come alive and readers learn something about the Amish and their values in the process. It’s one thing to write a fictional story but if you attach the word Amish to it then you should be prepared to depict this culture of people in fact.

    6. Roberta

      Slap upside the head

      As a reader, I do not want too much inaccuracy in my fiction because it jerks me right out of the story like a slap upside the head. Even science fiction and fantasy are based on the acceptance of certain sets of rules.

      I have had this discussion with a writer of historical fiction who totally disagreed with me. He contends that, since he writes fiction, he is free to write anything he pleases. I am also free to avoid his books.

      I have also had this discussion with someone who has been involved with several very successful films and she says that, if you want to truly capture your audience and keep them in the story, you must surround your fictional characters and situations with as much historical accuracy as possible.

    7. Valerie also wrote: “novelists cannot be released from all responsibility to the actual world, however, especially when they’re writing stories about a living ethnic and religious culture to which they and most of their readers do not belong. Representing one culture to another comes with a host of ethical responsibilities, and the ancillary dangers—circulation of misinformation, appropriation of cultural symbols, assertion of control—are many.”

      I totally agree with this. It’s not the little things that matter… it’s the broad brush strokes, such as the Amish religious beliefs, as Magdalena mentioned. The authors of Amish fiction want it to have it both ways—they want to use the Amish culture as backdrop for their novels, while at the same time judging the Amish beliefs as being inadequate for their salvation. Furthermore, they are making a personal fortune by doing so. You don’t have to be born and raised Amish to understand these incongruities.

      For more about my take on “Thrill of the Chaste,” please see my latest blog post: http://aboutamish.blogspot.com/2013/04/review-of-thrill-of-chaste-by-valerie.html

    8. LynnB

      Disney-like

      What always bothers me is that many readers see Amish life as having an almost “Disney” feel. Nobody stays angry, there is always a happy ending, the villians are obvious. Religious beliefs aside, the Amish are like the rest of us, comprised of good, bad and indifferent characters. I have stumbled across a few writers who went far outside the facts of amish life and created their own values. And somewhere, someone reads this and thinks it true. I have read Marta Perrys work, and she strives to be accurate. Wanda Brunstetter and Beverly Lewis basically pioneered the genre, and have stayed true to the culture they write about. Many of the newer fiction authors dont. And then, with trash-tv programs about amish life, it can be even harder for people to understand. I disagree with the statement that it clears up more misconceptions than it creates. It isnt just about buggy color. It is about basic facts of life, some pretty, some not- and the fact that those are glossed over or ignored in favor of fairy tales.

      1. Carolyn B

        Lynn B, you and I seem to share the same heros in Amish fiction. I don’t hold MsPerry to the high standard as Mrs Brunstetter and Ms Lewis. I expect these two to be highly accurate. I read Ms Perry more for the escape. The others in the Amish genre I don’t trust or enjoy as much.

      2. Jeff

        truth and fiction

        I agree about the happy ending approach. I’ve been writing for years and making everything all happy happy really makes the story to fluffy. There has to be some grit or friction to it. It doesn’t have to be bad but tension and different voices make a story richer.

    9. Debbie

      I like by fiction to be based on fact. I agree with Jamie. I like fiction but get the facts straight. Even in movies I want the facts right, otherwise I get jerked out of the story and focus on the inaccuracies. Writers should do their research.

    10. Alice Mary

      That's ENTERTAINMENT!

      When I read FICTION I know I’m getting a mixture of fact and FICTION. FICTION is NOT to be confused with “non-fiction”, yet it sounds as though it IS, more often than not! Even working in a library for decades, I can’t believe how many adults, (who should know better) assume that the FICTION they’re reading is, or contains mainly, FACT. There’s all kinds of fiction—historical, realistic, fantasy…but it’s still FICTION.

      I enjoy non-fiction—THAT I expect to be as accurate as possible (yet, authors are human and there are facts that have been obscured or lost to history). In my own opinion, it’s hard to engross a reader with non-fiction, unless the writer is very talented with words. It’s difficult to convey what often can be “dry facts” with enough “finesse” to keep it interesting. I read FICTION mainly for entertainment (think of a group of schoolchildren acting out the first Christmas…where do the facts end and the entertainment begin?)

      Just reading this blog the past couple of years, hearing from Amish and non-Amish alike, including former Amish, I think I’ve also read in Amish FICTION just about every bit of “fact” I’ve seen here. English turning Amish, Amish turning English, bundling, shunning, outhouses, toilets, using rubber coated buggy wheels, only using metal buggy wheels, gas-run generators running stationary tractors while plowing with horses, etc., etc., I’ve seen it in the various fiction I’ve read. I don’t limit myself to one author, since not one single author has had ALL of the various “Amish” experiences as there are, or could possibly be. That would be like me, a Caucasian woman from middle America, trying to generalize what it’s like being “English” to a native of Zambia. My own experience is valid, but that’s ONLY my OWN experience, not everyone’s who’s “English”.

      If I want facts, I’ll read non-fiction; if I want entertainment, I’ll usually choose FICTION. After reading a few books by an author, I’ll probably get an idea of how much research (for authenticity) s/he’s done—but I’ll keep on reading anyway, for entertainment’s sake (which is why I chose FICTION to begin with!) 😉

      Alice Mary

      1. Amy

        Alice Mary

        I completely agree with Alice Mary, and what a great perspective to have, from someone who knows the ins and outs of literature.

    11. I am just not fond of reading amish fiction myself but I think it should be fairly accurate.

    12. linda

      comment on Amish Fiction

      Erick I address this to you and would like a reply to it. I just finished reading the book Pray for Silence a mystery by Linda Costillio. It is about a lady who broke from the Amish when she was younger and became Chief of Police in Amish country. Mainly it consisted of murders and wrong doing towards the Amish people.The mystery part sure kept you on the edge of your seat but it left me feeling, I guess I could say, very protective towards the Amish. I then got another of her books , again about the Amish country. I read only about 1 chapter and tossed it aside. The way she used and discribed the young Amish girls, was discussing. I realize it is only fiction but to even have thoughts in your head to write such garbage is appauling. I sure hope no Amish ever read them.Supposedly she has another book in the works.I most definately will not be touching it.Thanks for listening.

      1. Hi Linda, I have heard the name before but I am not familiar with the books. I guess this is another example that not all Amish fiction is the same.