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Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez Headshot

The Rise of Traditionalist Fiction in America

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I went to Hastings with my son yesterday to buy some books. I was stunned and intrigued to see that the Christian Romance section of the store had more than doubled in size since the last time I was there.

Hastings is a regional chain based in Amarillo, Texas, that sells books, videos, video games, music and other items. It is popular here in New Mexico, and with trouble reported at Borders and Barnes & Noble, promises to get even more so as book retail choices shrink. I have no doubt that part of the reason the chain continues to thrive is that Hastings has its finger on the increasingly Christian and traditionalist pulse of middle America.

Christian book publishing is flourishing. The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) reports an increase in sales from 2009 to 2010 of 4.6 percent, according to a November 22 article in Christian Retailing magazine. Eight of the 15 member houses reporting to the ECPA reported an astonishing growth rate for that period of 14.5 percent.

My sociologist father taught me well that in American society there is a constant pendulum swing back and forth between what Max Weber and others called "traditionalist" and "modernist" values. In fact, the red-state, blue-state divide in the United States could also be interpreted as the ongoing conflict between these two distinct and yet both very American values systems.

At times of economic hardship, such as the one we are all living through now, people gravitate toward the traditionalist values, in search of something stable, predictable, and certain. It is no surprise then, that as the nation's economy continues to fumble and fall, that readers are drawn more and more toward stories that speak of simpler times, traditional values, and selflessness.

In other words, long gone are the days of Sex in the City and other consumerist "chick lit," as readers turn en masse toward Amish romances and romances set in small rural Western towns. Many in publishing say chick lit is dead. I don't agree. Rather, I think chick lit has given up Friday night cocktails for Sunday morning services.

My sociology professor father compiled a list of values that are in constant conflict between traditional and modern societies that I as an author find of great interest at this crossroads in our nation's history. Reading through it is almost like reading a list of plots and themes that worked in women's fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s (modernist) versus those that intelligent writers would be wise to utilize now (traditionalist).

Under "economic structure" we find the following differences:

* Modernists (like Carrie Bradshaw) create goods for exchange or sale; traditionalists (like the Amish heroines) create goods for their own use or for their community.

* Modernists function within a national economy and are city-based, whereas traditionalists function in a local economy and are rural-based. (We see the first hints of the power of the traditionalist Christian book market's emergence in the success of Twilight, which was written by a devout Mormon, set in the forest, and featured no sex before marriage.)

* Modern society sees a complex division of labor where everyone can do or be anything they like; traditional society has a simple division of labor set by sex and age -- meaning the Sex in the City girls (or the women in my own "chica lit" novels) are ambitious businesswomen and go-getters, while the new heroines tend to teach sewing or care for children.

The contrasts become even more fascinating when you look at the differences in social structure between modern and traditional societies.

* Modern relationships tend to be transitory and impersonal (think Samantha's many sexual conquests) whereas traditional relationships are long-lasting and genuinely intimate. Readers are actively seeking out these more satisfying stories, with a deeper level of connection.

It would be a mistake for Manhattan publishing to simply roll their eyes at the "wacko evangelicals" in the "fly-over states" who are reading the new traditionalist fiction by the trainload. The hunger for deeper meaning in relationship and life is not limited to the religious, necessarily, and these stories are finding widespread audiences.

The list goes on.

* Modern society has high and constant social change, and little dependence upon others for approval; traditional society offers a static society where people conform, or depend upon others for approval.

* Modern society embraces and exalts individuality; traditional society holds alternatives to a minimum (thereby offering comfort in belonging, during times of economic uncertainty.)

* Modern society's families are small; traditional society's families are large.

* Modern society emphasizes "achieved" roles, where you can be whatever you like; traditional society demands "ascribed" roles, that you are born into or inherit. In modern society, the individual is the center of it all; in traditional society, family is the center of it all.

This last piece, about self versus community, is key. We are living through a time of unprecedented greed in America, a time when bankers went haywire (resulting in record foreclosures and homelessness) and big business shipped our middle class overseas.

Is it any wonder, then, that romance readers are scooping up books that, while simplistically defined as "Christian," are in fact offering us an alternate view of life and society, one where selfishness and vulgarity have been replaced by community and decorum?

If economic indicators are to be believed, we are probably just seeing the tip of this particular iceberg. Hard times are here to stay for a while, and with them, traditionalist fiction isn't going away.