So… There’s something I’ve noticed about a lot of people making lists about asexual representation. Actually, there’s a few things I’ve noticed and they all fall into slightly similar patterns.
Before I start talking about how to make lists about asexual representation, I want to discuss something else briefly. I want to talk about how these lists make me feel. This is especially true of lists or listers that include multiple queer orientations in their lists. These lists often make me feel like the asexual representation is tacked on as an afterthought with barely any research into what asexual representation exists in the field. The books are out there!
Claudie Arseneault’s absolutely fantastic database of asexual and aromantic characters in SFF fiction lists about 59 novels and novellas with asexual characters at the time I’m writing this. This post is concerned with listing asexuality in books, but a few things about aromanticism:
Aromantic readers have even less representation, the representation they do have is predominantly linked to asexuality1, and I have yet to see a list (that wasn’t compiled by aromantic readers) that explicitly includes aromanticism.
Those 59 books in Claudie’s database? Isn’t all of them. It’s an SFF-only list, so a book like Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence isn’t going to be on it. That’s contemporary YA. A handful of books I didn’t spot on the list that are also SFF and contain confirmed asexual representation: Garth Nix’s Clariel2, R.J. Anderson’s Quicksilver, Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds.
My point obviously isn’t to diss Claudie’s database. It is a fantastic resource. I mention those books because I want to highlight that there are enough books with asexual representation out there that even those of us who pay close attention to acespec characters in books will miss some of them.
So when I see book lists that include asexual representation and those book lists keep on including the same two or three books every single time that hurts. And that shows me that whoever compiled the list did the absolute bare minimum of research into asexual representation, assuming that they even did that much research.
And that’s why it feels like asexual representation is an afterthought when people make these lists. That’s why seeing the same books recommended over and over hurts so much. Recommending the same books over and over again just makes it seem like there so little representation out there. It suggests that we’re not worth reading about.
Now, I know. I know. When people make lists like this, often the books that get added are the popular books, the well-known ones. Trust me, I know. But when it comes to asexual representation, the recommendations are stagnant. It’s always the same handful of books that get included. A list with asexual representation will always include Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. It will almost always include Clariel. Etc. It’s always the same handful of books. Always from the same tiny pool of books out there. It makes it seem like that handful of books is the only asexual representation out there when, clearly, it’s not. I wouldn’t be able to name 63 books with asexual representation if that handful of books was all there is.
A caveat here: part of this is based on faulty perceptions. I’m letting it stand because I’m talking about how it feels, but other queer communities struggle equally much with finding representation in books, and this is before taking into account intersectionality. I suspect that much of what I’m about to say can be applied to other minorities.
The issue I have with lists that are as stagnant as the ones I see for asexual representation is that this stagnation is actively harmful to readers. If ten different recommendation posts all list the same five books, readers are left thinking that those five books are all the books that are available to them. It doesn’t encourage people to do their own research to find that, actually, there are at least several dozen more! It actively discourages researching because, surely, if there were more books out there they would be talked about more often.
So what can we do about that?
1. Spend as much time researching books with asexual representation as you would other representations.
There are, at least, 64 books with characters on the asexual spectrum that have been published to date. When I searched for ‘asexual books’ just now, this was the second link. There are 135 books on that GoodReads list. Not all of them are fiction, mind you, but a sizeable chunk is. The top result for similar lists is this one about asexuality in YA fiction. It has 54 books on it when I checked (and considers Every Heart a Doorway adult fiction or it would’ve been 55).
That took, what, five minutes and the most basic of search terms I could think of using. Don’t tell me that you can’t find more asexual books than the handful that keep getting recommended on these “books with asexual representation” lists.
I take back what I said earlier. Including the same handful of books over and over suggests the person who compiled it did no research because it’s so incredibly easy to find others if you actually look for them.
When someone knows how much more representation there is out there, it’s very easy for that person to feel like the only research that’s gone into making the recommendations list is looking at a handful of popular mainstream lists and deciding to mix and match from between those titles and… that’s it. That’s all the research that that person did.
It may not be true! I don’t know the list-maker. I don’t know how much research they did or did not do, but that’s how it will come across to asexual readers looking for more representation.
2. Recognise that asexual representation and aromantic representation are not the same thing.
They are not. I would argue that failing to differentiate between the two is one of the biggest red flags regarding the amount of research someone did in compiling their ace rep lists. (Another red flag is failing to mention aromanticism at all.)
This is… a difficult topic for me to talk about, to be honest, because I’m not aromantic and I know a lot of aros who have been hurt by alloromantic aces speaking about aromanticism and getting it wrong. You can find a good primer written by Mikayla on Twitter here. Bear in mind it’s a 101 thread and will pretty much only give you a grounding in the terms. You can also check out AVEN‘s website or the Aromantics Wiki to get you started.
I will say that while I think the conflation is understandable, given how invisible both orientations are and how often the representation we do get conflates the two, that doesn’t mean it’s right and it’s certainly something that list makers need to bear in mind and actively work against perpetuating.
The easiest way to do that is to list both a character’s romantic and asexual orientation so that people will know what rep they’re looking into.
3. Look at small press and indie publications.
I know. I know. They’re frequently less popular and less well-known than the big popular names, but… I guarantee you that these are the books that need your signal boosting the most. Plus, most acespec authors I know struggle to get published traditionally by the larger publishers because they write characters that are deemed harder to market.
I’m certain that if Seanan McGuire hadn’t been a popular author to start with Every Heart a Doorway wouldn’t have found a traditional publisher. Not without editing out the explicit asexual and aromantic discussions anyway. Even small queer publishers don’t seem to touch asexual representation unless it’s homoromantic and the focus of the story is on the homoromantic.
4. If you have a limited amount of spots on your list available, think twice about including the most popular recommendations.
Sounds harsh, I know. But, listen. There are a couple of books (Clariel by Garth Nix or Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire are the two most notable ones) that have appeared on just about every single list about asexual representation found in mainstream book blogs. These are the staple recommendations that people turn to.
To be absolutely clear: I’m not saying that you should never recommend these books ever. But, in general, most recommendation lists consist of about 5 books per list. Some go as high up as 10! But most tend to be 5 books long because reader attention span and memory.
What I am saying is that when you’ve only got a limited number of slots to recommend books in, you should think about which books you’re including, what your goal is and whether that book reaches that goal. Look at other lists and see which books they share.
And then don’t recommend those on your actual list. Or at least restrict the list to one of them. They’re already available on a bunch of lists, so I guarantee you that there are other books that are just as good (if not better) that need the publicity for including asexual representation a lot more. Yes, even if it’s a traditionally published author like Scott Westerfeld. Did you know he wrote a demisexual character in Afterworlds? Or Laina Taylor. I didn’t know there was asexual representation in her books. No one ever mentioned it to me.
Truthfully, I would love to say “don’t recommend the most popular books in a list of less than 10 books under any circumstance”, but the truth is those are the books that will help people find your post about asexual representation because, well, they’re popular. People are going to search for them. They’re keywords to help boost the visibility of your list.
I get that there are good, defendable reasons for including those books. A list of 5 obscure books with asexual representation is nigh-on useless if no one can find them. Another approach you could take is to name drop the popular book (or books) in your introduction or at the end as an honorary mention. That way, you still get to mention the popular books (and thus get the keywords into your post), but you end up centring other books.
As much as I think the Tor.com article recommending 5 books with asexual protagonists is badly researched and messed up, it did get that aspect spot-on if you’re looking for an example of how to use popular and well-known books to recommend less well-known ones.
5. Consider making your goal explicitly “I want to introduce acespec readers to more books with asexual representation” rather than “I want to introduce allosexuals to acespec 101 books”.
This all ties into the popularity of books, as well, really. The most popular recommendation by far is Every Heart a Doorway. It’s Asexuality 101 representation. Most of my friends who’ve read it find its representation, especially its aromantic representation, problematic. Here’s the thing: we’re not looking for 101 representation to explain our orientations to allos. We’re looking for something a little more, well, nuanced.
And by and large the books that get recommended… aren’t. They’re 101 books and the list as a whole is aimed at allo readers looking to learn a little more about asexuality. It’d be nice if list-makers in mainstream outlets would think about catering to those readers who already know about those books.
There’s an added bonus to doing that for allo readers too! Because, you see, you’re also doing them a disservice by only showing them the asexual 101 books. Most Asexuality 101 books feature characters whose asexuality is similar, but asexuality is a spectrum and by recommending the same books over and over you deny allo readers a chance to understand that spectrum. In fact, you’re actively encouraging them to see that asexuality only looks one or two ways.
Which… While we’re on the subject, does a lot of harm to asexuals who don’t align with those ways because people will attack them for ‘not being queer enough’. We are queer enough, but the narrative put forth by the most-recommended and most well-known books with asexual characters wouldn’t suggest it. (See also: queer romance publishers won’t touch a book featuring a heteroromantic asexual MC or LI, even though heteroromantic asexuals aren’t straight.)
So… You know. By shifting the goal and focus of your list around, what you end up with is a list that, in the long run, does more good and promotes more diversity and cultivates more understanding between different communities. It’s win all around!
And… that’s all I can think of (for now). Hopefully that will get you started in figuring out how to write lists of books featuring asexual representation! I’m pretty sure that you can apply the same general ideas to any list focusing on representation.
To recap and to offer you a tl;dr version: do research into the marginalisation you’re recommending, think about what you want your list to accomplish and make sure that the books you include actually help you accomplish that goal.
1. In the interest of full disclosure, at the moment my works are adding to this as both the prominent aromantic characters in my books are aromantic asexual. I aim to work on including other aro rep, but I’m a slow writer. 🙁 I’d also like to apologise for making this a footnote. I didn’t know how to fit it into the main body. My apologies. 🙁
2. Clariel is one of the most frequently included books for asexual and aromantic representation. Most aspec readers I know find Clariel deeply problematic representation, so I’m not surprised that this one isn’t in the database despite how well-known it is.
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