Advice Columns as Information Sources
by Anthony Aycock
Here is a question: “What is the real-life transmission risk for HSV2 [genital herpes] in a discordant couple where the infected partner is on suppressant medication and doesn’t have outbreaks?” Sounds like something you might ask your doctor. Or a clinical researcher. Or the editor of a medical journal. It is a question whose answer is not at anyone’s fingertips, but shouldn’t be all that hard to track down.
Know where I saw the question? Not in a doctor’s office or a medical journal. I saw it in an online column called How to Do It. It’s an advice column. A sex advice column, to be precise. Rich Juzwiak, one of the column’s two authors, is often cheeky in his responses. With this question, however, he is straightforward, citing University of Manitoba professor Fred Y. Aoki, who told him the transmission rate between heterosexual couples is “between 5 and 15 percent per year” (tinyurl.com/soupwul). He later cites one other expert, Indiana University professor Kenneth H. Fife, and links to three studies on the issue.
A health sciences librarian couldn’t have done better. Which makes me wonder: Are advice columns good sources of information?
ADVICE: PAST AND PRESENT
For starters, let’s define “advice columnist.” This is a journalist who responds to letters from the public seeking guidance on everyday etiquette and ethical challenges. Some of those letters, and their responses, are published for a general readership. Although the practice of giving advice is surely as old as human communication, what we would call the modern advice column likely began, according to Wikipedia, at the Athenian Mercury, a London periodical, in 1691. It invited anyone whose “own satisfaction or curiosity shall prompt ’em to” mail their questions about anything “to Mr. Smith at his Coffee-house in Stocks Market in the Poultry.” These questions would be answered by the Athenian Society, a group of “experts” (read: drinking buddies) assembled by the Mercury’s editor, John Dunton. It was a kind of 17th-century Reddit.
As literacy spread in the 18th and 19th centuries, advice columns turned to practical matters such as medicine and government. By the 20th century, they made their way to women’s sections of newspapers, where they dealt with domestic concerns— such as sewing, cooking, and housekeeping—and relationships. The great 20th-century columnists—Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Miss Manners—brought a journalist’s sense of craft to what many had considered a throwaway pursuit, professionalizing it for a new generation of readers. Elizabeth Meriweather Gilmer, who gave advice as Dorothy Dix, once said that she “wrote and rewrote, put it down, came back and rewrote again. Once I did a thing over fifty times. Toward the end it suffered, but not until the forty-first or forty-second time” (library.apsu.edu/collections/dix/kanervo.html).
In 2020, advice is seemingly everywhere. The website UExpress (uexpress.com) collects at least eight columns, including Dear Abby (still going after 64 years!) and Miss Manners. Amy Dickinson and Carolyn Hax are syndicated columnists with millions of readers. Since 1998, the online-only Slate has published Dear Prudence, which has been led by several distinguished writers, including Margo Howard, daughter of Ann Landers. Advice is now more specialized too. In addition to How to Do It, Slate has Beast Mode (advice for pet owners), Care and Feeding (advice for parents), and Ask a Teacher (advice for parents about school). The Chronicle of Higher Education used to have Ms. Mentor, modeled on Miss Manners and aimed at academic etiquette; it now has The Professor Is In (chronicle.com/specialreport/The-Professor-Is-In/146). For workplace do’s and don’ts, Ask a Manager (askamanager.org) is the place to turn.
A few advice givers have parlayed that gig into media fame—e.g., Dan Savage, author of Savage Love—or literary riches. Heather Havrilesky’s book How to Be a Person in the World is based on Ask Polly, her advice column for New York magazine. And Cheryl Strayed, whose 2012 memoir Wild was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, spent a couple of years writing the anonymous Dear Sugar column for The Rumpus.
WHY SO POPULAR?
Life in the 21st century is easier than in the 19th. Americans in particular are so independent now, so hard to please, so jaded. Isn’t it weird we would write to a stranger from one of life’s crossroads and ask what to do? It’s not weird at all, according to Elyse Vigiletti, a professor of English at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, who tells Vox that she is fascinated by the best advice columns’ “blend of self-help, humor, and tastemaking” (tinyurl.com/yc2ns86g). The spike in literacy in the early 1900s, she says, along with a growing middle class, heightened the demand for reading material. Upward mobility became a driving force. Magazines included tips for choosing the “best” books (Columbia University’s Great Books Program began during this time). Emily Post became the queen of etiquette. Cookbooks, parenting tomes, and other self-improvement material (plus puzzle books) took off in a big way. Academic fields such as psychology and sociology made their way into pop culture, boosting the image of the advice columnist, who rarely had training in those fields, as an expert nonetheless.
It seems we are at a similar moment now. The internet has stoked the need for a new type of literacy: information literacy. Information, though, is more than facts and figures, which advice columnists of old could provide. It is also a guide on how to be people who want to put our best foot forward but may trip over the limitations of others (or ourselves). Social media has trained us to crowdsource our problems and has made that process easier than advice-seeking historically, which involved writing a letter, packing it into an envelope, trudging to the post office, and, worst of all, awaiting a response.
We are also more vulnerable online, more confessional. These are impulses that advice columns thrive on. Pauline Phillips, who created Dear Abby (her daughter, Jeanne, took over the column in 2000), was the doyenne of the Dorothy Parker one-liner, but today’s columnists take their time, writing what seem like essays. Their readers love it, which doesn’t surprise Vigiletti. “There’s an old joke,” she says, “that the first thing people did with the internet was try to find naked people on it. I think the advice column boom might suggest that was also the second thing people did, but more figuratively.”
ENTERTAINMENT OR INFOrmation?
Advice is a bit of an odd duck: It is both private and not. It is offered to a specific person for a specific need, and yet, because few situations are unique, others benefit from hearing it. I read several columns daily, savoring the questions as I imagine making my own response. Sometimes I don’t imagine it; I do it, whispering my thoughts in my office or a restaurant or wherever I’m reading. I am only a little embarrassed by this. “Advice columnists,” writes Jessica Weisberg in TheNew Yorker, “are not therapists or pastors. They are performers …” (tinyurl.com/v7w39rh).
Carolyn Hax, who since 1997 has written a column for The Washington Post, echoes this view. “I am not a doctor or psychologist or trained observer/opiner of any sort,” she says in the introduction to her 2001 book, Tell Me About It. “I write a newspaper advice column regardless.” After listing her “qualifications” for that “semiweekly act of gall”—she is married, her parents are married, she has lots of friends, she plays nice with her sisters, she learns from her mistakes, and her dog thinks she rocks—and finding them lacking, she settles on the alpha-credential: “I was trained to write—how’s that.”
Hax is one of the best columnists working now, a pioneer in the genre. She was originally marketed not to middle-aged housewives but to 20-something singles, and she was one of the first to write in the long-form philosophical style that most columnists now embrace. She even has her own glossary: tinyurl.com/wfkgakd. (Click on the entry for “bacon pants.” You won’t be sorry.) As entertainment, her work is hard to beat. As an information source? That’s another matter. Hax has been responding to quandaries and slip-ups and heartaches for more than 20 years. Those with fresh crises might find comfort and wisdom in her body of writing. For example, she often recommends books—like a librarian!—on subjects that dovetail with the advice seeker’s concern.
Information is useless if it can’t be retrieved, and there is simply no good way to access Hax’s work. ThePost has an archive of her weekly chat dating to 2003, but it isn’t searchable. You can find some stuff with Google, but that is hit or miss (mostly miss). Her daily column seems to have no archive at all. Slate’s archive, by contrast, has every Dear Prudence column since the first one on Jan. 2, 1998. Again, however, there is no search engine. (Note to nonfiction publishers: Find someone to do a massive subject index of modern advice columns. Publish as many as you can. You’ll sell out in a week. Guaranteed.)
Advice, you could say, is information-seeking on the most personal level. We have done it for centuries, and we will do it for centuries more. People will always wonder, doubt, and double-check themselves and others. In an era when literature is endangered and information is under attack, readers can turn to advice columns for writing that is provocative, relatable, and, best of all, fun. And if it helps you deal with your sister the bridezilla, your control-freak mother-in-law, or a boss who makes Michael Scott look like Lee Iacocca, so much the better.