Dearest Rachel –
It seems the 2021 has been, is, and will be the year of losses for me. Your departure would’ve been more than enough to make it so, but of course there are all these littler ones that follow, or that are expected to follow. You’ve certainly heard plenty from me about Chompers; and while he’s doing relatively well at this point, I can’t imagine him lasting all the way through the year. And then this week, there’s the fact that after over twenty- five years, the FFML is closing down for good.
To be honest, it really shouldn’t phase me. The Fan Fiction Mailing has been all but inactive for at least the last five years, if not ten. To be sure, it used to be what made up the bulk of my email back in the day. Before there were anime conventions, this was the fandom community. Between the mailing list and, a little later on, the Anime Turnpike, this is how we found out about anything related to anime – or rather, Japanimation, which is what it was called back at that time.
It started out as a Usenet group, one of those bulletin board sites where people would pin their work for others to read and critique. The FFML itself developed as a offshoot of the BBS, delivering posts directly to your inbox, which was extraordinarily convenient back in those days, since everyone – including us – was paying for dial-up service by the minute, and I don’t need to remind you how expensive that got. We could just log on to AOL, download your email, log off, and read at your leisure rather than spend all that time (and money) online reading anything.
This was back in the early days of the Internet, around 1993-94, when we were still living at the condominium. The desk that still stands in the office was set up behind the couch, splitting the living room into two rooms – a family room and a quasi-office. And for much of that time I was at the office computer, with my back to the balcony (with its beautiful view of the hospital), either downloading or reading the stuff that came in my email.
It was here that I learned about the latest new releases, script translations of manga (the concept of scanslations was still a long way off, as a picture back then was truly worth thousands, maybe even millions, of words in terms of bandwidth and expense), and all the fan fiction I could get my hands on. I don’t remember when I came up with it exactly, but it was about this time that I developed my theory about fanfiction: that it was something you did (or read) when you couldn’t get enough anime. And in those early days, when everything was moving at 56K at the best of times, you couldn’t get enough anime.
And to be fair, it wasn’t all about anime. It was through the FFML that we also found out about Mystery Science Theater 3000, which we later tried to find it on cable while it was still running. The FFML had several people who were amazingly talented at re-creating the show in script form in order to skewer some of the worst that fanfiction had to offer.
Which is another thing. There was a lot of bad fanfiction out there. Among all the things we were introduced out there, we also learned about Sturgeon’s Law: the fact that 90% of anything is more or less crap. This isn’t quite as obvious with things that get professionally published; there are layers of editors and publishers who review and reject the dreck that crosses their desk, so that we as the readers and consumers aren’t inundated with the worst of it. But in a time and place when anybody can publish anything, anywhere on the Internet, that protective filter gets removed, and we are exposed to everything. And so much of it is just plain awful. You get the usual sophomoric writing styles, bad grammar and punctuation (the former of which was your great bugaboo), and – let’s face it – some of the stupidest and grossest attempt at erotica the world hardly deserves to see. Thank heavens for the brave men (I would say “and women” but, let’s be honest, at this point in time the fandom was mostly male. Eventually, even TV Tropes would reference this with ‘There Are No Girls on the Internet”) willing to pre-read this garbage, and throw in Joel (or Mike) and the bots – or their own original characters doing the same thing – to mock them every step of the way, rendering even the worst of it palatable (and actually, that was kind of the point – the worse the original source material was, the easier it was to mock, and the funnier the finished product became)
Now, all of this was happening against the backdrop of us tech heads not knowing if the Internet was the real deal, or just a passing fad that we were enjoying. I still remember an early Christmas letter that we sent out crowing about how we purchased all of our gifts online that year; it was the wildest thing at that time. How were we to know that that was going to be how the world would function someday? After all, this was the mid 90s, and while everybody thought that the Internet was going to be something someday, nobody was quite sure how to use it properly (except, as it turned out, Jeff Bezos)
Certainly, the whole “download and read at your leisure” aspect of those early dial-up days also resulted in the sense that this stuff might just be ephemeral, so we’d best hang onto what we’ve got.
And that’s what I did for the longest time, which ironically has been brought back to my mind as part of the cleanup process: reams and reams of paper, dozens of binders, all containing print outs of old fanfics:
But eventually, things started to change. Broadband, and eventually cable Internet became a thing. You could be online all the time, for one low monthly fee. There wasn’t nearly the need to save the stuff that might just disappear someday, because it didn’t look likely to disappear anytime soon.
And then, conventions became a thing, and we could actually meet other writers. Only once or twice a year, to be sure, but that was a great thing in and of itself. And we took it vantage of it. And even though the fan fiction, and the writers, and all that never really caught your fancy, the social aspect of the convention was what was your glory, and you covered yourself in it.
And we all got older, and the amount of anime out there grew. And the flipside of my theory became a thing. Because now, we had more than enough anime, and there wasn’t the need for fanfiction anymore (not that there wasn’t fanfiction being produced, mind you. Sites like fanfiction.net became a thing, and grew enormously, leaving the FFML in its dust). The FFML languished, quietly, with very few contributions for a very long time.
So when Dennis Carr announced he was closing down the FFML this year, the old guard reacted with sad nostalgia. But very few fanfics.
The time had come to say goodbye.
We already said goodbye to some pretty prominent writers. Brian Randall passed on in, I think it was, 2014 or was it 2016. In any event, the story was a sad one, which I’m not going to cover here. The Eternal Lost Lurker succumbed to chronic illness a year or so ago, as did ACen regular Jeannie Hedge.
And then there was you, maybe not as a writer, but part of the community nonetheless.
So, there have been plenty of goodbyes already; this was just one last thing before turning the lights out on an era.
At least I still have my print outs, I suppose. It’s not the same, it’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing. Just like all the sermon notes and the BSF workpapers that I’ve been finding, it’s something left behind. Something to hold onto. Something to remember you (and in this case, everyone else) by.
And it will have to do.