A few years ago, my friend wrote a letter to the novelist Rick Moody. She did this because she had become too sick to write, but still felt strongly that she was a writer, even if there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between the present and the way her life had been. She also did this because Moody, the author of “The Ice Storm,” was now an advice columnist. In his “Life Coach” column on Literary Hub, Moody told my friend that she should appreciate the tang of fresh mint in a salad and try to understand her writing, at whatever scale she could manage it, as “an honest gesture” toward “cataloguing what you feel and who you are capable of being now.” As I read the column, I felt disappointed for my friend, who had been through so much and was now being told to enjoy garnishes more. And yet she was extremely satisfied with this response. Because Rick Moody also told her that she was brave, that her letter was itself a moving act of literature, that she was, even through terrible suffering and the stasis of illness, still a writer. Rick Moody was, in other words, a surprisingly good advice columnist.
We are living in the age of peak advice. You can, depending on your needs, get life tips from “Dear Prudence” or “Ask Polly”; from Roxane Gay or “Ask a Manager”; from a pornographer or Dan Savage; even from the food critic Mimi Sheraton, as though your life were an injudiciously cooked pot roast. The questions their columns address are both age-old and relentlessly modern. The anxious progressive can ask Liza Featherstone, in The Nation, what to do about a friendship with a Jordan Peterson acolyte. People ask the Urban Diplomat for advice on their roommate’s invading kombucha lab and what to do about their embarrassing Google search results. With the coronavirus, the thirst for advice has become unquenchable. Columns have been swamped with questions about the best way to leave your partner during a pandemic, the etiquette for masks on hiking trails, and, heartbreakingly, how to deal with your husband’s alcoholism quietly spinning out of control in the background during your remote work meetings. Cheryl Strayed, the patron saint of the late-two-thousands advice renaissance, even came out of retirement, reviving her “Sugar” persona as if summoned by thousands of mask-muffled screams.
The origins of the advice boom trace back to 2010, when Strayed began writing an anonymous column for the Rumpus. The advice column had been a settled, successful format for decades; most followed the Dear Abby framework, pioneered by female newspaper columnists, and offered practical suggestions to concrete problems. Strayed took that successful model and set it on fire. You didn’t write in to “Dear Sugar” for advice. Instead, Strayed would transform your existential problem into swooning, bespoke essays that exposed as much of the advice-giver as they did of the petitioner. Her tone may or may not have been your thing—“Be brave enough to break your own heart” was born Insta-ready—but her approach proved revolutionary. Readers asked questions, and Sugar replied sidelong, with stories: the time she smothered a baby bird, her friend who was disfigured by a gas explosion and killed himself from loneliness, her grandfather forcing her to “jack him off” when she was a young child. Other people lived on Planet Earth, she told a reader who had miscarried, but “You live on Planet My Baby Died. . . . I know because I’ve lived on a few planets that aren’t Planet Earth myself.”
In Strayed’s hands, the advice column was a radical therapeutic experience, less like “Hints from Heloise” and more like downing a cup of ayahuasca. Strayed is the reason advice became fashionable in literary circles. She opened the way for such spiritual heirs as Heather Havrilesky, who was billed as an “existential advice columnist” in “Ask Polly,” and Kristin Dombek, who unspooled highbrow advice-essays in n+1’s “The Help Desk.” Sugar suggested, in the mold of Montaigne—or perhaps psychotherapy—that the solution to your problems lay within you, provided you confront them with honest introspection and brutal clarity, if not the force of revelation. The goal wasn’t proper napkin etiquette or resolving a dispute with your mother-in-law. It was saving your soul.
Strayed’s advice columns were part of a clear step away from the detailing and reinforcing of norms found in “Dear Abby” and toward a liberating, nonjudgmental permissiveness that has steadily opened up a new vocabulary for how we express ourselves, personally and politically. This transformation is probably best illustrated by Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” introduced in 1997. “Prudence” had always been relatively conservative in its form—written, for a stretch, by the daughter of Ann Landers, one of the original celebrity advice columnists. Even as the new millennium approached, its concerns were impeccably traditional (How do you cope with your husband’s affair? Does a gentleman let a lady precede him into a restaurant?) and its answers conveyed in a tart, Miss Manners-y third person (“Prudie thinks this woman is one sandwich shy of a picnic”). Emily Yoffe, who took over the column in 2006, had a refreshingly modern voice but was often accused of conflating systemic problems with matters of personal responsibility—of telling female college students to drink less at parties, for instance, rather than indicting rape culture. At one point, she advised a bisexual woman who planned on remaining in her monogamous, heterosexual marriage to stay in the closet, much to the Internet’s chagrin. “You are confusing your personal sexual exploration with a social imperative,” Yoffe warned.
But under the current Prudence, Daniel M. Lavery, the column and its accompanying podcast have become a public square for gleefully debating social norms and dispensing justice with a crew of guest advisers that has included his exes, labor activists, a self-described “creative technologist,” registered nurses, other advice columnists, a violinist studying for her M.B.A., and Jennifer Egan. Guests debate Lavery on ethical norms, and he parries with off-the-cuff riffs on Pope Boniface VIII and Samuel Pepys.
The particular genius of Lavery’s Prudence is that he doesn’t indulge in the somewhat fantastical advice-column fiction that every problem can be addressed through personal responsibility; as a guest pointed out on one podcast episode, “I do think universal free child care is, in fact, the solution to many of these problems, but I don’t know that we can offer that to the letter writer.” Lavery recognizes, too, that good-natured permissiveness can come with side effects, among them a disastrous unwillingness to confront the unacceptable—when, say, the neighbor is hanging up framed pictures of Hitler and your alcoholic brother-in-law has been angrily gaming at your place for six years. His Prudence has become more in line with visionary millennial sensibilities—hungry to redress biases and poisonous -isms, sometimes devoting the bulk of a podcast to heartfelt, slightly tedious sermons reassuring the anguished letter writers that their feelings are valid. Lavery, who was raised evangelical, is morally firm and comically decisive, chiding and scolding like a fresh-faced Judge Judy. A husband who refuses to use enough soap on the dishes is committing “an insult to your dignity and your personhood,” and a crazed DVD reviewer is “behaving like the majordomo of a small European country on the precipice of World War I.” His advice, considered in the aggregate, is so decisive as to be unactionable: in the battle between the righteous individual and the broken system, Lavery almost always roots for the individual to go on strike. “I realize if I add all these things together,” he riffed on one podcast, “my general life advice is, like, ‘Don’t sleep with your partner, don’t talk to your roommates, don’t talk to your co-workers, leave everyone and walk into the sea.’ ”
This crusading mentality is the critical difference between Lavery and one of the other pillars of the advice world, Alison Green, who dispenses workplace advice for Slate, New York magazine, and her own “Ask a Manager.” At the beginning of her career, Green told me, she was more willing to warn letter writers that their offices had got totally out of hand, that they should seek sanity and flee. But, after fourteen years, she’s become soberingly realistic about how uncomfortable and generally not-sane the workplace can be. “You can’t leave every time something is frustrating,” she said. “It’s about system interaction. What can we do to get you happy within the system?”
“Ask a Manager” is one of the most popular advice forums around, drawing more than thirty-three million visitors last year. The columns that go viral tend to have a villain and a sense of dramatic irony. One man wrote in after the ex he’d ghosted was hired as his boss. One supervisor wanted to lecture an ex-employee on “professional norms.” (The former employee, who survived homelessness and several dozen foster homes, had quit after being told that she could not come to work two hours late to attend her own college graduation.) “Ask a Manager” launched in 2007; it is a close contemporary of “Dear Sugar.” But “Sugar” was for boutique existential rescue, whereas “Ask a Manager” is unapologetic about providing the fundamentals, even suggesting language you can imagine real humans deploying. “I want people to actually use the advice,” Green said. “I don’t want to be right theoretically.” The trade-off inherent in this practical focus is that more existential problems often go unresolved. At times, you can tell that a letter writer is just expressing distress in the only format at hand. Your boss has been stealing your lunch out of the staff fridge, or has asked you to donate a liver—you write, “What do I do?,” but what you really want to know is “Why is this happening to me?”
The advice column is often celebrated as universal. “Trouble is the common denominator of living,” Ann Landers declared in her memoir, “Since You Ask Me,” boasting that her letter writers have included bank presidents, coal miners, sex workers, and nuclear scientists. But despite an ongoing transformation in who can give advice and how, advice isn’t half as egalitarian as we would like to believe. Most of the columnists I spoke with guessed that their readership is mainly white and female. A recent poll, conducted by FiveThirtyEight, SurveyMonkey, and WNYC Studios’ podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” found that more than forty per cent of men have never or rarely even asked friends for advice. Lori Gottlieb, who writes The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” and co-hosts the podcast “Dear Therapists,” told me that she gets letters from men of all ages, from teen-agers to seniors, who are struggling. “They have the same insecurities and anxieties women do, but they don’t really have guidance. I think they don’t really have anyone to turn to.”