Why We Should Pause Before Mocking the Mall of America Writing Residency

Mall of America

Mall of America / photo by Jeremy Noble

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.

Posted in Business for Writers.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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[…] 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.  […]

Harald Johnson

Hear, hear, Jane. I agree with you. It’s creative, it’s interesting, and, with different circumstances, I would do it in a second.

Ekta Garg

I have to admit, I’m tempted to apply. I pulled up the full rules, and it looks like the word count requirement starts at 150 words. What that means is that the winning writer is required to write at least 150 words three times a day, and the Mall states in the rules that the writer’s words will apparently be projected on a big screen where people can read them. Like you, Jane, I’m a little stuck on the whole issue of Mall of America owning the content created during those five days. Do you think it’s worth it to… Read more »

Ekta Garg

Thanks, Jane. I really appreciate your insight. In theory it sounds like a crazy idea — a writer’s residency in a mall — but some of the craziest ideas in the world have gone on to become ubiquitous.

Thank you again so much. If I decide to enter and my entry actually goes forward, I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

Andrea Cordonier

I read the fine print and I still think this is a curious and creative opportunity, and not in a mocking Walmartians kind of way. I can think of a hundred ways to write this without a speck of mean-spiritedness. For example, simply asking 100 people “Why did you come to the mall today?” would yield a hundred personal short essays. In four days, the writer-in-residence would meet more characters than they could write about in a lifetime. Love, hate, loss, hardship, hope, faith, pain, pleasure, good, evil, sickness, death and redemption – the complete Steinbeck, Shakespeare, etc. are all… Read more »

Ekta Garg

You’re absolutely right, Andrea! Some of these same ideas have been floating around in the back of my head since first reading Jane’s article about the residency, only you managed to express them in a much more cogent, eloquent manner. I’m more encouraged to give this a try.

April Davila

Great post. The honorarium alone puts this opportunity above many in my book. Too often we are asked, as writers, to do things “for the exposure” (don’t even get me started). I would think that five days in a big mall like that would give a writer an enormous amount of material to work with, in character studies alone. I say props to the Mall of America for supporting the arts.

Ryan Petty

Jane, Thanks for speaking up on this. Sometimes I think we in the literary arts community fear success in any but a single, form–one that disdains commercial success but would accept the money if it came. I think back to the days when Rod McKuen sold millions of books of poetry to the masses and was mocked by the literary elite for his efforts. How nice at least to be included by the Mall of America in their inevitably commercial context. It’s odd but I don’t think the same level of snobbery would not result if the Mall commissioned a… Read more »

Michael LaRocca

Rights to the work bothers me too.

Years ago, when I read about the Amtrak writer’s residency, I used it in my novel. One of my characters gets one, then writes something so offensive that nobody would want the rights to it, just to help pave the way to letting future writers keep the rights to what they write.

Michael LaRocca

But on the other hand, the honorarium probably exceeds what I’ve made off any of my books, so why not?

I certainly wouldn’t mock an author who decided the Mall of America writer’s residency was a good choice for his or her particular circumstances. The main thing keeping me from applying is probably how far I live from the place.

[…] “In 2017, Mall of America® celebrates its 25th birthday. As part of this special celebration, we think it’s crucial to capture how much we’ve evolved over the course of the last 25 years. Rather than do it ourselves, we’re giving that job to a gifted writer. The Writer-in-Residence Contest will give 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 contest winner will stay in an attached hotel for four nights, receive a $400 gift card to buy food and drinks and collect a… Read more »

Virtually everything I write for my clients is “work made for hire” which means they own all the rights in perpetuity. Most of it would be of little interest to anyone other than the readers for whom it is intended so there is no one to whom it could be resold. Accordingly, this stipulation by the mall people does not bother me. I did get permission from one client to assemble and reuse several pieces I wrote for them and turn it into an ebook. This was self-published giving full credit to the client as the original impetus for the… Read more »

Alonna Shaw

Hi, Jane. Your thoughtful reflection parallel’s my opinion. Malls are declining yet consuming continues. This mall resides in the Midwest. This residency inspires me to consider the “face of the forgotten” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself with a slight political remark, maybe we all fit into “the forgotten” depending on content). Who are the faces, what are the faces when the places of consuming are changed or removed? You point out “I do wish the Mall weren’t claiming all rights to the work produced during the residency.” The mall wants to consume what is created…That is too bad because this… Read more »

[…] So where do writers write? Many write at home just before the children wake up or once the hullabaloo of the day has ended and the moon is out. A more romantic option is writing at a cafe like Hemingway or JK Rowling. There are writers who write at parks and even writers who compose as they walk. There are writers who rent rooms just to write and then there are some strange ones who write in coffins. Even malls if the need arises. […]

Rhonda Lane

I was interested in doing this, except I had my own twist that veered a bit from what they wanted. However, the eventual winner has a great twist that fits into the parameters of the rules. Awesome! http://www.startribune.com/after-4-000-entries-mall-of-america-names-winner-of-writer-in-residence-contest/423010733/

Rhonda Lane