Recently the Wall Street Journal had an article describing the boom in Amish romances. These are not romances written by the Amish for the Amish. They are written by the non-Amish and meant for a general romance audience that does not want sex in their romances and likes the idea of a simple life in an ordered society. But it turns out that these stories also are being read (under the covers) by the Amish, the article claims. Which is a humorous idea, but it also leads to a tough situation for the authors. They have the double burden of writing good stories and also being extremely accurate about the details of this strict agrarian sect. Being sloppy with research can be a big turn off to a reader and it is a fact of life that the very people drawn to a particular story tend to be the ones who already know something about its topic. But because the Amish themselves are reading them, these romances are getting scrutiny from experts. And some are already decrying the inaccuracies that populate these stories. Ouch. Okay, maybe there aren’t a lot of real-life buggy accidents to create meet cutes. But the Amish are still reading these books. And the general romance public is, too. Even though we’re getting a somewhat misleading picture of Amish life, and going along with it.
But then, we always do. Huge inaccuracies happen all the time with movies and television. I particularly dislike the gift whose box is not wrapped shut and whose top simply can be lifted off. Nobody in real life wraps a gift like this. Another glaring inaccuracy that happens a huge amount of the time is that in movies and television, the women who are major characters often are not seen carrying purses. Come on, the hallmark of the adult woman is the carrying of a purse. Young girls beg their mothers to buy them these objects long before they are expected to carry ID or money, and can be seen modeling them happily on family shopping trips. So for an adult woman in a movie to not carry a purse is not only inaccurate, it looks…odd. (I’m perfectly willing to concede that superspy women and shapeshifter women who go around in black leather and stilettos and carry guns, knives, or swords would not carry purses. But most women in Western society do.)
We’re used to the inaccuracies in movies and television. But we still expect fiction to be based on facts. Yet Philippa Gregory’s bestselling, fictionalized novels of the lives of real historical figures of the Tudor period have all depended on stuff she totally made up. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory uses lots of solid historical fact, but freely departs from confirmed history whenever it pleases her. I don’t think it’s a secret by now that she strongly implies that Anne Boleyn and her brother George committed incest to produce her last, miscarried pregnancy. Nothing in history confirms this idea, other than the outrageous accusations against Anne Boleyn when King Henry VIII wanted her gone from his life. It’s a crazy idea to begin with, considering how public the lives of public figures really were. (Right down to the intimacies of personal hygiene.) But Gregory tells her tale in such a riveting manner that much is forgiven. When she pulled a similar trick with Katherine of Aragon, however, readers did not go for it. But she gets props for daring to even suggest that this pillar of rectitude was not one after all. (Hmm…back then, women wore headgear. Just like Amish women today.)
So what are we to make of yet another subgenre of romance (we’re all for those, of course) that depends on questionably accurate facts about a relatively secretive sect? Are we creating a fake Amish culture that romance readers will now know the boundaries of, but that is not true to reality? To go along with other beloved clichés such as the rock star romance, in which the amazingly non-promiscuous male rock star falls for the amazingly ignorant and innocent teenage fan? Or the sheikh books, in which the amazingly Western-thinking Arab guy does not act like a total domineering jerk with the spunky American girl used to her personal freedom? Apparently, we will now have the new cliché of the amazingly broad-thinking, hunky Amish guy with his buggy who doesn’t mind marrying a modern woman who has had a varied sexual past? And just how likely is this? But then, how likely is it that the Billionaire will want his Secretary to Have His Secret Baby? Not likely at all, which is why these romances are fiction.
The truth is, fiction may be fact based, but it always is a riff on a reality, not the reality itself. Fiction is the embodiment of possibilities taken to extremes. Romances in particular take one simple thought, such as, “Gee, that Amish guy walking by me in this tourist town is muscular,” and turn it into an entire string of implausible yet interesting events involving a woman yearning for love and ending in a happily ever after for two appealing people. Nice going. That’s why most of us, even when we recognize inaccuracies, shrug and let them go by. We’re reading fiction, after all.