I am very excited to welcome Lynn E. O’Connacht on Queer Books Unbound today! Please give them a warm welcome!
Splitting Rare: Talking about Romantic and Sexual Attraction in Fiction
Now that I’ve used up my awful pun allowance in the title, let’s talk about the depiction of romantic and sexual attraction in fiction for a bit. I’m so happy to be here at Queer Books Unbound to talk with you all briefly about queerness in books and, specifically, about aromanticism in books.
Before I go any further, I’d like to ask you a favour. Don’t worry, it’s a brief one. I’d like to ask you to consider whether or not in the previous paragraph you expected me to mention asexuality alongside aromanticism and how much of this post you expect will be about asexuality instead of aromanticism. I ask you to think about that because it’s so common for the two to be mentioned together, for aromanticism to be assumed as a subset of asexuality and asexuality only, and like we can only discuss romantic and sexual attraction as a single thing.
Yet there are plenty of allosexual aromantic people for whom this isn’t true and some of the first aromantic stories I heard about starred allosexual aromantic characters. I should note that I’m not allosexual aromantic myself and I, personally, am one of those people for whom romantic and sexual attraction are difficult to tease apart, but I’ve discovered that there is a lot of value in trying to do so. Trying to figure out where my line between different types of attraction are helps me make sense of my relationships with other people and, moreover, I think it helps me be a better writer.
You see, we live in an amatonormative world where romantic and sexual attraction are almost always assumed to match up. That is to say that someone who is sexually attracted to men is also assumed to be romantically attracted to men. Someone who is asexual, then, is also assumed to be aromantic, regardless of whether or not that is true. There is a whole PhD dissertation topic’s worth of discussing the way in which society will understand and accept the existence of alloromantic asexuals, but aromantic allosexuals is a bridge too far, too incredulous, too… inhuman to imagine. What can I say, amatonormativity is a powerful drug.
But that’s all backdrop for what I really want to talk about. What I really want to talk about is the way romance can be confusing to read because it lacks the depth and nuance to truly capture how I experience the world. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some non-aro-antagonistic romance. The fuzzy feels of people working through whatever is keeping them apart, the soothing that comes from knowing that all this hell the book puts you through will end in joy, the promise of a HEA on a bad day, the power of consent and agency… Oh, yes, I love a good romance.
I just… never truly understood them. Because romance, as a genre, is both incredibly allosexual and alloromantic and I’m, well, not. The more I learned about myself, the more I understood why the actual romance so often didn’t work for me even if all the other elements of the narrative did work. I thought I’d figured it out, certainly enough to write the romances that I wanted to write.
Reader, I was wrong. If writing were like painting then I could see the canvas I was working on, but the actual palette I was using was wreathed in impenetrable darkness. I could paint a picture, but the colours were always the wrong ones from what I wanted, they never came out right, never mixed properly. I’d want to paint a light blue sky, but when I put the brush to the canvas, I’d be working with sea green instead.
To me, that is why thinking about attraction as something that spans multiple aspects is so important. In aromantic circles this is generally known as the split attraction model and it basically means that ‘attraction’, as it is understood by most of society, can be divided into different types and people may experience some or all of them. In my experience, the ones most common in a romance novel are: sexual attraction and aesthetic attraction. Romantic attraction is often kind of assumed as a default extension of sexual attraction, or so it seems to me. This is especially true in non-queer romance (and doubly so in romance films), but it occurs in queer romance too and it generally leaves me confused about how the HEA, the one thing romance promises above all, actually comes about and works.
It’s a little difficult to explain because we currently lack the vocabulary to truly talk about this in depth. Hence the painting analogy earlier. Let’s go back to that for a bit and consider the colours. Let’s say that I wanted to paint a nice, light blue summer sky, but I don’t have the exact shade that I want. I have to mix it together. Now, many people will know that the way to do this is to mix white with blue until you’ve got the shade you want. But what if you don’t know how to get that shade? And also keep in mind that in this example even if you know intellectually how to get that shade, you can’t actually see the colours.
That’s kind of what reading or writing romance is like for me. I know how to paint the picture. I know what colours to use. I even know, abstractly, what I need to do to mix them. But I often don’t get it right and no one ever stops to explain the mixing process for the colours because they assume everyone knows. Exploring attraction in romance through the split attraction model shows me how the paints are mixed.
That’s why exploring different aspects of attraction – romantic attraction, sensual attraction, aesthetic attraction, etc – and what, exactly, they are and how, exactly, they look for the characters I’m reading about, is so important to me. It’s why authors not assuming that sexual attraction must always lead to romantic attraction (or vice versa) or that these aspects of attraction are and look the same for everyone and, thus, require no exploration is so valuable. It makes romance more accessible to me as a reader and a writer and I wish more authors explored how attractions work for characters in detail. To me, that only serves to make romance more appealing and enjoyable.
Some of my favourite authors for that exploration of different types of attraction include RoAnna Sylver and Claudie Arseneault. I’ve also enjoyed Xan West’s, Daria Defore’s and Claire Kann’s work for that same reason. Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue has also been a lovely exploration of this.
Most recently spotted in the wilds of continental Europe, Lynn E. O’Connacht lives on a steady diet of fiction. Her favourite treats are fantasy and soft science fiction. The lynnetbird is more commonly known as the lion-bird as cats have built up a positive symbiotic relationship with her. Sightings of Lynn E. O’Connacht are rare as she is a shy creature, most likely to be seen in the early mornings.
If one wishes to catch sight of this unique creature themselves, their best bet is to leave out books or RPGs that could be added to her diet, or to play music for her to mimic. One can also leave a plate with a variety of confections as the lynnetbird loves sweets and chocolate. These methods are especially effective in Lynn E. O’Connacht’s own territory as she is often too shy to venture far from it.
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We can’t wait to hear from you!
You can find all previous guest posts in this series >here<.