In my keynote talks at writing conferences, I frequently point out some of the innovative ways—across publishing history—that writers have supported their art and engaged in business activities that are sometimes seen by their contemporaries as commercially crass and low status. One of my go-to examples is Mark Twain, whose bestselling book was peddled door-to-door, and more recently, Alain de Botton, who once held a writing residency at Heathrow airport (which produced this book), and whose work has exemplified some of the wonderful things that can happen when you’re open to art informing business and vice versa.
Earlier this week, I saw mention in my social feed of a new writer-in-residence opportunity at Mall of America, to celebrate its 25th birthday. But the mention wasn’t an enthusiastic presentation of an opportunity that might play to the strengths of some writers. Rather, it was framed more as: What writer in his right mind would ever raise his hand for this position? The tone was one of mockery and incredulousness, because, obviously, writers and malls don’t mix, and no “real” writer would sit in a mall and write or produce something of value in such a capitalist context. And even if you could, how debasing!
I can’t look into the souls of the Mall of America marketers or PR team who conceived of this idea, but let’s assume some good faith intentions here, with a meaningful desire to see a writer manifest some work of creative or artistic value out of this residency that reflects on the environment and community of the Mall of America. Warby Parker and its ilk shouldn’t be the only commercial ventures “approved” for involvement with writers and the literary community. (For those who are unaware of the literary ties of Warby Parker, read this). Given the decline of malls and the related decline of the middle class, a curious and thoughtful writer might be inspired by this opportunity. After all, the mall is becoming a place of the unhip, as evidenced by more art photography devoted to its cultural decline.
While I’m sure Mall of America isn’t looking for a writer to poetically give expression to its impending decay, a writer should still find this a rich moment in time to immerse herself five days in such a place—and have more reflection than will fit into 150 words, three times a day, over five days (the requirement of the residency). I do wish the Mall weren’t claiming all rights to the work produced during the residency, but given the overall offer—expenses paid, $2,500 honorarium—it’s not a bad deal. Is it a worse deal than working a three-month internship for no pay at a literary journal with a tiny circulation? In my professional opinion, no. I’d find the Mall of America writer the far more interesting person to talk to, and more demonstrably interested in examining and creating for the greater world they live in, rather than the too-often insular literary world.
I might even argue that it is incumbent upon writers to take these opportunities seriously and to apply, because writing for and among the literary cloister (or isolated garret if you don’t like your fellow writers) is one of the harmful myths about how writers should act and behave in the world. Writers have some responsibility to cultivate a culture that’s exposed to and engaged with art and artists. One might argue a writer on display in a mall isn’t an appropriate means of exposure or engagement for art, but again, I think this falls back on outdated or at least not-useful ideas about what writers are “supposed” to be like.
Before joking about these opportunities as hellish, we should pause to consider how prone the literary community is to mock or shame those involved in “low class” opportunities, particularly those that might appeal to people from more diverse backgrounds. As someone who grew up in rural Indiana, I spent far more time in a mall as a young person, partly because no bookstore could be found within a two-hour drive except for the one in a mall.
Writers have something to gain from interacting with the more diverse audiences found at a mall, and mall goers similarly have much to gain from having writers in their midst. Just because a venture is sponsored by a business does not make it automatically opposed to a writer’s existence or ideals. Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, in her wonderful book on Jim Henson’s career, writes:
There is a saying that goes like this: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.” In order for Henson’s art to have the universal power it did, this mixing had to include “the establishment”—what we could call “the business class.” But today—especially with Generation X and Millennials—serious artists often refuse contact with business. Large numbers of liberal arts graduates bristle when presented with the corporate world, rejecting its values to protect their ideals….Yet Henson’s work suggests that it is possible to heal America’s split personality.”
The Mall of America residency isn’t going to be an appropriate opportunity for even a majority of writers. But it’s the right opportunity for someone, and I hope that it helps not only support their art, but that it accomplishes something we very much need right now: a feeling of connection and community.