Carl Wilson, Margaux Williamson, and Chris Randle have—as of three weeks ago—a new group blog, focused on culture through a Canadian-ish lens, intended for smart people. (Wilson you’d recognize from the Globe, Toronto Life, his blog Zoilus, or his book about Céline Dion; Williamson from the art and film worlds and maybe from her blog MOVIE IS MY FAVOURITE WORD; Randle from Eye Weekly, when more than three people wrote for them, and maybe his blog Gutteral.) Current posts on Back to the World include a collection of haikus about Prince, dedicated to Tipper Gore; a Gchat about a dance style called “bounce”; a review (but not really) of Robin Hood; and a review (but not really) of a Fiery Furnaces show at the Drake.
It’s all over the place, in other words, and so too was our email interview with Wilson and Randle about their new blog, presented here mostly unedited (if, in some places, reshuffled). Will Back to the World do more for that world than Perez Hilton? Is the internet really an okay medium for sprawling reflectiveness? Will anyone ever give them money?
Torontoist: How would you describe Back to the World—what’s its focus?
Chris Randle: The pithy answer is “untimely talk about culture,” the tagline we settled on. (It beat out “Friends With Aesthetics.”) It’s Carl, Margaux, and I writing about whatever cultural fragments we like, without being yoked to events-listings topicality.
Carl Wilson: Which isn’t an innovation, but it’s kind of a deliberate counter-web-cultural move, the opposite of a Twitter feed (though we might add one of those) or a Tumblr blog. This is a blog that never cries “FIRST.” I’m nostalgic for the time when blogs indulged in longer-form, essayistic writing more frequently, but on my own site (Zoilus.com), that pursuit seemed to be becoming more isolating, as such pieces seldom got the substantive response posts on other sites that they used to. A group blog seemed like the best remedy.
Also I’ve been reading Margaux’s movie blog all year and loved her deeply personal and philosophical, but not ponderous, approach. I thought it set a model for what could be a bigger, collective project.
Chris: I think the loose remit will be freeing: we all want to experiment a bit and wander beyond our usual niches. I’m going to be doing a series of posts focused on dance, which I know almost nothing about (yet). Some of our contributions will just be images; we’re hoping to start a podcast where the three of us all take in the same movie/show/art party/etc. before discussing it. There should be at least one spun-off live event in the future.
What’ll be special/different about it?
Chris: I haven’t seen any smart writers-about-culture band together under the aegis of a group blog like this one in Canada, whereas that seems to be catching on elsewhere—our format was influenced by the fearsome lineups at sites such as Comics Comics and MBV. Or maybe we just plagiarized everything from The Awl.
Carl: There are things I’d like to try with multi-media-format arts essays that I think would be fresh, but that’s an ambition for later. It’s more that we’re trying to represent a voice that isn’t infected with either web snark or bloggy boosterism. We’re assuming that high-low-middle-brow, hip-square, new-media-old-media distinctions are at best boring. We might still be thinking about niche/elite/popular divides. We’re pretty aware of money, and the way it hides in plain view.
It’s also a site for generalists, as anything about culture is possible fodder—we’re starting with music, movies, comics, visual art, books, dance, etc., but it could take in food or hairbrushes or whatever seems to merit contemplation.
“Back to the World” refers to a way of thinking about the arts we share, that what matters in cultural activity is not the competition to be cutting edge—which at this point in art history is a conservative, careerist position—but that the work on some level return some value to human life. It’s just that it’s close to impossible to specify the meanings of any of those nouns, verbs, and adjectives (work, level, return, value, human, life). With three different perspectives we might be able to feel out and plot a few points around the circumference of that impulse. There might be readers who enjoy and care about that process too.
There will also be a nice pace to the site, a post a day rotating amongst us, sometimes essayistic, sometimes purely visual, sometimes other things. I think over time the group dynamic that develops might be pretty funny. And for variety we’ll have a few guest posters who appear more infrequently, but might do anything from reviewing an art show to letting you know what videos are most popular to rent in Yellowknife.
Obviously we are not hoping to be the next Perez Hilton.
I assume that by “cultural activity” you’re talking about both what you three’ll be looking at, and the act of that looking itself. Is the great hope that Back to the World itself will “return some value to human life”? In a different way than Perez does, I mean.
Carl: Whatever standards we apply to other people’s work, obviously, are the ones we’d aspire to in our own. But it’s not up to us to judge.
But we are all aware of the act of looking, and the discussion that follows, as cultural activity in itself, and there’ll probably be some metacritical crosstalk on the site. Since for me, anyway, that’s kind of an unstoppable compulsive tic. Maybe less so for Margaux and Chris.
Chris: Perez did get Ida Maria a few North American shows, I guess. Being a guy who wrote several posts about sometime-comics-critics renowned for other things (Angela Carter! Michael Redhill! Dorothy Parker!), I’m hoping for metacritical jawing in time too. Perhaps part of it will extend out from the conclusion of Carl’s book?
You mentioned money: is this one of those “we’ll do it until we either i) burn out or ii) get rich”–type projects, or do you have mysterious financial backers?
Carl: When I mentioned money, I was referring to its general influence on culture, not our bank accounts.
We’re doing this on the cheap. We have no advertisers, no backers. We don’t have many expenses; it’s all very DIY. The big investment is that Margaux bought CSS software and taught herself to use it. That said, would we be adverse [sic] to it somehow making money along the way? Is there some vague chance that it could spin off into a bigger online publication or otherwise? There’s no plan but there might be nice surprises. You know, your average garage band kinda model.
Chris: Like Carl said, we are jamming econo right now. I definitely wouldn’t mind making some money from the blog in the distant future, or watching it metastasize into an unstoppable mega-publication, but there are no actual plans for that.
It sounds like there’ll be some longer-form content—but not only that. Is the difference between Back to the World and other blogs going to be something like “thoughtfulness”? Do you think the internet is conducive to thoughtfulness in the same way, say, a newspaper is?
Carl: Calling oneself “thoughtful” really seems like asking for it, no?
But yes, reflection and speed can be enemies. It’s kind of funny to hold up newspapers as a model of thoughtfulness—a medium in which you have maybe a whole afternoon to think and 800 words to write, rather than 30 seconds and 140 characters. If that’s thoughtfulness, then what do we call a book, a geniusgasm?
Actually I think it’s easy enough to be reflective on the internet. You can write quite informally, allow the structure to be a bit loose, but if you’re attentive and aware that will come across. “Thinking aloud” can be enjoyable to read if it’s not completely unrestrained and undisciplined. There’s something friendly and intimate about that. And I think you can do it at a more generous, relaxed length than a lot of web folks allow themselves. (We’ll see if people fill up our comment boxes with “tl;dr” or not.)
It’s also that on the Internet you can wait for the audience that shares your sensibility to find you, rather than trying to address a fantasized neutral reader, which is what leads to the editing cycle in journalism that many of my writer friends refer to as: “Not stupid enough yet. Make it stupider.”
Chris: To echo Carl again, I don’t think the informality of the internet necessarily precludes thoughtfulness. The music critic Nitsuh Abebe has a blog dominated by patient rumination, and it’s on Tumblr, the format where gratification is never more than seconds away (here’s a song I need to reblog, here’s an argument I couldn’t stop myself from starting, here’s a person I really want to fuck). Part of this medium’s attraction to me is the irrelevance of word counts, and there’s a few writers I wish would trade immediacy for extra contemplation in their prose more often.