stack of books with asexual pride flag

Romance is for Everyone: Asexuality in Romance Publishing

A core tenet of the romance genre is the emotionally satisfying ending or the Happily Ever After. Romance publishing, like much of the publishing industry, hasn’t always been inclusive about who is participating in these happily ever afters, however. It has taken a long time for romance publishers to seek out, acquire, and promote books with central LGBTQ+ storylines, and even though this is changing, the genre still does a lot to position straight relationships as the default. Even more pervasive in the romance genre is the assumption that sexual attraction and relationships are the only way to have a successful romantic relationship. The positioning of allosexual relationships as the last word in romance contributes to the invisibility of asexual people and relationships.

Asexual characters didn’t really start making an appearance in fiction until the mid-2010s, according to Lily Herman, a writer for Bustle Magazine. Even when these books began to appear, they were mostly put out by smaller presses or self-published. Content writer and blogger, Dianna Gunn, laments that “a lot of the media offered to us presents really narrow definitions of what constitutes a strong, deep bond. Too often, sexual and romantic relationships take the center stage as the most meaningful relationship you can have.”

Arguably more harmful than erasure of asexual identities in traditional publishing is the outright misrepresentation of ace identities and experiences that exists in older novels and persists in more recent portrayals. According to Lynn O’Connacht, asexuality is often conflated with either aromanticism or celibacy. In many cases, a character’s disinterest in sex cuts off their possibility for a relationship at all and in some cases, a character’s implied asexuality is intertwined with implications that are dehumanizing. Rebecca Burgess, author of the graphic memoir How to be Ace, points to Sherlock Holmes in the BBC original Sherlock, whose sociopathy and disinterest in sexual (or romantic) relationships are conflated. Although she qualifies Sherlock’s sexuality as something that is presented and not explicitly confirmed, there’s enough support within the context of the show to suggest that creators include Sherlock’s ambivalence to relationships under the umbrella of his sociopathy. Burgess writes, “It’s hardly the main problem, but it does contribute to the cultural ignorance of what asexuality is exactly . . . and people’s idea of what a healthy relationship should look like.”

But some novels hit the nail on the head. Burgess raves about Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, in which two ace-coded main characters develop a relationship. Discovering Good Omens was a pivotal moment for Burgess. “I saw my exact experience,” she writes, “And it didn’t need kissing or touching to be considered real, or written off as unhealthy. It was a happy, positive love story.” Although this example is from a fantasy novel, it provides a powerful picture of why representation is important for reinforcing the idea that asexuality is a valid sexual orientation and identity and that fulfilling relationships are absolutely attainable for people who identify as asexual. Author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune has made incredible strides in queer representation in general and ace representation specifically. In interviews and on his blog, he advocates for more representation and remains a beacon of hope to other aspiring writers who want to include ace characters and relationships in their novels, whether they identify as ace or not.

Even though romance publishing has a lot of ground to make up for when it comes to who gets their Happily Ever After, readers who are interested in reading more stories that include ace characters and experiences have a lot available to them if they’re willing to do a little digging. Listicles featuring recommendations for asexual romances or book featuring asexual characters are becoming more common, like this one on BookRiot or this one on Tor’s website, and the Aro Ace Database allows you to search for characters who are coded ace or aro (aromantic) in all genres of fiction.

portrait of William Shakespeare

How the Literary Canon Fails to Reflect the Literary Landscape

Usually when people are encouraged to read the classics, they are given reasons like “you just have to, it’s a classic!” or “they’re the best books!” While these claims may occasionally be true and a classic book may actually be a good read, many people find them dull and far too dense to enjoy. These people might even begin to question why a book is even considered a classic in the first place.

There isn’t exactly a straight answer to that question due to several factors that have been attached to the classification. What most “classic” books have in common is that they are considered part of the literary canon. However, being a classic does not mean being a part of the canon, and being part of the canon does not mean being a classic. According to Sheree, these are two separate but related terms. I would argue that it’s higher praise for a book to be called a classic than to be a part of the literary canon because the current state of the literary canon does not effectively represent the entirety of the publishing landscape of any time period.

For a book to be added to the canon means that it is considered among the most influential and important works of literature, that it’s essential. For the most part, it is the highest ranked scholars who choose what is canonized. If you were to look up the current English literary canon right now on Wikiversity, I would say at least a quarter of the works listed are not essential or the most important of their time. Just by looking at the amount of Thomases, Johns, and Henrys on the list, it’s clear that the scholars who established the list were not concerned with any kind of equal representation.

During my undergrad degree in Literature, I took a lot of classes that basically had us read through a list of what my professors thought we should know in whatever subject the class was on. For example, I took Shakespeare, Women’s Literature, two different British Literature classes, two American Literature classes, etc. Although my professors did their best to make the readings as diverse as possible, there were some topics that just didn’t have much more than white European men for authors. I kept waiting for a more diverse set of people, and it took about until the list reached the twentieth century.

Around this time, there was something of a reassessment of the literary canon as many started to notice this lack of representation for women, BIPOC, and queer authors. Lists were made specifically for these different groups of people, however short they currently are. Despite this, much of this expansion has yet to really integrate itself into the social consciousness. Of course, most people are now aware of the prowess of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou as writers but don’t know that they are also considered part of the African American literary canon.

When I was reading the prose and poetry of some of these older authors I couldn’t help but think, “Why are these works still considered so important? I’ve never heard of this person or their work.” I came to the conclusion that even though many of these authors are still considered important to scholars, they have little to no effect on the majority of society anymore. The only time the average person will come across a work like Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is if it’s made into a movie or they stumble across it online. Overall, the literary canon leaves a lot to be desired in a modern society like ours, but if you’re recommended the classics to read, maybe, just maybe, give one a shot. I recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula.