February 22, 2017
A brief history of mall writing
by Ian Dreiblatt
Tolstoy once wrote, “Standalone retail outlets are all alike; every mall is a mall in its own way.”
Countless scholars have debated the subtle shadings of this sentence, how it flashes with scenes of family happiness, intimations of religious angst, remembrances of great deals on consumer electronics.
And we may be about to receive a sharper image of all these emotions, thanks to the Mall of America, which is currently accepting applicants for its writer-in-residence program. The residency, Mallthorities explain, 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.” Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow recommends it as “a great gig” for “the aspiring Don DeLillo.” In Minneapolis’s Star Tribune, Laurie Hertzel notes that “at the mall, anything can happen.” In Slate, Heather Schwedel calls the residency “capitalism’s answer to the WPA” (which, ouch!, but fair enough).
Concentrated chain retail, of course, has long been a hot topic in the world of letters. The tradition goes back at least to Shakespeare, who famously wrote:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this delicious Orange Julius,
Mmmmm, now that’s refreshment!
(It is perhaps worth noting that some scholars dispute Shakespeare’s authorship of this monologue, owing largely to its similarity to certain passages from Edmund Spenser’s The Daerie Queene.)
The mall first made its way into American literature when John Winthrop delivered his famous “Model of Christian Charity” sermon in 1630, in which he declared:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Kinda like Borders, remember them?
Centuries later, the great Emily Dickinson would continue the tradition, writing:
I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Wait — another Sunglass Hut? —
The stage was now set for Herman Melville—maybe you’ve heard of him?—who began Moby Dick, his epic novelization of the life of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, with one of the best-known opening paragraphs in all of literature:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is an overscented Perfumania in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before the Guitar Center, and shredding on floor samples I have no notion to purchase; and especially whenever my desire for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from ordering the whole damn menu, and methodically working my way through the entire display rack of dipping sauces — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Thanks in part to Melville’s formal innovations, the scene was now set for the experiments and fragmentations of modernism. In her classic The Making of Americans—the subject of an annual marathon reading that takes place by the men’s sock rack at Seattle’s flagship Nordstrom—Gertrude Stein writes:
Some find it interesting to find inside them repeating in them of some of some one they have known or some relation to them coming out in them, some never have any such feeling in them, some have not any liking for such being in them. Some like to see such being in others around them but not in themselves inside them. There are many ways of feeling in one about all these kinds of repeating. Sometime there will be written the history of all of them. See you at the Panda Express, yeah? I want for the feeling in eating of a roll being an egg roll bringing an end to the feeling of being with a hungering.
From here, the tradition grows too complex and prolific to be subjected to tidy notions of lineage, but it will go on to include Zora Neale Hurston’s And Their Eyes Were Watching Bath and Body Works, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves to Forever 21 at dawn looking for a sick leopard-print crop top”), Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived at Spencer Gifts, and of course Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Brookstone.
Those who would join the illustrious tradition of retail lit have until March 10th to submit 150 words to the Mall of America (which insists, in an imaginary conversation we did not in fact initiate, that the program is not an ironic stunt in memory of David Foster Wallace, who would have turned fifty-five yesterday). Meantime, the rest of us beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into low, low prices on everything from time-saving gadgets to luxurious alpaca-wool sweaters to the finest Luxembourgish semisweet chocolate.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.