Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dear Whoever

I'm obsessed with advice columnists.

It's a little strange that I'm obsessed with advice columnists because I hate advice. I never give advice. Nor do I take advice. In fact, advice makes me angry. If you give me advice, particularly good advice, I will call to mind all the (even debatably) stupid things you have ever done, and I will say nasty things about you behind your back. I may do this if I even think that you are diagnosing and solving my problems silently to yourself.

Nevertheless, I regularly read Miss Manners, who is a genius, but makes me feel bad about my failings, Carolyn Hax, who falls in the "basically right-minded but a little traditional category," Dan Savage, who falls into the Miss Manners category as far as I'm concerned, Slate's Dear Prudence, who drives me absolutely insane (the linked column suggests that a couple might want to reconsider their decision not to have children), and Slate's old Dear Prudence, Margo Howard, who's Ann Landers's daughter and pretty good, although too prone, like many advice columnists to suggest therapy. While many letter-writers should contemplate therapy, I think the advice columnist has an obligation to offer some substance beyond "go get advice from somebody else." I also read Sars on Tomato Nation, who's great, but can strike me as smug (that seems to be an occupational hazard, and in this case probably has more to do with my own anxieties than her actual tone) and Cary Tennis on Salon, who suffers (apparently uniquely in the annals of advice-giving) from what may be the opposite problem.

Also one summer a couple of years ago I went through the entire back archives of Breakup Girl.

This list, frankly, is both incomplete and embarrassing.

Why do I read advice columns? It's not to figure out what I should do in a particular situation. I don't take advice. There's just something about the range of human situations that people write in with, mostly. It's nice to know that we're all out there swinging, in our strange and elaborate ways, for the fences. Also I like to find out how well my instincts match up with the advice-giver -- do I think the way other people think?

Sadly, though, I think underlying my compulsion is my hope that these people will find solutions, that a switch can be flipped and the lunatic sister will fall into line, the racist uncle will not spoil the wedding, and the money-grubbing party thrower will be sternly rebuked.

And clinging to that hope, I now return to my program of trying to fall asleep and scratching morbidly at my poison oak pustules.


Camiseta Personalizada said...
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The Secretary said...

Sorry to be a fussbudget, but shouldn't it be "Dear Whomever"? (Although, I guess it could be "Dear Whoever Wishes to Read This Post".)

Just trying to help! 8]

Noko Marie said...

I'm amazed by how much advice columns vary with respect to being interesting to read. We have one here in Canada named "Dear Ellie," and I've forced myself to stop reading because it is always such a disappointment.

I'm used to a certain tone of energy, indignation, despair, I don't know, in the questions, but the way the Ellie questions are edited they have a completely apathetic and depressed feeling. Like the person writing in already knows he's going to be told, "Now, Married in Moose Jaw, you know you'd better stop daydreaming about that high school sweetheart and get focused on raising those kids!"

For whatever its worth I don't like that Carolyn Hax, for some reason. The person here I'd be most likely to actually take advice from is Miss Manners. There's a woman with her head on straight.

Captain Colossal said...

Secretary: It could also be Dear Whoever Is Giving Advice. All kinds of options. But thanks for the helpfulness!

Noko Marie: I'm with you about Miss Manners. Part of what I like about both Miss Manners and Dan Savage, by the way, is that they treat the advice-giver's question on a superficial level. Which might sound unhelpful, but is actually much better. They're not trying to change the person writing in; they're just telling them how best to react to a particular obstacle. Which you feel actually has a chance of making a positive difference.