As a daily newspaper reader and an avid magazine fan, I run into these features whenever I pick one or the other up. Right up front I will say I think they are stupid and repetitive but at the same time I must admit that I still always read them. Think of it in the same way that most of us feel about the Macarena (hate the song, still will move to the beat). What I want to talk about tonight is the standard, cliché advice column.
First magazine I ever read was Highlights. As a seven or eight year old, I would tear through the hundreds of issues we had at my house skimming through the various sections of jokes, riddles, Goofus and Gallant, and the hidden picture feature before I finally got to the end of the magazine and to the very remedial advice column. Usually in two sentences, some young reader who supposedly drafted the question and sent it in all by himself/herself would ask the author of the column for help on some problem. Usually it would be something as dumb as “My parents want me to do my homework but I don’t want to. What should I tell them?” or “There is a girl I think I like. Is this weird?” The author would then respond in a very grandmother-like tone an obvious answer to the very obvious question. Stupid.
I started reading the newspaper when I was ten years old. As someone who read it from front to back, I inevitably encountered the advice column each morning. Back in the day in my hometown paper, we were treated to the “life-saving” advice of Ann Landers. At first I thought it was pretty cool, the questions asked seemed much more grown up and sophisticated than what I was getting in my Highlights magazines. But although the questions were more grown up, it didn’t take much to realize that the answers were not that hard to come up with. Even as a ten year old boy, I knew the correct answer to tell the married mother of three who asked if it was okay to secretly carry on an affair with the next door neighbor. As I read more and more of Ann Landers’ column, I realized something else: Many of the questions seemed to recycle themselves over and over. While the occasional off the wall, crazy queries made print from time to time, almost everything else was predictable: I am sweet, cute, successful, and thirty-two years old but still single, what is wrong with me? My adult son is forty years old and he still lives at my house, should I continue to let him stay here? I cheated on my wife and I have an overwhelming guilt, how do I get over this? My child’s little league coach thinks winning is everything, should I say something to him? I think my co-worker has an eating disorder, should I get her help? My mother-in-law is extremely rude, should I confront her? etc. etc. Questions like these seemed to re-enter the fray every other week. Then something happened; Ann Landers died.
When Landers died, my paper was hell-bent on filling her space with another advice columnist. In a move that brought loads of excitement to me at the breakfast table each morning, the paper ran four different advice columns over four weeks. Each column had a one week trial and whichever one got the greatest reader response would be installed as the permanent column. Some of the columns featured a little bit more of an edgy feel to them while others stayed more true to the Landers’ formula. But while styles and column photos differed, the same no-brainer questions were asked and even after just one week, content seemed to be repeating itself. If I remember correctly, my paper ended up running two advice columns that switched out every other day. The first one was, ironically, Annie’s Mailbox, a column identical to the Ann Landers column except for the subtle name change and the fact that the author was now one of Ann’s daughters. The second column was called Ask Carolyn and it dealt with the same BS as well, just maybe with a larger emphasis on relationships.
As I grew up more, started to read more papers, and became a bit more intuned with the world, I started to see advice columns for what they really were: Regurgitated common sense Q&A meant to fill up space and appease people with way too much time on their hands who might kid themselves into finding the information helpful.
I have thought to myself for a long time: How cool would it be to have an occupation as Advice Columnist? You pick out three to four questions a day, think for about five seconds on the appropriate way to answer, and send it off to the editor. I think I could handle that…hell, I might get really crazy and answer five questions each day. Not trying to disrespect the hard-working advice columnists out there, but I just don’t see much to it. I do wonder if these people in this unique occupation take their job seriously or if they kind of have an idea that they might be getting a pretty decent deal.
I am at the point where all what I do when I read the advice columns is read the questions. I don’t even care about the answers. Hate to say it, but I am much more interested in the problems that people are having rather than the generic, obvious answers. If and only if the question is somewhat unique, I haven’t heard it a thousand times before, and the advice could go a few different ways then will I have my eyes cross from the italics and down to the text that is typed out after the big A.
Speaking of the people asking the questions, I do sometimes wonder if they actually exist. I could totally see the editor of the column simply making up stuff and then having the author answer it. I mean, you really do have to be desperate to actually write in. By writing in, you are pretty much saying that 1. You can’t figure out the problem by yourself and 2. You don’t have someone close to you, someone who has your best interests at heart, who can answer your dilemma for you. Also, when people have issues, it is usually a time sensitive deal. Who would want to wait out the time for a letter to get to a national syndicated advice column office, have it sit in a mail cart with numerous other letters, and then have the tiny chance that the letter might actually even make print? By the time all of those things run their course, that problem of yours will most likely be way in the past.
Like newspapers in general, I feel advice columns are just losing their purpose. Now more connected than ever with more resources than ever, there is no need to depend on a nice old lady to answer our problems. Then again, I don’t think we ever needed them in the first place. Advice columns are gimmicky and sketchy. We have friends and family for a reason and we also have our own brains. Let’s use any of the combination of the three to answer life’s questions before we defer to Dear Abby. Don’t Blink.