Foundations of Wonk: On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

I can trace my love of the wonkomance back a long way.

Sometimes I think it started when I read Jane Eyre in seventh grade. Or maybe it all began even earlier, with a genuine romance novel I sneaked off my mom’s nightstand that I recall featuring a knife placed under a bed to cut the pain of childbirth, accidental sex in the forest (and it was truly accidental–I cannot tell you how much confusion this scene caused 10-year-old me about matters of anatomy), and a moon-shaped birthmark on the heroine’s breast.

But although that particular book left me disturbed, confused, and intrigued, I can blame my continuing love of wonkomance squarely on the writing of two YA books. I’ll be talking about them both in my Foundations of Wonk posts.

On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voigt is set in an imaginary world called only The Kingdom. Birle, the Innkeeper’s daughter in her small village, is dreading her upcoming wedding to one of the hunters she met at the annual fair. One night, she discovers a thief trying to steal one of the inn’s fishing boats, and rashly jumps in the water to try and save it. The “thief” is actually a Lord of the Kingdom who has chosen to escape his destined role as heir, and Birle almost immediately falls in love with him.

Birle and Orien end up shipwrecked on a desolate island and nearly die, are rescued, then sold as slaves by pirates in the dangerous City to the south. Birle is relatively lucky to be bought by a scholar who uses her to assist his herbal work, but Orien is sold to the mines, which everyone knows is a death sentence.

Like many old-school romance novels, this book is a coming-of-age story for Birle as much as it is a romance. But unlike many old-school romance novels, the power dynamic between Birle and Orien shifts, changes, grows equal as the book progresses.

Birle loves Orien from the start. She is younger than he is, though not by many years, and as a peasant villager, has far less power. But during their time in slavery, Birle grows, learns, becomes invaluable to the scholar she assists. She finds her identity and her footing, while Orien is broken, both physically and emotionally. In the end, she is the one who rescues him.

When Orien and Birle have escaped the City and are in the forest, hiding while Orien rebuilds his strength for the journey home, Orien finally falls in love with Birle in return. When he proposes marriage, she argues about the difference in their social classes. “We are not equal,” she tells him.

“We were not,” he answers. “You gave me your heart, and I gave you nothing in return. Now I give you mine.”

I do not wish to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, but Birle is self-aware enough, in the end, to make a choice that she knows is best for herself, and it is up to Orien to decide if he is willing to be brave enough to join her.

I loved this book as a child, and I love it still as an adult, for a number of reasons. Birle’s growth is so emotionally honest and real; Orien’s damage and recovery is as well. And, though the references are oblique, the reality of sexual desire and the dangers inherent in being a young woman are both portrayed more openly than they were in most young adult literature of the time. Birle desires Orien. When they do decide to act on that desire, it is entirely as equals– no coercion, no ignorant young maid with an experienced rake.

And yet, this is a romance. Love endures. Love is determined. Birle’s love saves Orien; Orien’s love makes Birle stronger.

I can only think of one other book that gave me so much hope for my own romantic future, and that’s the one I’ll write about next time.

What books shaped your romantic hopes and dreams? Which ones taught you to love romance? And what did they teach you about love and desire?



Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Review, Talking Wonkomance | 9 Comments

I’d Never Fook Oz

I usually don’t buy into the whole “this series didn’t finish the way I wanted it to”. Mainly because a) I understand the crushing pressure of meeting reader expectations, of writing for an audience, of trying to cap a story off in a satisfactory way while being true to yourself, and b) I don’t usually care all that much. And I doubly don’t care when it’s not even a series I’ve really read.

However, I couldn’t help taking note of the whole furore around the Sookie Stackhouse series. I just couldn’t. Because even I, with my one-book-read-one-TV-series-watched-limited-experience, could see how problematic that ending was. And not in a “betraying some pairing I don’t give a crap about” way. In a kind of…betraying the initial themes of your series sort of way.

I always thought the books were about vampire acceptance and so on – that Sookie stood out because she understood. And I liked that she wanted more than her humdrum life. So to end it on that note…to have her return to that life, and the guy who always had a crush on her…well, it seems like the biggest retrogressive step since Dorothy decided fook Oz, I want depression era Kansas!

Very few people want grinding poverty and hardship over a magical world. Don’t try to tell me they do. And I can’t help thinking that the same message is in the end of Harris’ books: women don’t want more. They want less, less, less!

Though I guess I could forgive that possible message, if I didn’t suspect the reason for it was based on the need to subvert reader expectations. I mean, I can imagine what the weight of that audience must have been like – I’ve experienced maybe one millionth of it and one millionth of it is heavy enough. And I get that the pressure and the urge to surprise and do something different and not give in when you have a “vision” must be strong.

But here’s the thing: what’s so bad about giving readers what they want? I don’t mean compromising yourself or your work. I don’t mean selling out, or just giving in to what everyone is saying. I just mean…what’s so bad about writing with your audience in mind?

I love writing with my audience in my mind. And although it’s sometimes tough and frustrating and I feel buried beneath the expectation that I’m probably just imagining, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Why would I? The thrill of having readers and wanting to give them something they like far outweighs that little voice in my head that wishes I could go back and write clean and fresh and with no worries about it.

Because the truth is…even back then when I had no readers, and didn’t worry about what I was writing…I still worried about what I was writing. I was still always aware of my genre, of its boundaries, of what I could do with those boundaries. How far could I push them? How could I operate within them and still be myself? All my works have been an experiment in that very thing: being different within the conventions.

I love nothing better than taking the familiar – taking something that readers will love – and putting my own spin on it. In fact, that’s what I prefer to do, and I think it’s because I actually love most of the things that many readers want. I am a reader myself. I love popular tropes. I love angsty vampires and sexy billionaires and bad boys with a heart of gold.

I just like to tell stories about them in my own way. For me, it’s all in the telling. Not the trope. No matter what reader expectations are…no matter how much that pressure gets to you…no matter how many people accuse you of jumping on some bandwagon that existed well before the band first made a billion dollars…it’s the telling that really counts. And I hope I always feel that way. I’m not so proud I can pretend readers don’t matter.

But I can still be me when I write for them.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 15 Comments

Love, Actually

Every time Corinthians is read at a wedding, the ruined and weathered and broken romance novelist that I am, I can’t help but think of the entire catalog ever recorded by the Ramones, including the tracks about glue-sniffing. It’s the run to litany, I think, and the certain and passionate authority that Joey Ramone and the apostle Paul share, their dogged shoulder into the definitions of love and what it is what its action is, how it works on us, how it always, always, always, how it wanna, wanna, wannas. If I do not have love, I have nothing, Paul writes, moved by grace. I just want to have something to do, begs Joey Ramone, moved by his lower brain and the baffling Sheena.

Corinthians is meant to get underneath us and lever out of our hearts what we look to for love, even as we live our lives in envious and boastful and angry ways. Even as we have felt nothing but the restless cruelties of four angry chords played in limited variation on a second-hand guitar held over the thrusting pelvis of pain and unfulfilled desire. It never fails, insists Paul. Gimme gimme shock treatment, cries Joey. Faith, hope, and love, Paul tells us, and Joey, actually, agrees, is tenderized, because after all, he wants you around. He does. He says so, over and over and over.

You should know I am not a cynical person, either, but a hopeful one, because my ruin and weather have softened me inexorably, it seems. But I still think of the Ramones when Corinthians is read and I want to tell the couple not to be afraid of the restless cruelty of love and if they haven’t faced that, to anticipate it as a shadow to bring into relief this moment when they are standing in front of each other with the solemn revelation of what they are doing, which is choosing a sanctioned connection to another human being for the rest of their lives. Before this, connections have been mostly chosen for them by the accidents of birth and college roommates and cubicle arrangements.

Here’s the thing—love isn’t anything. It does nothing, it is evidence of nothing but our basic humanity. It is incapable of action, of engendering change, of movement in any direction. Faith, hope, and love, and Paul needn’t have gone farther, even to tell us which one was the greatest.  We so want to make love capable of action, we want to work out what love is, or what love isn’t, we want to sing or scream about it, and we want to submit it for evidence for the choices we make: because I love him. Because I love her. I do this for them because I love them. We can have faith, we can hope, but the greatest impulse we might have, we think, is to love, because it can do something, because it is something, because when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. Faith asks too much of us, to anticipate death, even, hope has us crying into the ocean, but love completes us.  It gives something back. Faith and hope are exercises in the activity of grace, which is not guaranteed, but love is just for us. To give and to receive, to redeem the inevitable failures of grace when we are curled up on the beach, high from glue, certain we are forsaken.

I’m starting with the plea to stop impossible actions of love, and to submit to our failure to define it, and to cease in presenting it as a reason.

I think more of love than that, you see.

What if love is truly ineffable, without description, incapable of anything, anything at all, but hopeless enigma, but it is still something we want, and want and want unendingly? Corinthians also says of love that when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me, but what if love was the irrational and tenacious and inexplicable want of a child, and always would be, and by loving, we are reduced to children, without choices or reason or anything but the native want of love?

What if all we came with, into this restless and cruel world, were our bodies and the want of love? We do, actually, and love is not promised, even then. The only promise of life is death, so what if, what if, the only want of life was love? I wanna be your boyfriend, sings Joey. Over and over and over. Because there is nothing else to say.

In the poem Twigs, Taha Muhammad Ali writes:

Neither music,

fame, nor wealth,

not even poetry itself,

could provide consolation

for life’s brevity,

or the fact that King Lear

is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,

and for the thought that one might suffer greatly

on account of a rebellious child.


My love for you

is what’s magnificent


There’s more, but I want to stop here for a moment, and talk about Lear. The tragedy, not the history, I think, because I’m planning on taking us pretty far down before I turn the lights back on. Lear has it all, doesn’t he? Fame and wealth, music and poetry. His kingdom is so vast he can consider its division without grief. Lear is an example of Paul’s caution, however, Lear speaks to vast audiences, has knowledge, faith, possessions for the poor, and life in his body, but we learn that he believes he does not have love which reduces what he has to mere clanging cymbals, nothingness, and wandering without a single companion but a fool. Suffering. It’s not until the bodies are piled on the stage in front of the old king that he is able to consider what he was given without reserve and for no reason, what it was he was in want of and that love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.

So when Ali evokes Lear, at the beginning of this poem, and laments that no matter how many times you read it, it will always end, we are asked to consider perpetual loss, first, as the primary argument, and what’s more, by evoking Lear, Ali has summoned the complete and utter misapprehension of love and the tragedy this misapprehension sets into motion. Then Ali tells his lover, that it is his love, in the face of all of this, unending loss and terrible blindness, that is magnificent.

What is the action of this love? What does it do? If Lear is blind and there are no consolations in a short life of restless cruelty, what of the evocation of magnificent love?

Perhaps Ali can elaborate:

but I, you, and the others,

most likely,

are ordinary people.


My poem

goes beyond poetry

because you


beyond the realm of women.


And so

it has taken me

all of sixty years

to understand

that water is the finest drink,

and bread the most delicious food,

and that art is worthless

unless it plants

a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.


Which brings me back to what we come into the world with, which is the want of love and our bodies, because when are born, we’re not born hungry or thirsty or tired, not yet. In fact, when we are first born we are not even yet air hungry, not until the first waft of oxygen on chemoreceptors starts a physiological chain reaction that literally shifts the pressures of our heart. In this margin, we are want of nothing but our mothers. Of her body, of the reassurance that this life where we can already feel the threat of breath is not a lonely one. Not every baby cries at birth, but babies takes their first breaths easier with arms around them, some basic approximation of love—this is not some poet’s fancy, either, a newborn’s vitals are stronger, its physiologic stress lessened, in the arms of another.

Our bodies, and a want of love.

Then, as Ali tells us, our hungers come. We are thirsty and hungry in as an unending a cycle as Lear is read and finished. Hunger and thirst are tricky things, too. Part of the problem is that they are unending. Surely, we think, if I feast, I won’t need to eat again. If my glass is empty, I’ll never need it filled. Then it’s all frustration, these unending needs. We’re hungry, but instead of eating we consume and consume and consume. Instead of drinking when we’re thirsty, we dull our senses until water is no longer satisfying. If we’re lucky, we grow to understand that we are, in fact, ordinary, and that all our bodies required was bread and water, after all. And, of course, a woman who exists beyond the realm of women, and splendor. Our bodies, and the want of love.

But I started with an argument against love as an action, as a redemption, as anything definable at all, and so why is it that we want it? Who is it that we give love to? How can we give and receive something that is both ineffable and without theological or narrative muscle? Also, I promised you that I thought more of love than love as an action, or evidence, or a reason, or a redemption. My audience, too, are those that write and read about love above everything else. My intention isn’t to strip away from love anything of value, even as we’re left, here in an empty room. With nothing but love between us.

This is where I say that while I am ruined and weathered and broken, I also love, and I am loved. It has nothing to do with my worth, or the worth of those I give my love to. I love people who don’t love me, who may never have loved me, who have hurt me, and who continue to hurt me. My love does not change them, it does not reason with them, it does not redeem the pain they visited on me. I love them. Not in spite of them, not because of anything but the fact of them and the tenacity of my own life, the fact that my body continues to hunger and thirst. I am loved, and there are those that love me that I have treated shamefully, and their love hasn’t redeemed or changed me. There are those that love me that I can never love in return, and their love is simply the fact of their love.

My love for you is what’s magnificent, in other words, has the quality of magnification, of ordering the world so that everything else comes after love. If we come into the world with our bodies, and the hunger and thirst of our bodies is satiated, the first order is love. This order then, can be without relationship to the work of grace and its complexities. Paul wants us to believe that if we do not have love, we have nothing, but we do have our life. We have our body, our hunger, our thirst, we also have whatever work we choose or is chosen for us. Perhaps this is where my argument fails, because perhaps life with nothing but life and the work of living it is, in fact, nothing, but something else love requires is another, and mutual love is something else again.

Love’s not love that’s mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point, writes Shakespeare, and if he is arguing with Paul, this is heresy. When love is mingled with patience and kindness, when it protects and trusts, when it completes us, it is better, I cannot argue that. But I also can’t believe that a patient and kind love, even a love that is protective, can save someone. Or should. Because when love is mingled with these regards, these considerations, the impulse is to withhold love, and while this may be sometimes wise, it is not usually possible. If it is our first want, the fact of living inside our bodies, then we will be as greedy as children in love, as unaware of the sacrifices necessary to sustain love as children are.

I wanna be your boyfriend, then, becomes as pure of a declaration as I can possibly imagine. So does I will, I do. We are helpless to the declaration, in fact, once it has come over us. Once we love, our impulse is to mingle its regards, to explain our actions by it—because I love him, because I love her, I do this because I love you—and to insist that it is a source of our faith and hope and redemption, the change we see in the world. Love makes the world go round, love is all around, love is the answer, love is patient, love is kind, love is blind—we believe all of this because why else would we be overcome with a declaration that is so often unreasonable and so often unrequited and so often painful?


After we die,

and the weary heart

has lowered its final eyelid

on all that we’ve done,

and on all that we’ve longed for,

and all that we’ve dreamt of,

all we’ve desired

or felt,

hate will be

the first thing

to putrefy

within us.


I am not writing about hate, though love is defined in its negative, in our hopeless scrabbling to define life, but this poem ends with an argument against the persistence of hate, even at the moment of death, it suggests that something endures for some moments, or longer, after hate has weakened its hold. So if in this margin, there is something of life, there is likely something of love. It is magnificent, order above all other things, for no other reason than our want of it.

I find, too, that it is difficult, still, to abandon the canon of love. I want the regards, I want love to be the greatest of these, over faith and hope, and then my faith and hope would power my declaration with a feeling without dishonor, or evil, or distrust, or prevarication, and my love’s return would be unfailing and it would complete me where previously I was parts, it would mean nothing less than I am fully known.

Though, I think it is untethered, love. I think we know this when we send love away from ourselves and into a void or in the direction of another, or sometimes, sometimes, in safekeeping. I think we know that love is hopeless, and faithless and largely unrequited and that redemption is almost impossible.

But we say it, bent and ruined and broken with wanting. I love you. In this declaration there are no definitions or regards. There is no real action. I love you. That’s all. We don’t even, perhaps, know what it is to love. What it is we are saying, not really, we have reduced the expression of the ineffable between two people, with nothing but love in the middle—I love you. None of this that I have said is even truly an argument, but a surrender, even as we write as many songs as we can manage, even as we listen with an ear to God. Even as we say it, I love you. I love you. I love you. Even as we know it’s the first thing, and it’s the last thing, the bookends of our short and restless lives; even as we know it’s simply the life in our bodies, fed by bread and water, that have forced the declaration as the next impulse after breathing—I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 32 Comments