Mile End

Montreal’s Cafe Olimpico

“Personally, I think it’s pretentious to write in public.” Warren Dunford wrote this line in his 1998 novel, Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, about the kids scribbling away at their screenplays in the Annex’s Future Bakery. Dunford was either blessed not to have roommates or he had a very strict idea of what people did in public. You go out to run errands, maybe pick up a sandwich, or meet your friends for dinner. For those without the luxury of a home office, writing in public is sometimes a decent way to get things done. Anyone who’s ever fought for space at a busy university library knows to haunt the less popular coffee shops to study and write.

Several days ago, NYRB Classics released a new translation of Robert Walser’s feuilletons and other brief texts collected as Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. One of them, “The Coffeehouse,” is a sketch of a typical Berlin coffeehouse in 1931. It’s by and large a space of idleness and leisure, a space “somehow … connected to storytelling, along with the beauty and significance of idleness, which is a cultural characteristic underestimated by those not readily capable of understanding that activity and industriousness wish to be interrupted.” The patrons belong to the leisure class and it only seems that settling their bills compensates for their “worthlessness.”

Remote work is on a steep rise and it’s fuelling demand for co-working space.

The Viennese-style coffeehouse looks a lot different from the faux-industrial, rustic wood espresso bars Canada is familiar with. First of all, the ones left from the 19th century are all enormous by comparison. Second, the waiters are in black tie and they may even have someone playing the piano. But both were made for lingering, reading through the newspaper, and treating it like your living room. Sometimes work even makes its way into the idler’s paradise of Walser’s sketch: “somewhere in the dark, poeticizing in solitude … a play-constructing or novel-drafting poet paid homage to the elegant notion that in the coffeehouse it was he who reigned supreme over fantasy and creativity.”

Remote work is on a steep rise and it’s fuelling demand for co-working space. Starbucks remains many remote workers’ destination of choice. Self-employment is moving workspace into the public sphere in a way that wasn’t happening in 1998 when Dunford turned his nose up at coffee shop authors. Coffee shops were mostly social spaces—and you can still hear people who use them to meet their friends cursing the freelancers parked at tables for hours on end. But what draws writers to coffee shops, where plugs are prime property, seats are never guaranteed, and the lengthening hours draw the barista’s dirty looks?

Nelly Arcan’s Breakneck and Hysteric both reference writing in cafés. Main character Julie O’Brien guards her table at a Java U like a lion. There are no descriptions of idly watching people pass by or daydreaming. Julie’s experience is a fight with irritation: the staff playing music too loud, familiar faces passing by and interrupting. Writing in public is a battle that she is determined to win. In Hysteric, the protagonist is a best-selling novelist dating a journalist. Both write in public, but they “agreed that to write efficiently, we needed to be alone in the crowd. We had to be able to think out loud without being heard by the one we loved.” He takes the cafés of the Plateau and Mile End, like Eldorado and Café Olimpico (where Sean Michaels wrote 2014’s Giller-winner, Us Conductors), whereas she goes south to the La Brûlerie St-Denis and others in the Latin Quarter. As if in answer to Dunford, Arcan goes on to write, “We never considered staying home to write since spending the entire day working, then the evening there too would have driven us crazy; the apartment wasn’t part of the outside world … it was an envelope, a reflection of ourselves.”

I imagine that writers living in dense, popular-with-artists neighbourhoods like Toronto’s west end or Montreal’s Mile End struggle to divide public space between them, so that they never cross while at work. The journalist in Hysteric goes to Café Olimpico where all of the journalists go to keep an eye on each other and plagiarize each other’s work. It’s the place to go and be seen. Julie O’Brien’s choice of Java U seems to be a decision to minimize her own visibility.

When I was speaking to a Toronto-based novelist about where he works, he mentioned running into another well-known poet while he was working at Hart House and his instinct was to narrow his eyes and stake his claim on the building. The issue with working in a popular place isn’t just the likelihood that you will run into someone else doing the same thing, but that you will know each other. Suddenly, without the veil of anonymity, it’s impossible to get anything done. Is working in a prominent public space inherently different from hiding somewhere? Does it become a performance if there is a reasonable expectation of being not just seen, but recognized?

After Sean Michaels’ Giller win back in 2014, the National Post ran a full feature on Café Olimpico, which the author credited in his acknowledgements. He told the newspaper:

I really like working with a certain degree of distraction around me … when things are trickier, you can kind of look up from the page and see this tiny story play out, or see a face, or watch a person, and then when I look back down at the page, it’s like my brain has had a chance to shuffle the deck and I can go on from there.

Advocates of writing in public seem to do it less to put themselves on display than to distract themselves. Walser doesn’t write about his poet “working” or “labouring”—the poet very much belongs to the leisure class—but “fantasizing” and “creating.” The coffeehouse is a place where the mind wanders and accesses imagination.

Mile End

Java U, a Montreal coffee chain launched in 1996

For better or worse, imagination has fallen out of favour when it comes to discussing the making of literary works. You’re more likely to hear about “process” and it has been four years since Donato Mancini pointed out the ideology of “craft” that dominates poetry reviews in Canada. Whether it’s because they accept publicly-funded grants or because their parents were always asking them what they did all day, Canadian writers have gotten very good at presenting writing as “work.” While 20 years ago the coffee house may have been defined very much as a leisure space, labour trends beyond literature have redefined the types of spaces where work can happen.

While 20 years ago the coffee house may have been defined very much as a leisure space, labour trends beyond literature have redefined the types of spaces where work can happen.

Those authors who write about writing in public agree that it has to do with writing unself-consciously. Distraction is a way of letting your thoughts get carried away. They’ve rephrased “imagination” in work-related terms. But there’s still something about Dunford’s jab that resonates very strongly with people who sneer at the laptops blooming all over urban coffee shops. It doesn’t seem to me to be possible to write unself-consciously in the shadow of other writers. Any place already marked by literary success is out-of-bounds.

Take rob mclennan’s “Dispatches from the Future Bakery,” an article detailing the various Toronto figures who circled in and out of the Annex’s iconic café and the works they completed there. Because it has a reputation for literary work, I can’t help but agree that it takes a bit of pretention to sit down and work on a novel there. It’s a much different act to hide alongside the freelancers and young professionals jockeying for seats near the power outlets at Starbucks.

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