Thursday, 4 November 2010

Asexual literary criticism I: “How would a gay person read this?”

Note on the series: This started off as one post, but it’d be fiendishly long if I did that. I’m now considering doing it in three, this introduction and comparison to homosexual criticism, then a post linking to various worthwhile pieces of asexual criticism, then a conclusion on what asexual literary criticism might look like. I could take this series down another aromantic, non-binary route, but I’m going to try my absolute hardest to drag it back to standard, possibly romantic, asexiness. Which basically means screeching the blog to a halt and turning it back the other way again, but these things have to be done.

Note on homosexual literary theory: I don’t actually dislike it. It’s because I respect it that I am especially disappointed when it descends to laughableness. I did a whole essay on the homoerotic themes in Hamlet last year. Along with one about the stagnancy of traditional romantic models in Brideshead Revisited, and another about the heteronormativity of WWI literature. Looking back, I wonder what my teachers made of me.

This is based on the summary of literary criticism in my English textbook, and, more specifically;

What lesbian/gay critics do:
[points summarised in brief]
1. Identify lesbian/gay authors
2. Identify lesbian/gay pairings in mainstream work, and then discuss them as such, as opposed to reading same-sex pairings in non-specific ways
3.Set up an extended, metaphorical sense of ‘lesbian/gay’, so that it connotes a moment of crossing a boundary.
4. Expose the ‘homophobia’ of mainstream literature and criticism.
5. Foreground homosexual aspects in literature which have been glossed over.
6. Foreground literary genres which influenced ideas of masculinity and femininity.

To which a queer friend responded: “Not all of us!” (by which they meant, ‘Some of us just read and criticise literature while also being gay.’)

Maybe you can see my criticisms of this section of criticism. For a start, it’s trying too hard, mugging the book in favour of the critic’s obscure and unobjective approach (so, in #3, for example, practically any sort of conflict could be seen as ‘gay’. And since conflict is at the heart of literature, the kids at school were entirely right when they told you reading was ‘gay’). From a more asexual point of view, #2 is downright disrespectful- why must you read a relationship as being gay when it is actually a close friendship? That just a) denigrates further the already impotent power of friendship, b) allows no possibility of an asexual reading, c) makes it harder for two people of the same gender to be allowed to be friends without someone reading into it.

And it occurred to me that we already have the basis of an asexual literary criticism (PHD material? That would be kinda cool). A lot of what we do is ‘literary’ criticism (see Ily and Shockrave), Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, Dexter (wow, writing the names of all those aliens/psychopaths/sociopaths all together made me feel kinda sad).
And notice we’re fighting already against homosexual criticism, gay people and asexuals both laying contradictory claim to Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, even Spongebob Squarepants. We are never given heroes. We must find those we like the best, and then fight like hell to make sure no-one stronger takes them.

And this is part of where homosexual criticism invisibilises us. It’s not just stealing our characters, it’s actually writing us out of existence. In the frantic desire to analyse what isn’t necessarily there, gay critics, hungry for evidence, revert to the following formula:

Absence of heterosexuality = Homosexuality

Gee, doesn’t that look familiar. Where have I seen that before? How about, oh, everywhere?


  1. Love this post, and your previous one as well. Case in point for me is House fandom: I love House/Wilson, but only if that relationship is NOT sexualized. I think House and Wilson have the sort of relationship that you described in your previous post, where they get a great deal of support and emotional intimacy from each other—and have even lived together for quite some time—but they're both essentially straight. I get very frustrated with slashers and gay literary critics alike, because while I certainly enjoy the playful innuendo they're very comfortable with making on the show, as well as the moments revealing their deep emotional intimacy, my reading is that it really isn't in character for either of them to express that intimacy through sexuality. They express their sexuality through other relationships, which up until now have been solely with women, and to ignore that is to ignore huge swaths of canonical evidence. I think they have a great deal of emotional tension with one another, but I don't see why all tension is interpreted as sexual tension, and I find the fact that so many people do this very much invisibilizing of the potential for deeply committed but asexual relationships (whether or not the participants are asexual themselves). It's terribly frustrating and I tend to avoid reading fanfiction and such because of that. It feels quite alienating, like just another area where asexuality is presumed not to exist.

    I've actually been meaning to write a post about this for quite a while now, but never got around to it. I may still do it at some point, whenever I get around to rewatching the whole series.

  2. I love this idea, too. Actually, one of the things I've really wanted to see come out of the asexual community was a longstanding tradition of asexual literary criticism, and there's bits and pieces of it emerging now. I find that pretty thrilling. (I was also musing the afternoon on the fact that if an Asexual Studies department or class existed at my university, I would totally take it.)

    This sort of thing is actually why I love specifically asexual fanfiction, because what it does is hold up an asexual interpretation to specific characters and then view the character (and sometimes the story) through that lens. Are you familiar with asexual_fandom at all? It's essentially the center of asexuality in fandom discourse, and it's doing a project this year wherein different weeks focus on asexual interpretations of different characters, either coded intentionally/semi-intentionally asexual by writers or not. Right now they're doing Sherlock (the new BBC adaptation), which is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The interesting thing about that particular fandom is that a lot of people within it seem to be interpreting Sherlock as a homoromantic asexual.

    The problem with that is that it falls neatly into that asexual/aromantic as sociopath/alien/coded inhuman character stereotype, which I notice more and more the more I look for asexual characters in media. I wonder, is that a specifically aromantic stereotype, or is it an asexual one more generally? There are so few canonically romantic asexual characters that it's hard to be sure.

  3. Hm. It seems that maybe you and I have been sharing brain waves recently. I'm in a lesbian literature class right now and we are constantly discussing what lesbian literature is and what it even means to be a lesbian.

    It sounds like you're suggesting that calling certain kinds of literature gay can be alienating if the characters are not engaging in behavioral homosexuality. I've been trying to convince people of the opposite: that non-sexual intimacy between same-sex persons can legitimately be called gay or lesbian. I'm not saying that we should go around and tell people that they're gay if they don't feel comfortable identifying that way. However, I do think that if we say only characters who sexually behave as GLB can be interpreted as such, we're also implying that asexuals cannot be GLB identified or that homoaffectional asexual intimacy is not as credible as homosexual intimacy.

    To be totally honest, I believe that close friendships between same-sex persons are queer, because the heteronormative model of intimacy (including emotional intimacy) reserves closeness for one's opposite sex sexual partner.

    Maybe we're not thinking in opposite ways, though...because I'm encouraging people to think of literary characters as potentially asexual and to imagine romantic orientations that are separate from sexual orientations.

    woah. Did that make sense? Anyway, I'm glad you brought up this topic.

  4. Elizabeth: To be honest, I've never seen House at all, but apparently it is incredibly heavily influenced by Sherlock Holmes, and I can completely identify with your point, if transferred onto the Holmes/Watson relationship, especially the recent BBC version.

    To me, the people saying that the characters are innately homosexual are denying the reality of their relationship, and it's a reality based on the existence of some kind of asexual or at least non-sexual behaviour, hence incredibly important to asexuals.

    WritingFromFactorX and Mage, I am seriously considering, if I end up taking literature as a PHD, years down the line, actually basing it in asexual theory.

    WritingFromFactorX, thanks for the link. Sherlock as asexual homoromantic has never occurred to me. To be honest, I think an aromantic interpretation is a much closer fit, but I can see the argument for it.

    I think that the popular culture has a very fused view of sexuality, compared to the very compartmentalised asexual view. There isn't so much of a difference between asexuality and aromanticism. I think asexual characters could still be shorthand for inhuman, because people equate sex with humanity (I've not seen Dexter, but I think I've heard that he has a romantic relationship while he's still very much asexual).

    Mage: Good point. Same-sex closeness is still worth a gay interpretation even if it's of an asexual kind. I'm certainly not saying that behavioural sexuality should define the sexualities of fictional characters, in the same way it shouldn't define the sexualities of real people.

    I agree with you, encouraging people to think of characters as asexual, or having some asexual element, is a prime goal of asexual literary criticism.
    However, I think that saying all same-sex intimacy is gay is worrying, because if it is, why are so many people who identify as straight or asexual conforming with it? Orientation is important, and if such a huge proportion of the population are saying "I'm only attracted to this gender, therefor that's my orientation, but I can have this kind of intimacy with others," then we have to see that kind of intimacy as outside orientation. As in- someone with an actual, set-in-stone 'friend orientation' would worry me a lot, but to say that who you want to have sex with can never have gender boundaries goes directly against what a lot of people feel. Not sure if that made any sense.

  5. Interesting post. (As far as Dexter goes, yeah, he had some sexual/romantic relationships with women. At least on the TV show though, I don't think he could be considered asexual past the first season.) I know that on my blog, I infer the asexuality of characters all the time, so sorry if this sounds contradictory. But I wouldn't want an asexual school of criticism to make people or characters who don't fit neatly into categories even more invisible. I think at this point in time, it's important to make those asexual inferences, because as of now, we're too invisible. But I feel like when asexuality becomes better known, it might be important to say that asexual-seeming behavior doesn't necessarily lead to asexuality any more than gay-seeming behavior necessarily leads to homosexuality. Not sure if I'm making sense, but yeah.

  6. Ily- I agree. It's frustrating that there is no behavioural equivalent of asexuality- even someone who appears to have no partners or sex could be that way for a completely different reason or, in fiction, because the author just doesn't write about that part of their life. There's a temptation to latch onto anyone who isn't visibly something else and decide that they're asexual.