The XX Factor

Pulp Fictions, Amish Style

Romance novels inhabit a literary ghetto that is very easy for readers to visit (though they usually do so surreptitiously, by cover of night), but extremely hard for books to leave. Every so often one of the novels is smuggled out, into the literary mainstream, and millions of women wind up reading mediocre, but riveting prose about an extremely handsome vampire as fast as they can. But for the most part, romance novels stay in this ghetto-and so the only people lucky enough to know about the existence of mind-boggling sub-genres like Amish romance novels are Amish romance novel readers themselves.

Yup, that’s right, Amish romance novels exist, and they’re popular . So popular that two of them, part of The Sisters of the Quilt trilogy by Cindy Woodsmall, have been on the New York Times bestseller list. The extremely chaste Quilt series (there’s one kiss in the whole series) seems to follow the standard script, except in the specifics (no electricity etc.). Hannah Lapp, a 17-year-old Amish girl, falls for a Mennonite (the Montague to her Capulet), and drama, romance, and tragedy ensue. The sub-genre even has a nickname: “bonnet books.”

Why isn’t the existence of bonnet books common knowledge? Or, put another way, why are romance novels still so ghettoized? They’re hugely popular, accounting for 32 percent of mass-market fiction sold. Sales were up seven percent at the end of 2008 , even while other book sales have plummeted due to the recession. Sure, some are terribly written, but a high ratio of junk to quality hasn’t stopped us from taking television, comic books, and video games seriously. In a recent piece on the history of Harlequin , The Walrus posited that romance novels are to women what porn is to men: We spend a lot more time talking, thinking, and arguing about porn than we ever have romance novels. Speaking to NPR , the two women who run the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, a site on a mission to rescue the romance novel’s rep, theorized that overt female sexuality and desire makes people uncomfortable. (A less positive gloss was provided by Andrea Dworkin, who said the books are “rape embellished with meaningful looks.”) What do you all think? Anyone want to start a book club for When The Heart Cries ?