• January 28, 2023

The Age of Peak Advice

A few years ago my friend wrote a letter to the writer Rick Moody. She did this because she had become too sick to write, but still felt strongly as a writer, even if there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between the present and her life. She also did this because Moody, the author of “The ice stormWas a counselor now. In his Life Coach column on Literary Hub, Moody told My friend, that she should appreciate the smell of fresh mint in a salad and try to understand her writing, to whatever extent she could understand it, as an “honest gesture” to “catalog what you are feeling and who you can be now. “As I read the column, I was disappointed with my friend who had been through so much and was now being asked to have more side dishes. Yet she was extremely pleased with that answer. Because Rick Moody also told her that she was brave, that her letter was itself a moving act of literature, that despite the terrible suffering and stasis of illness, she was still a writer. In other words, Rick Moody was a surprisingly good advisor.

We live in the age of top advice. Depending on your needs, you can choose life tips from “Love wisdom“or”Ask Polly”; from Roxane gay or “Ask a manager”; from a pornographer or Dan Savage; even from food critic Mimi Sheraton, as if your life were a carelessly cooked pot roast. The questions her columns address are ancient and relentlessly modern. The fearful progressive can ask Liza Featherstonewhat to do in The Nation about friendship with a Jordan Peterson acolyte. People ask the urban diplomat for advice to their roommates Invasion of Kombucha Laboratory and what to do about their embarrassing Google search results. With the CoronavirusThe thirst for advice has become insatiable. There have been lots of questions in the columns about how best to get out of your partner during a pandemic, what the etiquette for masks on hiking trails is, and how to deal with your husband’s alcoholism, who is quietly spiraling out of control in the background during your remote work meetings . Cheryl Strayed, the patron saint of the renaissance of the late two thousand pieces of advice, even came out of retirement and, as if, reinvigorated her “sugar” persona called from thousands of mask-muffled screams.

The origins of the consulting boom date back to 2010 when Strayed began writing an anonymous column for Rumpus. The advisory column has been a fixed, successful format for decades. Most followed the Dear Abby framework developed by female newspaper columnists, offering practical suggestions for specific problems. Strays took this successful model and set it on fire. You did not write to Dear Sugar for advice. Instead, Strayed would turn your existential problem into impotent, bespoke essays that revealed as much of the counselors as the petitioner. Her tone may or may not have been your thing – “Be brave enough to break your own heart” was born instantly – but her approach proved revolutionary. Readers asked questions, and Sugar sideways replied with stories: The time it stifled a baby bird, her friend who was disfigured by a gas explosion and killed herself out of loneliness, her grandfather forced her to “jerk” him as a small child. Other people lived on planet earth, they told A reader who miscarried but “You live on Planet My Baby Died. . . . I know because I’ve lived on some planets that are not planet earth. “

In Strayed’s hands, the Counselor Pillar was a radical therapeutic experience, less like “Heloise’s Notes” than drinking a cup of ayahuasca. Stray is the reason advice became fashionable in literary circles. She paved the way for such spiritual heirs as Heather Havrilesky, who was billed as a “existential advice columnist” in “Ask Polly,” and Kristin Dombek, who resolved “high-profile advice essays” in n + 1’s.The help desk. “Sugar suggested in the form of Montaigne – or perhaps psychotherapy – that the solution to your problems lies within you, provided you confront it with honest introspection and brutal clarity, if not the power of revelation. The goal wasn’t getting the right napkin label or settling a dispute with your mother-in-law. It saved your soul.

Strayed’s pillars of advice were part of a clear step away from detailing and reinforcing the norms contained in “Dear Abby” and towards a liberating, non-judgmental permissibility that opened up a new vocabulary for our personal and political expression. 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 series by Ann Landers’ daughter, one of the original celebrity advice columnists. Even as the new millennium approached, his concerns were impeccably traditional (how do you deal with your husband’s affair? Does a gentleman let a lady precede him into a restaurant?) And his responses became in a sharp, Miss Manners-y third person (“Prudie thinks this woman is a sandwich before a picnic”). Emily Yoffe, who took over the column in 2006, had a refreshingly modern voice but was often accused of linking systemic issues to personal responsibility issues – for example, telling female college students to drink less at parties instead Accuse rape culture. She once advised a bisexual woman who was planning to stay in her monogamous, heterosexual marriage to stay in the closet, much to the chagrin of the internet. “You are mistaking your personal sexual exploration for a social imperative,” said Yoffe warned.

But under the current wisdom, Daniel M. Lavery, the column and podcast has become a public space to joyfully debate social norms and dispute justice with a crew of visiting counselors that includes his exes, labor activists, and himself described “creative technologist, “Registered Nurses, other columnists, a violinist studying for her MBAand Jennifer Egan. The guests discuss ethical norms through Lavery and he parries off-the-cuff riffs about Pope Boniface VIII and Samuel Pepys.

The particular genius of Lavery’s cleverness is that he does not indulge in the somewhat fantastic advisor fiction that every problem can be approached through personal responsibility; On a podcast episode, one guest pointed out, “I think universal free childcare is indeed the solution to many of these problems, but I don’t know we can offer this to the letter writer.” Lavery also acknowledges that good-natured admissibility with Side effects can come with it, including a catastrophic reluctance to face the unacceptable – when it’s the neighbor, for example hang up framed pictures of Hitler and your alcoholic brother-in-law has been playing angry with you for six years. His cleverness is more akin to visionary millennial sentiments – prejudice hungry and poisonous – and sometimes devotes most of a podcast to hearty, slightly drawn-out sermons to reassure the tormented letter writers that their feelings are valid. Lavery, who was brought up as a Protestant, is morally firm and comically determined, grumbles and grumbles like a fresh-faced judge Judy. A husband who refuses to use enough soap on the dishes is “an insult to your dignity and personality” and a crazy DVD reviewer “acts like the majordomo of a small European country on the brink of World War I.” His advice, taken as a whole, is so crucial that it is incapable of acting: in the struggle between the righteous individual and the broken system, Lavery is almost always rooted in the individual going on strike. “I realize when I add all of these things together,” he said on a podcast. “My general advice on life is: ‘Don’t sleep with your partner, don’t talk to your roommates, don’t talk to your co-worker, leave everyone and go into the sea. ‘”

This crusading mentality is the key difference between Lavery and one of the other pillars of the consulting world, Alison Green, who gives advice on the workplace for Slate, New York magazine, and her own “Ask a Manager”. Early in her career, Green said, she was more willing to warn letter writers that their offices were completely out of control, that they should seek their sanity and flee. But after fourteen years she has become soberingly realistic about how uncomfortable and generally not healthy 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 keep you happy in the system? “

“Ask a Manager” is one of the most popular advisory forums and last year attracted more than 33 million visitors. The pillars that go viral tend to have a villain and a sense of dramatic irony. A man wrote in after the ex he ghostly had when his boss was hired. A superior wanted to teach a former employee about “professional standards”. (The former worker, who survived homelessness and several dozen nursing homes, quit after being told she couldn’t be two hours late for work to take her own college degree.) “Ask a Manager” became Launched in 2007. It’s a close contemporary of Dear Sugar. But “Sugar” was meant to save the boutiques of existence, while “Ask a Manager” does not apologize for providing the basics and even suggest a language that real people can imagine how it would be used. “I want people to actually use the advice,” said Green. “In theory I don’t want to be right.” The trade-off inherent in this practical focus is that more existential problems often remain unsolved. Sometimes it can be seen that a letter writer is expressing distress in only the only available format. Your boss stole your lunch from the staff fridge or asked you to donate a liver. You write: “What am I doing?”, But you really want to know: “Why is this happening to me?”

The counselor pillar is often celebrated as universal. “Anger is the common denominator in life,” Ann Landers stated in her memoir.You ask meShe boasted that her letter writers included bank presidents, miners, sex workers, and nuclear scientists. But despite a constant change in who and how can give advice, advice is not half as egalitarian as we would like to believe. Most of the columnists I’ve spoken to suggested that their readership is mostly white and female. A recent poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight, SurveyMonkey, and WNYC Studios’ Death, Sex & Money podcast found that more than forty percent of men have never or rarely asked friends for advice. Lori Gottlieb, The Atlantic’s “Dear therapist“And co-host of the Dear Therapists podcast, told me that she receives letters from men of all ages, from teenagers to seniors, who have problems.” They have the same insecurities and fears as women, but they don’t have real ones Instructions. I think they really have no one to turn to. “

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