For the Love of Books, We Need Stories that Go Beyond Romance and Embrace Aromanticism

Stand Up Magazine spoke to author and sensitivity reader, Claudie Arseneault, on the publishing industry’s battle with aromantic representation.

Books still hold a quaint sentimentality for many people. The feel of a book in the hand has even stopped e-books from taking over completely, as was once expected. In all of its forms though, written stories are as popular as ever. People feel passionately about stories. About how they are delivered, what genre they want to experience and what characters are portrayed. They offer escapism, solace and in many cases, knowledge. Books can teach us about lives and experiences we may never encounter ourselves. There is an infinite universe of possibilities. Whether it’s magic, fantasy, wars in space, escaping through a wardrobe, there are no limits to what can be created. Why then, is aromantic representation so invisible in books?

It is a capitalist industry, and romance and sex do sell. Romance and sex are often completely conflated too. There is very little escaping of the idea of a one true love, even within books which are supposed to offer us so many different stories. Take Harry Potter. It is one of the most popular stories across the planet, that deals with the utter excitement of wizards going to war. Yet, the end was all about who paired off romantically. It is not unique in that regard. So many literary classics are focused upon romance, and when romance is lacking it is usually to imply there is something wrong with the main character. While romance is popular, it doesn’t have to be the only story told.

Author and sensitivity reader, Claudie Arseneault, is trying to bring change to the publishing industry. Few stories for aromantics are ever told – and when they are, they’re often told badly. There are endless tropes about aromanticism which are incredibly harmful. These can include the suggestion aromantics are broken until they find love, that it’s just a phase, or that they are heartless or have their identities conflated with psychopathy.

It’s rare to find someone actively trying to break down those stereotypes, compared to the overwhelming volume of people who (often accidentally) perpetuate them. Aromantic awareness lags behind a lot of identities for awareness. It’s why writers and sensitivity readers are absolutely vital in bringing change to the publishing industry. Books should be a place of solace, not harm. However, the publishing industry still has a long way to go.

Stand Up Magazine spoke to Arseneault on her work, and the role of sensitivity readers in breaking down barriers to positive aromantic representation.

How do you feel aromantic representation is right now, across the publishing industry?

The current state of representation varies widely depending on where you look. When you stare at mainstream publishing, aromantic representation is almost non-existent, and what little is out there is usually tied to villainy, coldness, or characters that end up dead or in exile (or all of these, at once). To give you an idea of the current state: a website recently sought to create a comprehensive database of all queer books that had YA appeal between 2000 and today, with searchable tags for race, disability, queerness, location, genre, and so much more … and aromanticism wasn’t even a tag. People actively involved in queer book communities just forgot us. It’s extremely difficult for aromantic people to find themselves (or pieces of themselves) out there – even books with large queer casts and little queerphobia tend to avoid the aromantic spectrum altogether, and not even give it a mention. There are exceptions, of course, such as Gwen from An Accident of Stars.

The good news is that the landscape is infinitely better in small presses and self-publishing circles! First, there’s a lot of it if you know where to look for. It’s not always good, far from it, but those that are have often been written by aromantic writers and are amazing. The difference is simple: we don’t have to filter our voice through an amatonormative industry that has always elevated romance above all other relationships, and romantic love as a requirement for humanity. On the contrary, we can work with editors of our choosing to elevate aromantic experiences instead of erasing them.

Do you think authors are really tackling (and show an understanding of) the differences between romanticism and sexuality?

For the most part, no, not even in the slightest. Even books that deal with asexuality will often avoid this distinction entirely, or they will heavily imply asexual people who don’t experience romantic attraction are inhuman. The consequence of this is that most of the time, stories make me feel like I either do not exist or am unwelcome. A lot of the characters that are listed as aroace are very clearly spelled out as asexual, and just assumed as aromantic. It’s never really said that they don’t want a romantic partner either, but the conclusion is that no sex = no romance. So no… as a whole, I don’t think that’s very well handled (for an excellent example of an asexual book that does handle it with great nuance, though, go read Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann!)

Slight tangent: it’s hard for me to blame individual authors directly for this—that’s how the industry is built, especially when it comes to queer stories. So much of LGBTQIAP+ imprints are romance-focused (or exclusive) and have strong sexual content, and so many queer people experience romantic and sexual attraction together, it takes some serious work to untangle it all. But when you want to be inclusive of all queer people? It’s work that you need to do. It’s not enough to add ‘aromantic’ to your general guidelines if all your anthology calls specify romance and centre it, and it’s not enough to say you want queer stories of all sorts if you write LGBT everywhere, or don’t spell it out farther. We face gatekeeping at every turn. Be extra clear, or you force us to ask and put ourselves in a vulnerable position.

So authors need to do better, but this problem is far bigger than them. Editors, publishers, copy writers who work on blurbs… everyone in the chain needs to learn to do better about these things.

Do you feel sensitivity readers should be involved and consulted with when producing aromantic representation? What can be the impact of bad representation? Are there certain stereotypes or tropes authors risk perpetuating?

Oh, absolutely. Quite frankly, it’s currently almost impossible to get through a book without a microaggression of one sort of another. Whether it’s devaluing friendship, implying romantic love is a form of goodness or universal, using it as a cure, killing off the only character that isn’t in a romantic pair… toxic narratives abound. And while discussions around them has been ongoing in the community for quite some time, it feels to me like people are only starting to listen, and like we’re only starting to have canon characters to really unravel things (as opposed to heavily coded robots, aliens, and villains). So, yes, hire sensitivity readers. Hire those who’ve read a lot of aromantic representation and are used to in-depth analysis, too. You can avoid the microaggressions and still write a harmful narrative.

The consequences of failing here are the same as with any other identity. Aromantic people, much like aces, deal overwhelmingly with narratives that tie them to death, exile, isolation. Furthermore, we face fiction of all sorts that constantly hammer on a single message: happy endings must include a romantic partner. The result is a community of people feeling broken, certain that their happiness is out of reach forever, that they are meant to “die alone” (as if being single is being alone, and as if being alone is a problem at all).

Honestly, you should always hire a sensitivity reader. Good SRs not only flag potentially harmful things for you: they can help you take your representation to the next level.

Because of the new awareness around sensitivity readers, do you think the publishing industry and authors are changing the way in which they approach representation? Does it feel like people are tackling it with more responsibility or is there a long way to go?

I want to say “yes, yes, and yes”. People are trying. A lot of them want to do it right. A lot also aren’t willing to commit the energy this truly demands. Very often, I get the feeling people think it’s simple, that you just have to avoid certain words and you’re good. They see the microaggressions but not the systemic harm, the way amatonormativity is woven into everything. Some very much don’t want to, either. And most of my experience is this: people are tackling it for the cookies, the appearance of inclusion, but the moment you demand more, it’s too much work.

This sort of surface work can be seen in the way our representation often is written as universal. You’ll get characters that phrase description of aromanticism not as how they experience it, but rather as “how it is”, giving the impression their particular narrative is the only form of aromanticism out there.

In the same vein, I see who wants to tackle really difficult and fraught narratives before they’ve even managed to do a fun, less-involved aromantic character. Things like questioning, for example, which are difficult narratives with no easy answers, and with which the potential for harm is even greater. I know non-aromantic authors writing this, and often skirting around the aro label and split attraction model entirely … as if it’s less risky if you don’t name it? I’m not entirely sure what is going on. I know I’ve been hurt by badly handled examples of this, and I’m uncomfortable knowing more of it is coming from non-ownvoices authors. If you’ve just been dipping your toe in our conversations, you’re not ready for these, and it’s arrogant to think otherwise. It took me four novels and three years actively researching and writing aromantic characters before I even began touching on questioning without feeling like I would erase someone.

So yes, people are trying! That’s amazing, honestly. I know I sound negative, but I’ve met amazing people who are dedicated to getting it right, and who do so successfully. But we do have a ridiculously long way to go, especially in mainstream, and I don’t always feel the will to do this work.

And finally, do you have any particular titles you’d recommend that contain really positive aromantic representation?

I do, and I’m so glad for this question. There’s a lot of work to do, but I also hear a lot of people saying there’s nothing out there, that they have never found themselves, and I have essentially dedicated my activism work to helping them. This is why I built the aromantic and asexual characters database (you can follow at @AroAceDB), and often make threads of recommendations.

My first recommendation is Stake Sauce Act 1: The Secret Ingredient is Love. No, Really, by RoAnna Sylver. For the purpose of full disclaimer: I had the great honour of editing this amazing story. But that means I know just how amazing it is. Stake Sauce has a grayro/grayace trans MC, Jude, an ex-firefighter turned mallcop by day, vampire hunter by night. Or he tries to hunt them, but PTSD can really mess up with that. Good thing he has Pixie, a pink punk fluffy vampire who needs help taking on bigger fanged baddies. Stake Sauce is a wonderful tale of dealing with trauma (in different ways), of building trust and loving your friend through fire and tragedy, never losing hope or that beautiful human connection. I adore this book, and it will definitely appeal to arospecs for whom the line between romance and friendship is difficult to discern.

If you’re more a contemporary person and don’t mind sex scenes, then you should pick up The Trouble, by Daria Defore. It centers Danny Kim, a gay aromantic Korean-American and the lead singer of an indie band. The story starts with him flirting and being kind of a jerk to a cute fan… who turns out to be his TA at school. #oops. The growth of their rocky relationship is a joy to behold, The Trouble has some amazing domestic scenes, and Danny’s aromanticism comes up often with being a source of Major Angst ™. Nor does Jiyoon, the TA, suddenly replace everything (and everyone) else in Danny’s life—always very appreciated.

I will also step into self-promotion and say that I both have already written aromantic characters (Lemon & Salt (free) and City of Strife) and am starting a series that centers them this summer. The first one, Baker Thief, is a superhero-style fantasy novel with a bigender aromantic baker as its hero. Writing this book is how I explored my aromanticism, and with every revision, I dug deeper into it, added conversations around it… Certainly, Baker Thief is about a bigender baker trying to save his twin sister, unravel conspiracies, and avoid getting captured by the rather hot demisexual investigator on his case… but it is also very much about approaching relationships as an aromantic person, previous trial and errors, setting new boundaries, having mentors to look up to… that sort of stuff. So anyway. Add it on Goodreads, or sign up to my newsletter to be sure you don’t miss the release!

And those are only a few titles. I’ve made two other lists, at queerbooksforteens and on LGBTQReads (this one includes some fav webcomics!), so check these out if you want more recommendations. And if you want a more comprehensive list of everything out there, drop by the aromantic and asexual characters database, and filter to your heart’s content!

Claudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic spectrum writer hailing from Quebec City. Her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders centered on aromantic and asexual characters. Her high fantasy series, City of Spires, started in February 2017. Her next book, Baker Thief, features a bigender aromantic baker and is full of delicious bread, French puns, and magic.

Claudie is a founding member of The Kraken Collective and is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters in speculative fiction, and her unending love of squids. Find out more on her website!

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