In the 1996 book Zen in the Art of Writing, science fiction author Ray Bradbury had some advice for would-be authors: “Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white-hot, on paper.” That’s apparently exactly what Mall of America promoters want a writer in residence to do, except that the prism is entirely a promotional one, created and shaped by the mall’s publicists. Also, the writer they hire is meant to sit in the mall in public view, and burn white-hot on publicly accessible screens, so curious shoppers can watch the creativity happen, close up and in “almost-real time.”
To celebrate the mall’s 25th “birthday” (malls are constructed, guys, not born, this is why you need to hire a writer), Mall of America has announced a contest offering “a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words.” The winner will also get $2,500 (“a generous honorarium for the sweat and tears they’ll put into their prose”), four nights in a mall-adjacent hotel, and a $400 gift card “for food and meals,” which are apparently such different things that they require separate mention. (Seriously, guys, hire a real writer.) In exchange, they’re expected to sit in the mall and write every day, for an audience that can track their work as it develops on-screen.
The idea of writing as a public, performative art is nothing new — Ray Bradbury’s contemporary, Harlan Ellison, started writing short stories while sitting in the front windows of bookstores as a publicity stunt back in the 1970s, and he returned to the practice in the 1980s and 1990s. And promotional writer-in-residence stunts are enjoying a bit of a cultural boom right now. Detroit started offering free houses for writers in 2013, and Amtrak responded to a tweet calling for railway residencies by offering one to journalist Jessica Gross, who wrote about her cross-country experience for The Paris Review. Amtrak followed up with a residency program that gave rail passes to handfuls of select authors in 2014 and 2016, but the company is currently “evaluating the future of the program,” after a wave of enthusiastic publicity gave way to suspicion and annoyance over the contracts that gave Amtrak rights over what writers produced on their trains. Still, oddball writer-in-residence opportunities abound, from a long list of National Park Services programs to more selective opportunities in Paris, Sicily, and the Virginia mountains. The Mall of America stunt is just the latest and most consumer-oriented iteration of the idea.
But before anyone starts dreaming about becoming the next David Foster Wallace, embedded in a tacky culture of capitalist excess and skewering it with incisive, mordant wit (while simultaneously sipping a juice blend at the Nordstrom Café), they’d better read the terms and conditions. The Mall of America residency isn’t designed to support or inspire a young writer, so much as it’s openly designed to bring in an amateur marketer to talk up the joys of the mall. The contest winner’s writing will appear in “almost-real time” because all their content will be routed through “a Mall of America Marketing representative” who will vet everything before it goes up on the public monitors. And whatever the winner writes has to be certified as not “inaccurate, derogatory, incompatible with, inconsistent with, or otherwise contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall or the patrons, tenants, licensees, invitees, or employees of the Mall.”
Basically, the contest winner is getting $500 a day to praise Mall of America and its patrons, tenants, etc. in public according to its publicists’ “desired presentation,” as performance art. That’s reasonably good pay for a starving writer, especially given the minimal daily output requirements: “new content of no less than 150 words, to be displayed on the monitor at three (3) mutually agreed upon times each day.” (I’m pretty sure Verge writers are expected to publish more than that every day, and they don’t even get to wander to the other side of the office to ride roller coasters, watch sharks in an aquarium, or wander an “Amazing Mirror Maze” between news briefs.)
Speaking of which, the writer in residence is “encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration,” but is required to spend at least four hours a day sitting in public at a desk in a “common area space,” typing up whatever they found inspiring about their last stroll through the mall. Also, that social media posting better not be about the writing experience. That’s in the terms, too: “The Winner will make themselves available for Mall of America-approved media interviews. The Winner will NOT speak to the media about the MOA Writer-in-Residence Program either in person, [or] through email or social media without prior approval from Mall of America.”
Add to that the fact that Mall of America demands full copyright and control over anything produced during the residency, and the whole thing starts to look like a pretty raw deal — unless the winner doesn’t care about maintaining rights to their work. It’s possible that some contestants didn’t plan to make their name by publishing their five days’ worth of cheery observations about why Mall of America is certainly not an oppressive organization that tracks political protestors on Facebook, or the last gasp of a failing consumer model being rapidly replaced by online shopping.
So sure, apply to publicly praise the Mall of America. Let the mall burn through you, and throw the prism light, white-hot, on a publicist’s approval queue. And if you don’t win, you could always apply to live in, and write about, Seattle’s Fremont Bridge instead.
A moody short story of tchotchkes and psychosexual obsession set at a Spencer’s gift store. A poem that captures the desultory mood of a Cinnabon at midafternoon. A novella concerned with the lives and loves of the staff and regulars at one Rainforest Café over the course of a year. A true-crime narrative about a visit to a Piercing Pagoda gone very wrong. These are just a few literary possibilities that sprang to mind in conjunction with the announcement of the Mall of America’s writer-in-residence program.
Following in the footsteps of unlikely writer-in-residence stunts at places like the Ace Hotel, London’s Heathrow Airport, and aboard Amtrak, the Mall of America will give one writer the chance to spend a short residency “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words” in celebration of the mall’s 25th birthday this year. The application asks writers to “in 150 words or less, pitch your idea for how you would approach this assignment if you won the Writer-in-Residence prize,” and 25 semi-finalists will be selected to “expand on their story idea in a 500-800-word essay.” Applications are being accepted online now through March 10.
The Great Depression had the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal/Works Progress Administration program that put writers like Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Huston, and some 6,000 others to work. And now we get an analogue for an era with a lot less patience and public funding for literature: Instead of a yearslong program for thousands paid for by the government, this is a capitalist enterprise for just one writer that will last for five days and four nights and require the winner to perform in public as well as have his or her words vetted by the mall’s marketing department. The winning writer will also get a $400 mall gift card along with a “generous honorarium” of $2,500, according to the Verge.
Though more opportunities for writers to get paid to wax poetic about institutions of American life, and more freedom from marketing oversight in the existing venues, would be welcome, this residence is a good addition to the fold and the chance for someone—some all-American individual who grew up coveting the plush of the Build-a-Bear Workshop and crushing on Abercrombie & Fitch employees—to do something creative with it. For all the talk about how the Great Recession killed the American mall, most of that discussion has been about economic trends. The mall, that once-great bastion of American life, has been thus far underappreciated as a site of cultural and literary significance, and it needs a bard to explain, celebrate, eulogize, and reinterpret its meaning. If all goes as planned, this contest (along with an unrelated anthology of stories about malls coming later this year) will provide just that. Plus all the food court pretzels a writer could dream of. After all, as befitting our nation’s largest mall, Mall of America has two Auntie Anne’s along with a Wetzel’s Pretzels. If that doesn’t make the muses sing, nothing will.