The Third Rail Of American Discourse

My new book about working for 27 months as a retail sales associate has been out for two months, and the 40+ amazon reviews are insane — love it, hate it, love it, loathe it.

I’ve been called a princess, racist, slummer, bitter, pretentious, “lazy, lazy, lazy”, elitist and accused, falsely, of despising the very people — my retail co-workers — I say clearly how much I admired.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster, with a pendulum of opinion swinging so widely, and wildly, it’s hard to believe.

It took a fellow writer to calm me down, pointing out that “Nickeled and Dimed“, a best-seller from 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich (to which my book has been compared) is equally provocative and divisive.

Both books are similar in one key respect: middle-class, educated white women — with economic freedom to leave the jobs we described — worked for minimum wage in thankless, difficult, demanding low-status jobs.

Our crime in so doing? Poverty tourism. Slumming it for a book deal, as one WNYC listener commented. We weren’t destitute.

Why did we need to be?

Would this have altered our observations or the accuracy of what we saw and heard?

We’re writers and our goals were the same: find and tell powerful stories that had not been told. The people living these lives, working these jobs, do not have the time, skill or freedom from the shackles of their jobs to tell it as it really is.

I’ve also received extraordinarily personal and heartfelt emails almost every single day since” Malled” appeared:

“Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?”

“I feel bolstered by your book!”

“I got a raise last year….of 10 cents an hour.”

The filthy secret of American life is economic disparity, the great myth that we are all equal and racing one another along a smooth and level playing field to the equally-accessible goodies of income/home/education/raises/promotions/career success.

Go to college! Work hard! Suck up to your boss! That’ll do it.


The reality is that there is no level playing field. It looks more like a greasy pole, the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and many of us now, four years into a recession filled with record corporate profits and sluggish hiring, scrambling desperately in between.

Here’s a sobering piece in Mother Jones on how much dough corporations are raking in, and how workers aren’t getting the benefit of their labor.

I think speaking truth to power, despite its putative appeal, makes Americans deeply queasy. What if I somehow wrecked your chances, or your kids’, by being rude to the Guys With The Money?

Bowing and scraping to anyone with a payroll is the new black.

I worked for The North Face, owned by the VF Corporation; in January 2009, our hours were cut because the company could not afford them…then sitting on $382 million in cash. (They just spent it to buy Timberland.)

Look at the WalMart class action lawsuit, thrown out this week, screwing thousands of hardworking women employees out of the hope of justice. Of working a full-time job and not needing food stamps to supplement their wages.

Which is worse — ignoring these behaviors and letting business reporters keep fawning over eight-figure-earning CEOs?

Or have people like me or Ehrenreich try our best to open the door to the creepy, greedy, nasty behaviors that drive so much of this economy?

Either way, millions of workers are being screwed.

17 thoughts on “The Third Rail Of American Discourse

  1. Cool, just tripped over your blog! Someone recommended it to me many moons ago, but I never took the time to look around. I’ve spent the last 18 years in retail and I am ready to be done. I would love to write, but that’s another story! For now I’ll stick with blogging, its fun and feeds my soul enough to keep me satisfied! My situation is a little different in that I have been in a private, family retail business so I haven’t had to deal with the negative ramifications of “corporate” retail. But I will say, it is a tough career, long hours, lots of weekends, and physically it has taken its toll in a big way. I’m curious about your book, might have to get myself a copy and take it for a spin! Thanks for writing the book. I suspect all authors have to deal with the love it, hate it thing at some level. Part of the gig, I guess!

    1. Thanks for finally stopping by! Hope you’ll come back…

      I’m OK with being criticized — that’s the nature of being a writer — but when people attack me personally (not the work) it gets tiresome. It requires no thought, just a nasty tone and some well-chosen insults. And I cannot ever reply, at least on amazon, for fear of looking whiny and defensive, no matter how shitty the “reviews” are.

  2. I think as an author it must be so hard to read so many of those reviews — though I think on Amazon there tend to be a lot of anonymous “haters” — because face it, it’s easy to bash something behind someone’s back.

    Are there any reviews on Goodreads? I tend to pay attention to those reviews more because they’re more for readers-by readers.

  3. Deborah the Closet Monster

    This is some incredible food for thought. Also, I think I might have to pick up your book now.

    My days in law school–where my favorite courses were on poverty law and education law–really helped me see inequities that I experienced in my childhood were much further reaching than my own childhood. It’s amazing that, with so many people suffering the same experiences, we’re nevertheless unable to see them as systemic.

  4. Thanks…I hope you do read it (and let me know what you think.)

    Americans are educated and socialized and choose public policy that consistently reinforces seeing themselves in isolation from one another — us-vs.-them — as opposed to many other countries (like Canada, where I grew up, my parents still live, and whose more communitarian values still inform how I think) where it’s very clear that “we’re all in it together.”

    That is difficult here in a country of 300+ million people, with huge regional and educational disparities and public policy so skewed by the lobbyists of K street and the iron-fisted demands of powerful corporate masters.

    When I moved to the U.S. in 1988 my first two books, read for pleasure, were life-shaping: Savage Inequalities, by Jon Kozol and There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.

    I think Americans are so heavily trained from birth to climb the ladder fast and fearlessly, that looking backwards/down it is seen as taboo, and discussion of ANY ladder equally declasse. All failures (?!) are deemed individual, when we all live and work in a nation addicted to free-market capitalism and screw those who just can’t make it within that framework.

    Many cannot for a wide array of reasons, many of them reinforced by the systems we all live within and pay taxes to, often without any serious non-partisan question or challenge beyond “no new taxes!” or “help the poor!”

  5. Hi Caitlin,
    The reviews on are fantastic – remember to check out what we Brits have to say too! You should be taking a seminar at our Edinburgh International Book Festival Festival in August. It’s a great event. Last year I met Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale being one of my fav books) – wow, what a speaker.

  6. That’s interesting — and very good news! I’ll check it out.

    I’d love to do the Edinburgh festival but I suspect they are planned a year or more in advance, and most such festivals are surprisingly (and very frustratingly) focused only on fiction. I’ve been trying for a while to get into festivals in Canada, for example, and they almost never include non-fiction. I recently met a fellow blogger who lives in Edinburgh, visiting here.

  7. I think this feedback is fantastic. Whether your readers loved your book or hated it, they certainly reacted strongly to it. That to me is a sign of a great writer. When I get through the massive pile of books currently residing on my night stand, I will definitely have a good read of ‘Malled.’ Congrats!

  8. I’m in nothing like retail, and I feel continually screwed by the system. Where I work rewards testosterone bullying, the women are treated like idiots (despite the fact that we are the only ones who seem to know how to use the company credit card, fax machines, and computer programs). There is no recourse for racist or sexist comments or behaviors. And no one is willing to innovate when old programs and methods aren’t working, usually resulting in me or my comrades being blamed for some failing when the angry mobs come.

  9. Gross! Poor you….But you will soon (?) be leaving it for London, no?

    I worked for a year at the NY Daily News and it was like being thrown back to the 1930s, and not in some cute screwball comedy kind of way…filled with bullies, male and female. I’d been there barely a few weeks when the male photo editor started shouting (!) at me in front of the whole open newsroom. When I went to my boss to explain, he said calmly “Oh, don’t worry. He threw a radio at me once.”

  10. I’ll have to check out the book. I worked retail for about 5 years after college and my standard line to everyone I hired was, “What do you want to do in the real world when you leave?” No one is meant to be a retail clerk for the long haul in my opinion.

    1. I hope you do read it!

      I don’t regret for a minute doing the retail job, even at 50, even for $11/hr no commission. It taught me a lot about myself (good and bad) in a way that journalism never did.

      I didn’t do it to write a book, but for needed income…and it made me desperately appreciate the fact I do have other skills that allow me to charge more than 10 times that miserable wage when I freelance my talents. That, alone, may be the value of retail — to make sure you never have to go back.

  11. OMG — I am SO glad you commented on my blog (What Gives 365) because it led me to YOUR blog – and I am so impressed with your writing, your clarity, and your book — which I can’t wait to read! I couldn’t agree with you more about the corporations profiting mightily … even in this recession … and the workers, asked to do more & more & more, getting totally screwed. I just read an article from the Labor Department and posted by conservative writer David Frum, showing that workers’ share of the national income has plummeted to an all-time low (June 14). It’s heartbreaking and shameful that corporations like VF, whose put The North Face on the backs of almost every kid in America, is laying off people and cutting wages, while raking in the dough. The disparity between the filthy rich (what an apt phrase!) and everyone else has gotten bigger & bigger, and yet, we have to fight to keep them from getting still MORE tax breaks?? It’s insane — people are really struggling to live out there!
    I loved Nickle and Dimed … and will be so eager to read your book, too! The message needs to get out there — again & again! Kudos to a real, passionate, excellent writer!!

  12. Thanks for the kind words…I’m dismayed by what I see in the American economy, and even more dismayed at how little (none) protest seems to get made by the people getting screwed…as if remaining silent will make it all go away or make it better somehow.

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