Nicholson Baker, the great novelist, essayist, and observer of the world’s absurdities, produces much of his work when he’s out in that world: He likes to do his writing, Baker has told interviewers, in Panera restaurants, and in Starbucks shops, and in his favorite corner booth at Friendly’s. This is one more way that Baker mocks a culture that is so eager to lionize the literary: Writing, he makes clear in the venues he chooses for it, is in practice not at all glamorous. It involves, often, stale caffeine and sad desk salads and Fribble-fueled fugues brought on in the corner booth at the Mass Pike Friendly’s. There’s a reason you don’t see Colin Firth actually doing much writing in his French isolation-cottage in Love Actually: Writing—the act of it, the labor of it—is, generally speaking, exceedingly dull.
This is bad news for writers, but it is also bad news for the Mall of America, which this week announced that it will be offering, in the rough manner of Amtrak and Heathrow Airport before it, a Writer-in-Residence program. The program, part of the mall’s celebration its own 25th “birthday,” will select one writer to exist within the Mall of America for five days, exploring the Mall and being inspired by the Mall and, as such, writing things about the Mall. Many writers, after all, from Virginia Woolf to David Foster Wallace to Nick Baker himself, have been inspired by consumerism; perhaps another writer will gaze upon the Mall’s gleaming stretches, Abercrombie to Zumiez, and be moved to produce great literature.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Club Monaco.
Oh Taylor! Ann Taylor!
I celebrate the Mall, and sing the Mall,
And what the Mall assumes I shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to the Mall.
But while a mall may certainly inspire writers—look upon my Workshop, ye mighty, and Build-a-Bear—the Mall of America program seems designed specifically to stifle whatever bits of creativity might spring up within its fluorescent-lit greenhouse. The residency on offer here won’t just be another fellowship in the manner of the one Amtrak recently offered (or, for that matter, the one Heathrow Airport offered, or the one the Ace Hotel offered, or the ones offered by Detroit or Seattle or the National Parks Service). Instead, the Mall of America is looking for someone, specifically, to perform writing. It’s looking to turn the Mall into Colin Firth’s cottage—and for someone to sit in that house, and work, and write, and be watched as they do so.
The winner of the Mall of America contest will sit at a designated desk within the mall—for a minimum of four hours each day, the entry rules stipulate—to be gawked at by mallgoers. They “will make themselves available for Mall of America-approved media interviews.” Their work will be shared, on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and, presumably, other platforms, by the mall’s marketing team. It will be approved by the mall’s marketing team. It won’t simply be literature; it will be advertising.
The Mall of America, essentially, is making a residency of what many marketers know to be true: that associating a product with writing—giving a product the patina of Literature—is a very good way to sell that product, whether it be a train ride or an airport or a 96.4-acre temple of consumerism. In 2015, Céline did some internet-breaking by featuring Joan Didion in an ad. In 2014, Chipotle announced its “Cultivating Thought” campaign, otherwise known as its famous-writers-write-things-for-burrito-bags experiment. Writers like Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and George Saunders—their work curated by Jonathan Safran Foer—contributed their words to the campaign. They were later joined by, among many others, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Roach, and Colson Whitehead.
The notion of a writers’ residency, as Slate pointed out, whiffs of the Federal Writers’ Project, the New Deal program that put thousands of writers—among them Studs Terkel and Zora Neale Hurston—to work. And yet, as Slate also pointed out, this particular residency is, rather than a government-funded celebration of literature, “a capitalist enterprise for just one writer.” It is an ad campaign in the form of a contest. It is a program that emphasizes the “writing” in “copywriting.” Which is to say that it’s actually a really good metaphor for a moment in which a writer can take in the world, live in it, be inspired by it, and put it all to the service of the indelible observation that two Auntie Anne’s diverged in the Mall, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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