A Spiffy Shawn Micallef
Unfortunately for the city of Toronto, there are not many opportunities to drink a beer with your cereal and have it deemed socially acceptable. But thanks to a few subtle but significant tweaks, the August 6th launch of The Trouble with Brunch, the new title by Coach House Books author Shawn Micallef, stood out from the traditional literary launch fare. This is to be expected from an author who deconstructs the faux leisureliness of our leisure time. With no rigidly enforced schedule (“Join us anytime after 6,” the chirpy pink poster read), no formal reading, and the promise of “music, dancing, & drinks ’til late,” Micallef shifted the focus closer to what a book launch should be: a celebration. In this case, a celebration with eight varieties of sugary cereal and milk options to fit every lifestyle.
Micallef’s book interprets brunch as a critically-unexamined leisure activity which itself allows for a deeper engagement with (mis)conceptions of class and the increasingly porous boundaries between work and play. Micallef goes on to define a new socioeconomic grouping, building off theories first put forth by Richard Florida, called the ‘creative class’—the brunching class, if you will. This middle class subset, able to sustain day-to-day luxuries but hard pressed to afford a house, proves that class can no longer be defined by income alone. Members of the creative class typically earn less, economically speaking, than those of the traditional middle class, yet they place value upon certain decadent lifestyle activities, unaware of the socio-economic consequences of such activities. After all, waiting in long line-ups, sitting around crowded tables the size of Kindergarten desks, and eating overpriced (and often bizarre) foodie concoctions seems, as Micallef points out, far from leisurely. This paradox demands that we investigate what else might be at work amidst the sparkling flutes of mimosas.
Using food as a way to think about class is a trend that’s on the rise. A recent piece by Kelli Korducki in Little Brother Magazine details the history of ‘street meat’ in both Toronto and abroad, noting that most street vendors are first generation Canadians who cannot afford to open full-scale restaurants, but who still have the opportunity to make use of their entrepreneurial resources. The food itself is meant to be accessible and affordable, which is why initiatives like Toronto à la Cart (meant to replace street vendors with, essentially, little bistros on wheels) are such a failure. Fittingly enough, Micallef, who is currently travelling abroad, tweeted a picture of a Maltese street vendor, quipping that “Malta has long had ‘food trucks,’ but they are called kiosks which isn’t a word in the hipster dictionary.”
The real trouble with brunch, then, is that we don’t think enough about that middling meal and its myriad implications in a critical or class-conscious way. Even in the midst of his travels, Micallef kindly allowed me to pick his brain with a few questions on the topic.
Domenica Martinello: After attending the Trouble With Brunch launch and diving straight into the book, I could not avoid a comparison between brunching and book launching. Both are social happenings involving a certain amount of performativity and are rarely as laidback or pleasurable as organizers would have us believe. Yet your event featured not only a cereal bar, but attendees happy and comfortable enough to make good use of it. Was there a conscious effort to shift away from the usual trappings of a literary gathering?
Mimosas and Moustache Wax
Shawn Micallef: A little bit, yes—and performance is fun, not always an obfuscation of other things. There’s a fair amount of criticism around book launches, or at least some poking fun at them and their usual tropes of doing a solemn reading using that solemn authorial voice. Sometimes that’s all right, and it’s what people want, but I’d rather just talk about the book for a little bit, answer some questions, let people do the reading themselves, and enjoy a fun party where people can have a drink and, in this case, eat some cereal. We wanted to do it at a casual place, too, and Handlebar works nicely. I think not taking it all too seriously helps—tell a few jokes, and make it just a little easy going party.
DM: Readings and book launches are often limited to bars or universities (or university bars) out of necessity, rather than some unimaginative misstep. Being as someone with a nuanced appreciation of space and venue, I’d be curious to know where you’d host a literary event if you had access to any location without practical constraints.
SM: When we launched Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, I wanted to have the event at the top of the CN Tower, as it figures prominently in the book, but they wanted something like $3000 to do an event there, so there was no way. Bars work because they give the space for free in return for people buying drinks, and books no longer come with big promo budgets. Bringing people around to different spots in a city would be, ideally, great. Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion would be fun, or maybe a picnic on the top of the Mt. Garbage ski hill in Centennial Park in Etobicoke with its nice view of the planes landing at Pearson.
DM:: With the eroding of a consistent nine-to-five lifestyle, one resonating feature of the creative class seems to be the constant blurring of work and leisure. The disintegration of the once-clear boundaries between clocked-in and clocked-out combined with the slippage of professional hierarchies creates a social disorientation effecting conceptualizations of class structures. In your book you mention the potential value of a more regulated brunch, with rules in place to foster a more self-aware, rewarding activity while combating the meal’s ritual length. Would applying fixed rules to intellectual labour be anxiety-inducing, or would it perhaps create a more cohesive identity across creative disciplines?
SM: I don’t know, I’d resist that. Solving this is like herding cats. This kind of work happens when it happens. Sometimes I’m very happy writing at midnight in a bar somewhere. Rules need to be established for amount-of-work-for-money, enforcement or requirement of contracts, security, benefits—behind the scenes stuff. But let people work when they want to work and to take time off when they want and need it. That’s the upside of this kind of life—I can go to the beach in the afternoon because I can work at night.
DM: With humour and wit you address the serious implications of oft-ignored topics such as classism and class confusion, the cult of bacon, condo culture, and the fallacy of farmers’ markets. With many socially constructed lifestyle choices left glaringly unexamined, are there other leisurely activities we should be casting a more discerning eye on?
Ultimate Frisbee and hot yoga, for sure, those things are menaces. I joke but anything that becomes a part of our lives in such meaningful ways, if we want it to be a good part of our lives, can and should undergo a little scrutiny. To varying degrees, of course: sometimes fun can just be fun, but why not look how things might be linked to class now and then. In the section of the book regarding condos, it was more a look at who gets to buy single family homes, control neighbourhoods, and the kneejerk disdain around condos and whatever the “condo lifestyle” is—something that is often used as a pejorative by condo haters. They’re just apartments. Why do people hate condos when they’re going to be the only place most people can afford to buy, should they ever want to buy. It’s the same in much of Europe, where people live in flats. The conversation gets stuck in knee jerk hating, and not figuring out ways to make them better for residents and the city itself.
If you want to hear more from Micallef, check out our full-length interview by reader Jason Freure and editor Tyler Willis in The Puritan’s Summer Supplement, Littered T.O.!