The XX Factor

The Mall of America’s Writer-in-Residence Contest Is Capitalism’s Answer to the WPA

Shoppers walk through Mall of America during a media tour of its security systems on February 23, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

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.