May 14, 2013

'Slap a bonnet on the cover'

Almost any popular discussion of Amish romance novels -- the very successful evangelical-produced fiction with Old Order Amish settings and characters -- includes mention of the iconic covers. These are the "novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies," as one reporter put it. Or, as another observer wrote more elaborately, these are fictions with
covers each backlit with the golden glow of God’s everlasting presence and bucolic perfection: wheat fields, corn fields, rivers and barns beneath cerulean or honey skies. A plain-clothed woman in some state of muted emotional duress gazed into the middle distance beneath her white bonnet
Famously, a marketing expert at a Christian publishing house told Newsweek "You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales."

It's probably the apparently ironic contrast between the crass commercialism of such covers and the alternative to commercialism represented by the covers that attracts such interest from those who don't read Amish romance. The incongruity can be jarring.

The incongruity can also be really interesting.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher's excellent new book on Amish romance fiction (a book which also features a stock photo of an Amish woman on the cover) notes that these novels are both products of "hypercapitalism" and serve to create a space for those who want an alternative to that hypercaptialism. Part of what readers do with these novels is imagine what it would be like to live at a different, calmer, pace. But to do that, of course, also means buying and consuming the novels, commercial practices that entail participation in the whirring, speeding system of commodity production.

Weaver-Zercher writes that the pace at which these books are produced and consumed has a very direct effect on some of the iconic covers. One model, dressed to look Amish, can appear on as many as 10 different covers.

She writes, "Given their highly visual distinctives, such as dress and transportation, the Amish are particularly ripe for commodification. The emblems of Amish life -- coverings, capes, beards, hats, quilts, buggies -- render them useful in a consumer culture." These covers -- "young models with plucked eyebrows," Weaver-Zercher writes, who "sport Amish garb and gaze into the near distance" -- become free-floating cultural signifiers, signifying a respite from and alternative to consumer culture, which can itself be consumed.

There's only very little information readily available about the actual production of these covers, but the little that's out there is fascinating.

The model on the cover of a re-release of a Beverly Lewis novel, for example, recently talked about how she got into the business:
In 2009, a modeling agent approached [Claire DeBerg] at a wedding and asked her, 'What's your ethnicity?' DeBerg, who is Cherokee, says she is asked this question a lot. 
The agent was looking for 'ethnically vague models' and thought DeBerg fit the bill. 
DeBerg could not find a reason not to try modeling, so she agreed to get some headshots taken and have the agency represent her. 

DeBerg, who happens to be Mennonite and taught English for a while at the University of Northern Iowa, has modeled for Target, Walgreens, and H&R Block. She told The Mennonite magazine that the photographer who shot her picture specializes in Amish book covers, and the woman who did her hair and make-up was an expert in Amish makeup and hairstyles.

The strangeness of all this is obviously worth a laugh. But it's also worth thinking about: this is an example of the production of an imagined alternative to the culture created by that production. The internal contradiction in that results, in some contexts, in a jarring aesthetic experience, but it also, in other contexts, makes a potentially powerful cultural practice possible.