Retrospective: A Year Reading Asexual Fiction

Posted January 28, 2018 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Ace & Aro Studies, My Work / 0 Comments

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Retrospective: A Year Reading Asexual Fiction

In 2017, I read over 40 books featuring characters on the asexual (ace) spectrum in an effort to read predominantly ace rep this year. Though I failed at that, 40 books containing asexual representation is nothing to sniff at, especially considering how prevalent the claims are that the representation just doesn’t exist. Clearly it does because I read almost one book with ace rep per week.

This was a personal challenge I set myself, just as the year before, I set myself the challenge of reading predominantly internationally[1]. This time, however, it was part of a concentrated effort to actually read the books with asexual characters that I’d been accumulating and to discuss the representation they contain.

After I discovered asexuality around 2013, I let that knowledge sit quietly and soak in this idea that I wasn’t just odd and that I wasn’t alone. Slowly, I explored the spectrum and discovered more about myself. Slowly I started to accumulate books that I was terrified of reading either because the author is allosexual and I was scared they’d get it wrong or because the author is, like me, ace spec and I was scared of invalidating their experience by discussing it because it wasn’t mine.

But the more books I bought, watching them be buried under other shinier and newer acquisitions, and the more I realised how hard it is to find good representation even though the internet should be a great boon in this[2], the more I wanted to sit myself down and read the books I had despite my fears.

After a year of reading asexual fiction, I’ve noticed a few things about the way asexuality is treated in fiction and represented in books that feature explicit and deliberate asexual representation.

The State of Asexual Representation in Fiction

The first thing I’ve learned, which I cannot stress enough, is that there is more asexual fiction out there than the mainstream outlets are aware of. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen so many book lists make the assertion that there is no asexual representation beyond what’s on their lists. There is. One could easily read a book per week and keep reading nothing but books featuring asexual characters for multiple years.

What these assertions usually mean is that asexual representation is hard to find offline or when one doesn’t know what to look for. Much of the asexual representation available today was published within the last 2-3 years and most all of it comes from indie authors and small presses. That is to say: most of the asexual representation found in fiction isn’t found in books readers are likely to stumble across when visiting a bookstore or a library. With luck, a reader might be able to find Clariel[3] (Garth Nix), Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) or Radio Silence (Alice Oseman) in their local bookstore or library tucked away amidst the other books. I’ve only ever managed to find Clariel and Radio Silence. Once.

To find asexual representation off the internet right now, one has to know specific titles. And then hope that bookstores or libraries will be able to acquire them. They might not. Not all libraries will. Not all bookstores can.

Most books explicitly featuring asexual characters fall into two dominant genres: romance and speculative fiction. Within romance, asexual representation consists predominantly of M/M pairings. Within speculative fiction, asexual representation leans strongly towards fantasy. Both suggest several troubling things.

Firstly, that asexual characters only get to be leads when they end up in a (romantic and usually sexual) relationship with someone else. Or, that asexuality is only accepted or desired in our societies if the asexual conforms fully to allonormative ideals of relationships. It further suggests that aromanticism and asexuality are inherently linked, frequently erasing the aromantic spectrum altogether by assuming that a character’s romantic orientation must match up to their sexual orientation.

Secondly, that asexuals are only considered queer by society if they’re also in a relationship that is explicitly coded to be queer. Though romance isn’t my main genre, what I’ve read in 2017 suggests that explicitly queer romances are far more likely to offer in-text confirmation that a character is asexual than M/F romances. All of the romances I read that year marketed as queer included a variant of the Allo Saviour trope – a stereotype wherein an allosexual queer person introduces the asexual character to the term asexuality or, worse, ‘saves’ them from social isolation by deigning to be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with the asexual character – whereas all the books marketed as M/F romance contained explicit descriptions and no confirmation other than the author discussing asexuality in interviews.

Thirdly, that asexuality is the realm of fantasy. Or, put more crudely, that asexuality isn’t real, that it’s something someone made up to tell a story. Most all of the speculative fiction I’ve read explicitly included the idea that asexuality is a normal and accepted part of a society, but the struggle to find representation outside these genres is, at best, troubling for what it says about the wide-spread acceptance of asexuality in our societies.

When asexuality does appear in other genres or mediums of mainstream fiction, it is frequently treated as nonexistent or something to be cured, such as in the season 8, episode 9 “Better Half” of House M.D., as the punch line to a joke, such as seen at the end of “Captain Peralta”, Brooklyn Nine-Nine[4] season 2, episode 18, or as a psychopathic serial killer (Dexter). Crucially none of them frame asexuality in a positive light. The only positive, widely known and somehow confirmed asexual representation outside of literature is the eleventh Doctor on Doctor Who[5]. Where the asexual character is literally an alien.

Romance and speculative fiction are, at present, the only genres where asexual readers can find positive representation relatively easily.

Prevalent Ideas in Asexual Fiction

Even within these two more positive approaches to asexuality present in romance and speculative fiction, however, one can discern patterns. As mentioned romance leans quite heavily towards featuring M/M relationships. My reading suggests that there may also be a bias towards featuring demisexual or graysexual characters within this genre, and there is definitely an unspoken assumption of alloromanticism. Out of a sample of 39 books featuring demisexual characters, 22 were M/M. 5 were F/F. 8 were M/F. This sample doesn’t contain all the books I read in 2017 – it certainly doesn’t cover all the books published – but it’s a telling difference that we drop from 56.4% of the sample being M/M to 20.5% for M/F fiction and only 12.8% for F/F fiction.

Science fiction and fantasy, meanwhile, is a bit more complicated, especially when criticism of asexual representation in the genres frequently relies on a handful of prominent books and anecdotal evidence of fan interpretations. For example: one of the most well-known tropes regarding asexuality in fantasy is that of the Death-Adjacent Ace, an asexual character who is, in some way, closely associated with death. The most well-known narratives featuring asexual characters prominently are Clariel[6], Every Heart a Doorway[7] and Alyssa Wong’s novelette You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay[8]. All three associate asexuality with death. One of the most well-known and well-received indie novels featuring asexual characters, Chameleon Moon[9] by RoAnna Sylver, also features an asexual character who is intrinsically linked with death.

The trope is more likely to be found within books where asexual readers have interpreted characters as asexual due to the subtext within the narrative and without authors or creators confirming the asexual representation in some way. Stories that deliberately feature asexual characters are, of course, more likely to be aware of the existence of tropes and stereotypes and they may either work to avoid them altogether (such as much of Claudie Arseneault’s work) or deliberately attempt to undermine them (such as Chameleon Moon, Quicksilver or We Awaken).

As such, books that feature explicitly asexual characters are liable to paint a more positive picture than what is actually present in fiction. As author Claudie Arseneault points out, villains are frequently coded as aromantic and asexual[10], suggesting that, outside of this deliberate representation, there is a stereotype that links asexuality to villainy (such as seen in depictions such as Dexter) or the macabre (Voodoo from Sirens[11]). If, however, one reads books with deliberate asexual representation, chances are high that these tropes will be at a minimum. Readers are far more likely to run into acemisia and aromisia that frequently goes either entirely unchallenged or unexamined or does not get challenged enough to mitigate its perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.

Science fiction has its own equivalent of the Death-Adjacent Ace: the Aces Are Aliens trope. In this trope, the asexual character is something non-human. They are frequently depicted as either actual aliens or as robots. This trope overlaps some within the realm of fantasy and even extends itself to contemporary shows without direct speculative fiction elements, such as The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon is frequently interpreted as being asexual and frequently referred to as an alien. Out of the six science fiction books I’ve read in 2017, only two featured no aces that can be said to fit this stereotype.

Most of these depictions make, as mentioned earlier, no distinction between asexuality and aromanticism and any conclusions about these depictions will depend on subtextual interpretations. Most characters, however, appear to be written as alloromantic unless one of the speculative fiction tropes is in play. For example: the depiction of the eponymous heroine in Clariel is that of an aromantic asexual. While Clariel does not become a necromancer in name within this book, it otherwise plays the trope entirely straight in a way that RoAnna Sylver’s Chameleon Moon, featuring a biromantic asexual lead character, does not. The latter actively seeks to undermine the tropes and stereotype; the former considers them the source of a good plot thread.

More positively, however, the books with explicitly and deliberate asexual representation all seek to convey a sense that asexuality is normal and that asexual characters are not broken or unable to engage meaningfully with society. Throughout the books I’ve read this casual acceptance of asexuality as a valid and existing orientation deserving of respect has been a constant. Even when I’ve felt the book did not handle the representation effectively (for me), I was usually left with the feeling that the author was trying to say “You are okay. You are not broken”.

This feeling has been more prevalent in fantasy, which is perhaps where one would least expect to find it given its ties to the imaginary. Perhaps it is due to the fact that fantasy is my preferred reading genre or because most of the fantasy I’ve read in 2017 was written by authors who identify on the asexual spectrum themselves. These authors are, understandably, more aware of the tropes and implications of their work and may have made a more concentrated effort to mitigate some of the effects of their chosen genres upon the minds of readers.

Mainstream Representation VS Indie Representation

Likewise, there is a notable difference between mainstream (imprints of the Big 5 publishers[12]) representation of asexuality and indie representation (indie and small press) of asexuality. Indie representation is more likely to be explicit, though this has started to shift a little within mainstream 2017 speculative fiction releases.

Most of the books published by the mainstream publishers were written by allosexual authors. Most of the books published by indie publishers were written by asexual authors. Those books with the most nuanced depictions of asexuality were all written by asexual authors. Any books that feature more than one asexual character were all written by asexual authors.

Within speculative fiction, books published by mainstream publishers are more likely to rely on asexual stereotypes and tropes than books published by indie authors. All the romance books starring asexual characters that I’ve read in 2017 were indies. That is not to say that there are no mainstream romance books that feature asexual characters at all, but most of what I read featured asexual characters (or their romance) as a side-plot that weren’t given much attention. The one potential exception I can think of is Tessen from Erica Cameron’s Island of Exile as he can be read as demisexual. Yet this representation is, as of right now, unconfirmed.

When looking for asexual representation, one’s best bet is to start looking at the indie publications that are out there as these vastly outnumber the amount of mainstream representation that is currently available. 13 out of the 43 books featuring asexual representation that I’ve read in 2017 were published by mainstream publishers. While there is a certain amount of bias in my reading choices – as a poor, indie author I’m more likely to buy other indie authors, for example – I’ve spent the year researching how much mainstream asexual representation was published in speculative fiction between 2010 and 2017. I counted 33 books.

Even taking into account those 33 books, indie publications exceed that number by a massive margin. On GoodReads, I maintain a shelf dedicated to tracking all books with asexual representation. This list is incomplete, but when I last checked on December 14, 2017, it contained 242 books and no duplicate editions. That means that a whopping minimum of 209 indie books featuring asexual representation exist. That difference is massive. (86% indie vs 14% tradpub.)

On top of the fact that readers simply have more to choose from when perusing indie books and will be more likely to find a book that suits their needs, the asexual representation tends to be handled more respectfully in indie speculative fiction narratives. That said, the overwhelming majority of indie books featuring asexual main characters appear to be M/M romances. Mainstream representation leans more towards depicting aromantic asexuals, especially when the books are somewhat older, such as Jo Walton’s Sulien duology.

Overall

Overall, my experience focusing on reading and reviewing books starring asexual characters in 2017 was a mixed bag, though the dominant emotion I associate with the endeavour is disappointment. The books I read seemed to waver between amazing – Walton’s Sulien books stand out especially strongly – or terrible. Once the idea of best-of and worst-of lists started to resurface for the end of the year, I discovered with regret that over half of the books on my top 10 Worst Books of the Year would be books I read for this project and all of them because the representation within them was, at best, simply terrible and at worst incredibly harmful.

I started planning this retrospective with the idea of covering the more positive aspects I’ve discovered about asexual representation throughout the year. I wanted to write an upbeat, happy piece celebrating the amount of good asexual representation is out there.

That… didn’t quite happen the way I’d planned, but still. I would like to end this short personal essay on a small selection of what I consider to be the best books featuring asexual representation I’ve read in 2017. Due to my reading interests, this list will focus predominantly on speculative fiction.

The Sulien duology by Jo Walton featuring an aromantic asexual main character are the oldest books I read, the first having come out in 2000. I’d previously read The King’s Peace, though I don’t recall paying close attention to the asexual representation at the time. The first book comes with a rape warning for the first chapter. While it may tread close to the stereotype that asexuality is a result of sexual trauma[13], I found it an extremely positive and empowering portrayal. Sulien is presented with strong family and social ties, is extremely successful in her career, and while the characters sometimes joke and rib Sulien about her lack of interest in sex or romance, the jokes weren’t, in my opinion, maliciously acemisic. The King’s Peace and The King’s Name are in my experience, hands-down, the best books featuring asexual representation I’ve read to date.

City of Strife and City of Betrayal by Claudie Arseneault are the first two books in an epic fantasy trilogy with an all-queer cast and several asexual characters. Arseneault’s books feature explicit word-used representation on top of its detailed on page depictions and descriptions as well as a variety of different asexual and aromantic characters. The last book, City of Exile, is set to include even more asexual and/or aromantic characters as well as make its existing representation more visible. On top of that, the books are just plain fun to read. They’re sprawling epic fantasy novels where the city is as much the central character as anyone else and good people can succeed in making the world a better and fairer place.

Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari is a science fiction YA romance and adventure novel that features not one but two characters on the asexual spectrum. This is the first book in the Iamos trilogy and, while it contains some amisic comments that don’t get called out, is a fantastic romp across the surface of Mars and Iamos. Isaac is explicitly demisexual. Nadin doesn’t have words to describe her orientation yet, but the depictions of her sexuality are visceral and powerful, even more so than Isaac’s, and I’m hopeful that Chiavari will explore Nadin’s sexuality in more detail in the next two books. It also avoids the trope about an asexual character having their asexuality explained to them by another in its entirety.

Honourable mentions go to Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver and Good Angel by A.M. Blaushild. Both of these books explicitly explore asexuality and some of the tropes related with asexuality. Both are clearly written for asexual readers first, though I don’t think they’re entirely inaccessible to allosexual readers. While neither worked fully for me, I did enjoy them a lot and would happily recommend them to anyone seeking to read asexual representation in fiction.

In 2018, I look forward to discovering more asexual characters in the narratives I read and to discover more about the patterns of representation within them. This year also sees a number of new books with asexual characters getting published. Quiet YA Reads’ list of Books with Asexual Main Characters collects a bunch of them under the “Upcoming books” sections near the end. Though it’ll undoubtedly take me a while to get around to acquiring them, I’m really excited about them. I’ve heard great things about Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love especially. The number of expected publications in 2018 alone accounts for around half of the total sum of what’s been published from 2000 to 2017. It promises to be an exceptionally exciting year for readers looking for asexual representation, and it’ll be interesting to explore what, if anything, has changed about the way these books portray asexuality.

This retrospective only begins to scratch the very surface of asexual representation, ignoring characters coded (but unconfirmed by creators or other official sources) as asexual almost in their entirety. In order to present a comprehensive view of the ways in which asexuality is represented in fiction, these narratives would also need to be taken into account.

End Notes

[1] That is to say “Books by authors who are not American”.

[2] If you’re looking for literary asexual representation online, a simple search like “asexual character books” will likely get you started. Representation in other media is trickier as there is far less of it and it’s harder to find.

[3] Though the most widely available book with confirmed asexual (and aromantic) representation, Clariel is also often regarded by asexual and aromantic readers as the most harmful representation available due to its unexamined use of and reliance on stereotypes and tropes as well as Nix’s admission that he did no research into asexuality and aromanticism to inform his portrayal of the eponymous lead.

[4] The scene is brief, but occurs as follows:

Amy: I’m sorry if we implied you weren’t smart.
Gina: Oh, and I’m sorry if we implied you’re both asexual nerds who can only be friends with service animals.
Amy (looking disgusted): You didn’t.
Rosa: Not to your face, but to a ton of people behind your back. Thanks for the drink.

[5] Matt Smith has explicitly referred to the Eleventh Doctor he plays as asexual, as evidenced in this article: http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/actor-matt-smith-says-doctor-141702

[6] Clariel becomes a necromancer and, after the novel finishes, goes on to become an undead antagonist in other books in the series.

[7] Nancy travelled to an underworld, the Halls of the Dead, and her main ambition in life is to be as still and unnoticed as possible.

[8] Ellis is only half-human and able to control the dead. In the course of the story, he dies and becomes undead himself.

[9] Zilch is a zombie. Regan, the other prominent ace character, is a lizard man.

[10] Arseneault, Claudie. “Gritty Stories, Humanizing Villains, and Narrative Consequences” Claudie Arseneault, http://claudiearseneault.com/?p=1651. Accessed December 28 2017.

[11] Though Voodoo seems to be considered to be a pretty decent depiction of asexuality by the asexuals who’ve viewed and discussed the show.

[12] The Big 5 publishers are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, or Hachette and their various imprints.

[13] This is not always true and, in any case, all asexuals are valid.

Works Cited

Arseneault, Claudie. “Gritty Stories, Humanizing Villains, and Narrative Consequences” Claudie Arseneault, http://claudiearseneault.com/?p=1651. Accessed December 28 2017.

“Books with Asexual Main Characters. Quiet YA Readshttp://quietya.tumblr.com/post/149428095160/books-with-asexual-main-characters. Accessed December 28 2017.

The Mirror. “Actor Matt Smith Says Doctor Who Doesn’t Like Sex And Would Prefer To Play Chess.” 2017, http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/actor-matt-smith-says-doctor-141702.

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