Whoosh! Issue 46 - July 2000

DON'T FORGET DELLA STREET:
STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

By Christine Boese
Content copyright © 2000 held by author
Edition copyright © 2000 held by Whoosh!
7685 words



Author's Note: When Bongo Bear [guest editor of this issue of Whoosh] suggested I write a review article focusing on the work of a single author, I jumped at the chance to do a piece on Della Street. She is one of the few of my favorite Xenaverse fan fiction authors I have not had the privilege of meeting in person or online, but I am her number one fan.




Why Should We Remember Della? (01-09)
The Least Shall Come First (10-17)
Interconnected Contexts, Yet a Leader of Bards (18-26)
Literary vs. Populist (27-30)
These Are A Few of My Favorite Things (31-37)
Keeping 'Em Guessing (38-44)
The Mistress of Dialogue (45-48)
Attention to Details (49-50)
How Do I Love Della? Let Me Count the Ways (51-54)
And In Conclusion... (55-60)
The Short Stories of Della Street
Notes
Biography



Don't Forget Della Street: Standing the Test of Time




Why Should We Remember Della?

Don't you think I would have made the perfect Gabrielle?

Barbara Hale portrayed Della Street, Secretary to Perry Mason. No, it's not *that* Della Street, but graphics for these fan fiction issues are tough to do and even a tenuous link is a good one.


[1] Della Street is a writer who is no longer actually writing or even present in the Xenaverse. She has no fan lists devoted to her work. Why should we care about her stories? They were written back in the old moldy days, when Gabrielle still had long hair. Most of that first and second season stuff is impossibly painful to read these days; so much has happened since.

[2] There is an odd struggle in the world today between what is literary and what is populist. The split between the two forms of literature did not become a Grand Canyon until T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce created literary Modernism in the 1920s. Part of the Modernist Project was to deliberately make literature that was difficult to read for the average person. Eliot even wrote about doing this on purpose in his works of literary criticism.

[3] Before the early 1900s, most Western cultures had strong traditions of common people reading and understanding the great writers of their age, the Tennysons, the Wordsworths, and the Goethes. Meanwhile, the Modernist literary elitism and deliberate obscurity kept common people from great literature for nearly 100 years. I should like to think the Xenaverse and its fan fiction happened in response to the fact that ordinary people had become alienated from their native literature, something all people should own, and not just the elites. I believe many people have become cut off from a sense that anyone, any ordinary person, could be empowered, could gain recognition, for writing well.

[4] I do not subscribe to that kind of literary elitism. I want to turn everything upside down by championing writers in the Xenaverse as distinguished literary authors of note. There is nothing I love more than writing when it is cooking with gas, when it is good. On the other hand, once you take the step of saying one piece of writing is better than another, once you engage in literary criticism, even in the Xenaverse, you have created an elitist hierarchy that favors the good. This is a very dangerous proposition.

[5] But what are the alternatives? In George Orwell's novel, 1984, machine-written prose was churned out to satisfy the masses and make certain that no one was stirred up by any work that was decidedly above average. Should we not recognize our great writers in the Xenaverse in order to preserve that old democratizing feeling? Should the Xenaverse become a story machine like Orwell envisions, endlessly cranking out lookalike lesbian Harlequins, BDSM [bondage-domination-sadism-masochism], and soft core porn? Or should we treat fiction as fodder for a VR [virtual reality] landscape and go the way of Science Fiction Fandoms, creating complex chains of alternative universes like one extended playground for a multi-user virtual reality game? Is that the role of fantasy in the Xenaverse - a mode of escape, so unremarkable as to be forgotten once the "game" is over?

[6] I beg to differ. The Xenaverse has risen to the occasion. It has created works of note by memorable writers. These works should not be forgotten, even at the risk of creating an elitist system of value, of sorting out the good from the not so good.

[7] Della Street certainly wrote standard Xena and Gabrielle roles and stayed within the confines of average short story plots. On the other hand, she has stories that move beyond the template in one way or another that are better than her stories that do not. It is almost as if she felt more inspired, free to write her way, when she was not writing to fill a form. Her best writing seemed to emerge when she was least confined by Xena: Warrior Princess genre considerations, particularly the standard Season One and Two Xena/Gabrielle Alt-fiction genre that was evolving in the Xenaverse at that time.

[8] It is pretty easy to see which stories inspired Della's talent and which were simply competent efforts at cranking out another piece in a genre that was already starting to bore her. Since I do not know Della, I cannot possibly know her true feelings about the stories, and I would not want to presume such a thing. I am just observing what comes through in the lines of prose on the page.

[9] In examining features of stories that I find raise her work to a higher aesthetic level, I will be ranging through Della's entire body of work for representative examples. Some stories will not be mentioned, and due to the nature of online writing, an exact textual chronology of texts cannot really be established. I will try not to draw conclusions about how her work has changed chronologically for that reason. However, I do think we can observe some key features about the development of her particular writing style.


The Least Shall Come First

[10] I have always ranked her stories in my own mind. For this article, I will discuss them from the worst to the best, saving the two best stories, "Resistance" and "Toward the Sunset", for last. [A list of Della Street's fan fiction follows this essay and includes links to the on-line stories].

[11] For example, let us first consider two of Della's stories that I would characterize as "bad" [Note 01]. Compare the completely conventional and largely forgettable story, "Damage Control", with the much more original premise in "Her Gabrielle". The latter was based on the one-time parallel universe introduced in the episode REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202).

Cut my hair?  Yeah, right, next thing you'll tell me Xena is out to kill me!

The 'old' Gabrielle.


[12] "Damage Control" contains the most tired plot cliche in the Xenaverse: a Season One Gabrielle left behind by Xena in a contrived breakup that makes them both miserable. It leads to a reunion that forces them to be honest about their romantic and sexual feelings for each other. Someone should make a list of how many Season One "first time" stories find lame excuses for Xena to arrogantly leave an exaggeratedly youthful Gabrielle behind for her own good, simply to add drama and set up the joyous and steamy reunion.

[13] Yet even within "Damage Control", I see signs of things I would come to love about Della's work. She takes the cliched storyline and puts in a classic Della twist: withheld information leading to serendipitous, almost comical, misunderstandings on the part of both Xena and Gabrielle. As I will show further in this article, Della is a master of setting up misunderstandings from the limited point of view of the characters, and for the pleasure of the omniscient reader. With Della's influence on the Xenaverse at that time, this plot feature was widely copied in first time stories, most notably through the introduction of rivals and jealousy. I do not know how many first time stories I have read that hinge on a misunderstanding brought about through a contrived rival for one or the other's affections, a rival that is not really a rival at all, but again, it increases the drama. Nobody ever really did it with the balance, wit, and clean writing that Della brought to the plot of "Damage Control".

[14] We also see in this story another enjoyable feature of Della's writing that will be a technique used to best effect in "Toward the Sunset" and "Resistance". This is Della's use of clever transitions between scenes. I have a great deal to say about this feature further on, but for now, let me just note a few significant instances of it in "Damage Control". Della transitions between scenes with an almost cinematic technique, like a segue in a movie. Della will truncate scenes, breaking them in a dramatic moment or a key sentence of dialogue. Then, rather than providing a narrative bridge to explain what happened in between, she will simply jump ahead to another point in time, right into the middle of a key moment in another scene, like a jump cut in a movie. We see this when Xena leaves Gabrielle, early in the story, and for the best example, we see it when the misunderstanding is cleared up, and Xena says,

"Wait," she said quietly. Gabrielle paused. "I want you to think about this, Gabrielle." She held the smaller hand in hers. "If it is right now, it'll be right later."

***

Xena walked tentatively through the forest ...

and we have jumped ahead in time to their next meeting weeks later - no fanfare, no explanation, just a jump cut.

[15] You may wonder, justifiably, why I am defending "Her Gabrielle" as the better story than "Damage Control". There is not much of the action in "Her Gabrielle" that is actually earned by the writer. She depends primarily on the setup of the Xena episode REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202). We do see in this story signs of some things that will be developed to stronger effect in later stories: the Warlord/Slave genre power imbalance and the pure Della erotic romp. This story has no plot, and the characters waste no time falling all over each other, repeatedly. They are in love from the moment they meet, and the reader has no idea why. I personally have no problem with plotless sexual romps, but they are not the kind of story I read over and over, no matter how well written they may be. In such sexually explicit stories Della honed her erotic writing to a fine edge. In the stories that I count as her very best, she is able to control and integrate the explicit erotic moments at a high pitch, as in "Toward the Sunset", or to wryly truncate or refer to them obliquely, as in "Resistance".

[16] My memories of "Her Gabrielle" as being a stronger story stick with me, however, and there is a reason for this. A person should not read "Her Gabrielle" alone. Rebecca Hall wrote a most wonderful and poignant continuation of this story that deals with real issues with the characters, "Her Gabrielle: A Response." That is why I have strong memories of liking this story so much. I really cannot separate the two stories, and Rebecca Hall augmented Della's story in a powerful way. [Note 02]

[17] This pairing illustrates the collaborative nature of authoring in the Xenaverse. It does not happen very often, as the myth of the individual author is strong among bards. They are not anxious to be subsumed into a monolithic "Homer" or even a "Gabrielle". Instead we see lots of assertions of authorship and ownership. On the other hand, for readers, the oral nature of the hybrid electronic discourse seems to blur authorship.


Interconnected Contexts, Yet a Leader of Bards

[18] Stories are more memorable than authors. Ironic then, that I am writing an article devoted to a singular author whose work seems to stand out. I can only do so by showing how she is also interconnected with the contexts around her. Yet despite these interconnections, we can show that Della's work had a leadership role in influencing Xenaverse plotlines written by lesser writers. We know this happened with the creation of the Uber genre, and perhaps also with the more recent genre of parallel universe Conqueror stories. But as an early writer of quality in the Xenaverse, her influence extended to the First Time story genre, and to other story "types" that pop up again and again.

[19] Some of these "types" are familiar to readers of standard Xena and Gabrielle (X&G) stories in bastardized Ancient Greece. The basic assumption here is that each writer only gets one or two First Time or X&G- Angsty-and-Apart stories. After that, she must find plots where it is assumed Xena and Gabrielle are together. Thankfully, Della did not contribute to the Amazon-Marriage-Ritual story type. These stories have always seemed exceedingly sappy to me in the ways Xenaverse bards have imagined Amazon marriage ceremonies and tribal rituals, hierarchical, aristocratic, with a lot of people going around saying, "My Queen" all the time. Gag me.

[20] But Della did write a Gabrielle-Coming-Out-to-her-Family story type, "Trouble"; an Evil-Xena-Warlord-Personality-Shift story type, "Sacrifice" [Note 03]; and a Gabrielle-Having-Trust-Issues-with-Xena story type, "Revelations" [Note 04]. Many bards have also dealt with Xena having to repay an old debt or favor from her warlord days, as Della does in "Debts". In this story Della also incorporates another issue that appears in many stories, Gabrielle integrating with Xena's battles versus Gabrielle being left behind in the traditional femme/female role.

Figures.  I gave up drinking *before* Seasons 4 and 5.

Meleager the Mighty. Definitely not to be confused with that *other* Mighty guy.


[21] Another standard Xena story that bears mentioning is "Companions", the Meleager spin-off [Note 05]. I do not reread this story very often either, because it is based on one very common gimmick I mentioned before, the artificial rival and the silly misunderstanding. It is another light First Time story. Still, in this story, she is practicing setting up a tale based on characters operating with withheld information, and the plot is based on their misguided actions within that framework. We will see this theme recur again and again.

[22] Of Della's Ancient Greek Xena stories, the First Time stories are more memorable to me than the longer adventure stories where Xena and Gabrielle are already lovers, such as "Debts", "Revelations", "Assassins", and the like. I do suspect that Della is not a writer who could have made the transition to Xena novels, especially the trend toward serialized novels that took over the Xenaverse after Season Two and the subsequent summer rerun season. Her work is stronger within shorter confines. Her longest pieces are three-parters, "Toward the Sunset" and "Resistance". "Finds" is a two-parter, as is "Sacred Ground".

[23] "Sacred Ground" also deals with an issue that went on to vex Xenaverse writers (and possibly TPTB - "the powers that be") from Season Three onward, which is how to handle pacifism. This eventually became characterized on the show as Eli's Way of Love versus Xena's Warrior Path. I like that the show went after a conundrum of Christianity that is frequently downplayed in the organized religion, the "Turn the Other Cheek" admonition. Contrast that with Mark Twain's clever parody of a "War Prayer", or the spectacle of Fellowship of Christian Athletes praying before games to be given a great victory over their enemies, and see hypocrisy in action.

[24] I really cannot sort out all the convolutions that R.J. Stewart, an executive producer of Xena, is setting up by putting these belief systems into direct conflict, although many bards have tried. Most take the easy way out, set up one side as bad and the other side as good. If you need a hand figuring these issues out, I would recommend lurking on the Xenaverse mailing list and listening closely to anything deb7 has to say on the subject. I like sitting around and tying myself in knots over the issue, while deb7 is far closer to figuring it out, or at least crawling into R.J. Stewart's head. Della cannot or will not get you out of it with "Sacred Ground".

[25] In the end, the standard X&G together as a couple stories lost energy and interest for me. Part of the excitement of Season 2 was the subtextual tension, the same kind of tension that sustained television shows like Moonlighting (1985-89), Northern Exposure (1990-1995), and The X-Files (1993-present). Once the characters get together, stories often lose their driving energy. It doesn't say much for married life, does it? Now I remember why I am single. Most Xenaverse alt-fic bards subscribe to the "Lunacy Factor," named for a prominent Xenaverse reviewer who liked "X&G Happily Ever After" stories. In truth, I think Lunacy just gave voice to something many people were feeling, idealistic notions that Xena and Gabrielle were soulmates and should end up only with each other. Even TPTB were influenced by this force, this idea of a destiny for two souls, which was perhaps the germination of Uber itself.

[26] Here is a fun trivia game! Someone count how many fan fiction stories repeat Gabrielle's telling the story of how all humans had four legs and two heads. I'll start the count. "Toward the Sunset." ONE.


Literary vs. Populist

[27] Relationship idealists flock to the Xenaverse. Campy and postmodern ironic idealists (can there be such a thing?) alike find common ground in the fandom. This is my own bald-faced opinion, but I am convinced that it is true. The Xenaverse is like a magnet for people who have lost in love, or never have been head over heels in love, or have become jaded and disappointed, or these people have settled for serial monogamy but still hope against hope there is something more out there, if not for them, then at least for special people like Xena and Gabrielle. How else do you explain this obsession with Xena and Gabrielle as soulmates who reunite again and again through time? Does anyone else really experience life this way? I am here in the Xenaverse also, guilty as charged, and like Fox Mulder on The X-Files, I want to believe.

[28] One key difference between Xenaverse fan fiction and literary fiction is that in the latter, dark sensibilities can prevail. Unhappy endings. Tragedies. As a matter of fact, literary types tend to look on idealists with a condescending, jaded sneer. Nothing is pure. Nothing is black and white. Nothing is simple. To that aesthetic sense, idealistic fiction where the heroes ride off into the sunset together is nothing more than naive claptrap.

[29] It does explain the difficulty fans, and particularly bards, had with Season Three, a season with some of the best writing and cinematic techniques TPTB have ever used. Season Three took some literary-style risks, played against black and white plotlines, opened up some gray area, boldly walked into more dramatic tragedies, and risked unhappy endings. Even worse, in Season Four, TPTB risked an irresolvable conflict between pacifism/fatalism and fighting back/free will.

[30] It is a conflict between the literary and the populist. An audience weaned on Hollywood happy endings was not going to sit still for Art that took risks. That is one take on it. I do not know. I like Art. I liked Season Three and the India Arc. Yet I still want Xena and Gabrielle to ride off into the sunset together. Which is why Della's story, "Toward the Sunset" occupies that privileged place on my bedstand.


These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

[31] Della. Della. Della! I cannot leave your stories alone. "Finds", "Resistance", and "Toward the Sunset" are stories I would take to a desert island with me. What is it about them?

[32] First, there is her cleverness and wit. Not just the cute throwaway lines that are such a delight in "Surfacing" by Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza, for instance, but clever transitions between scenes. These are the segues that I spoke about above, in "Finds", for instance, when Mel convinces Janice to take a holiday in town. After Janice gives in, she has the thought that she would like to "see Mel in an environment more familiar to her". The scene breaks at that moment, and we immediately cut to the middle of some dialogue. Mel is twirling around in front of Janice in town in a new outfit, and Janice is stunned. The transition is made by the fact that Janice's last thought in the previous scene is acted out immediately in the very next scene. As a reader, when I hit this transition, I not only get a good chuckle, I also am inspired into confidence in the writer. "I am in good hands now," I am thinking. "This writer is going to take me on a ride and dazzle me a bit". "Finds" does not let me down, even if it does have the stereotypical Claire Of The Moon (Nicole Conn, 1992) ending, e.g. everything leads up to the couple getting together, and then once they consummate, the story ends.

[33] Wonderful examples of this transition technique can be found throughout "Resistance" and "Toward the Sunset", but my favorite is the moment in "Resistance" when Xena the Conqueror and Gabrielle the Rebel have just stolen a few moments of passion while her mother was away. We cut to a new scene where Gabrielle is reflecting on their exciting lovemaking, reliving the moment, when she is interrupted by a sharp line of dialogue.

Xena hadn't complained, but she would have enjoyed herself more with someone more experienced, someone a little more in control, Gabrielle knew. Still, she thought back to Xena leaning over her on the bed, forearms on either side of her head, back arching luxuriously as the scribe's hungry mouth found her--

"Gabrielle?"

Nine curious gazes were focused upon her. "Um, I'm sorry... What did you say?"

"Come on Gabrielle, this was your idea," Marcas said. "What do you think would make Xena squirm the most?"

Gabrielle's eyes widened.

"Should we address it to Xena, or to the Realm?"

[34] In addition to this sense of clever and controlled transitions, Della Street also employs a deliberate scenic and narrative art in her storytelling. This stands out as much as it does because the Xenaverse is so full of unconscious narrators cranking out serialized blurbs with no sense of the larger structure, or even the power of revision to add an element of deliberateness to one's prose.

Now drop that chakram, Missy.  Nice and sloooowwww.

Uber Gab, aka Janice.


[35] In the summer following Season Two, the Xenaverse was hit with a flurry of Uber novels, and many more serialized stories were begun (and are still going, I am sorry to say). These stories were often too expansive, unending, with no sense of frame, of crafting the scenes. My biggest complaint, and here I refer to the more recent epic- length novels like "Gun Shy" and "The Speed Of The Beat Of My Heart", is that the writers seem to lack control of their scenes. As a matter of fact, they seem not to be writing scenes connected by bits of narration at all. Rather, these stories often fall into the trap of reading like direct life transcripts of the characters involved, as if one of those verbatim court reporters were present, recording every burp and gurgle as it transpired: "Uber Xena went to the bathroom. She brushed her teeth. She spit in the sink and regarded her face in the mirror...".

[36] Writing is a process of selection. Some events happen "on camera", as it were. Other events can happen behind the scenes or off camera, and they can be referred to in a short burst of narration. The Scene is not the best tool for conveying ALL information. Time in fiction runs at various speeds. During summarizing narration or exposition, time can pass quickly. Or, as Della demonstrates, sometimes a jump cut can get the job done even more efficiently. But just because a writer uses a jump cut does not mean that the cut does not have to do the same work as a regular transition. You just have to be more clever in how you execute it. Meanwhile, in a scene, especially a scene with dialogue, time slows down almost to real time.

[37] My second favorite feature in Della Street's best stories is the reversals within the limited points of view of the characters. We frequently are treated to internal dialogues of characters that reveal their limited perspectives, and when this happens, I get a kick out of the irony Della uses to let the story unfold as the character learns of her own misjudgments. While Della's stories have fairly straightforward and simple plots, they unfold in unusual ways, with twists and reversals that are often humorous or ironic, and even impossible for the reader to predict. This is very important. Most television programs are completely predictable these days, and many stories in the Xenaverse are as well. Xenaverse fan fiction characters are often unrelentingly earnest and straightforward. It is as if they each have one motivation, and they follow it through to the end: Xena and Gabrielle overcome something, and they fall into bed. I am oversimplifying, of course, but you know what I mean.


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