On this week's Weekend Edition Saturday, Scott Simon talks to author Shelley Shepard Gray. Gray writes what are sometimes referred to as "bonnet rippers" — Amish-themed romance novels, which are a subset of the larger genre of Christian romances. She writes for Harper Collins' Christian line, Avon Inspire.
Gray isn't Amish herself — she grew up in Houston, Texas. She writes mainstream romance novels, too, under the name Shelley Galloway, with names like Second Chance Hero and A Small Town Girl. (Her real name is Shelley Sabga.) Her novels about the Amish have names like Spring's Renewal and Winter's Awakening, and her seventh is about to be released. It's a Christmas story called, unsurprisingly, Grace.
Asked what she thinks is the appeal of Amish and other Christian romances, Gray tells Simon that readers are "looking for something positive and uplifting." But she also acknowledges that part of it is exactly what you might suspect at first glance: traditional romance novels have too much sex and offensive language for these readers. "Of course, there's no sex in these books," she explains.
Trying to fit these novels into a broader picture, it's hard to miss the fact that romance without sex isn't limited to Amish fiction, or to Christian fiction. There might seem to be a world of difference between Christian romances and vampire romances, but it's hard not to see a certain parallel between the chaste fiction Gray writes and the wildly popular Twilight, in which there are also — at least in the first couple of books — strict restraints on the amount of sex, and where those restraints and the characters' struggles with them seem to have something to do with the appeal.
Strange as it sounds, the forbidden vampire-human love of Twilight plays, as a piece of romantic fiction, not entirely unlike the seemingly impossible relationship between an Amish man and an "English" (which, in this context, just means non-Amish) woman in a book like Gray's Autumn's Promise. In both, the same basic conflict — call it "this can never be and we must agree to squash our passion, because we are too different" — takes center stage. And in both, it is understood that there can be no sex without resolving the larger issue that the couple can't marry. (Spoiler alert: These are romance novels, remember. This isn't Witness. In Autumn's Promise, you will get your happy ending, by hook or by crook. Love conquers all, including religious differences.) Much has been made of the fact that Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is Mormon; if indeed there is religious subtext to the chastity of Twilight, it's text in this subgenre.
Of course, Twilight isn't taking place among the fictionalized version of a real population. Gray says that she does have Amish readers, citing one friend who has an entire bookcase full of Christian romance novels in her home. But as a recent USA Today article on this trend noted, there are also those both inside and outside the Amish community who find these books — particularly when they are written by non-Amish writers like Gray — to be inaccurate or "romanticized" portrayals of a real way of life.
For now, though, there are plenty of women in bonnets on the covers of romances by Gray and others, and for readers who want a little more faith and a little less sex and swearing, they seem to hit the spot.