Advice column  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

An advice column is a column in a magazine or newspaper written by an advice columnist (colloquially known in British English as an agony aunt, or agony uncle if the columnist is a male). The image presented was originally of an older woman providing comforting advice and maternal wisdom, hence the name "aunt". An advice columnist can also be someone who gives advice to people who send in problems to the newspaper.

An advice columnist answers readers' queries on personal problems. Sometimes the author is in fact a composite or a team: Marjorie Proops's name appeared (with photo) long after she retired. The nominal writer may be a pseudonym, or in effect a brand name; the accompanying picture may bear little resemblance to the actual author.

The term is beginning to fall into disuse, as the scope of personal advice has broadened, to include sexual matters like orgasms and so forth — pioneered by the likes of Dr. Ruth — as well as general lifestyle issues.


Examples of advice columnists

Many advice columns are now syndicated and appear in countless newspapers. Prominent U.S. examples include Dear Abby, Ann Landers, and in a more modern form, Carolyn Hax's "Tell Me About It". Internet sites such as the Elder Wisdom Circle offer relationship advice to a broad audience, while Dear Maggie offers sex advice to a predominantly Christian readership in Christianity magazine. In the UK, Ann Widdecombe is renowned for her advice column in The Guardian newspaper and has been for many years.

Men as advice columnists are more rare than women in print, but men have been popping up more often online in both serious formats and comedic.

Typical format

Questions are most often asked 'anonymously', with the signature assuming the problem that is being expressed. For example, someone who is asking about erratic behaviour in their partner may sign their letter "Confused, Johannesburg".

On the Internet, a greater variation on the signature theme is often seen. The person's signature may refer to the problem being expressed, but rather in a phrase, which the 'agony aunt' abbreviates so as to spell an appropriate word. For instance, "Confused About My Partner" would become "CAMP". Dan Savage uses this method to comic effect in his Savage Love column.

Advice columns on the Internet

Advice columns on the internet provide ways to share one's interests and expertise. Anyone can be a columnist and create their own advice column. Users can can post questions for columnists to answer. Users can also interact with the columnist and with each other to voice their opinions. E-mailing advisors is popular because readers can open up their personal problems without exposing their identity to the world. Popular e-mail advisers include Aunt Vera and Annie.Template:Citation needed

Ethical issues

Advice columns generally have limited capacity and do not answer all the requests they receive. This has led them to be criticised for abusing the hopes of their correspondents for commercial gain (in terms of newspaper sales) – raising the uncomfortable image of desperate people waiting day after day for the answer to their terrible problem to be published, only to have to accept after months that there will be no help for them. For this reason Marjorie Proops regarded it as a professional duty to answer all the letters received, whether or not they were published.

Related fiction

Inevitably the "Agony Aunt" has become the subject of fiction, often satirically or farcically. Versions of the form include:

  • An agony aunt whose own personal problems and issues are more bizarre than those of her correspondents. A notable example is the British TV sitcom Agony created by Anna Raeburn, starring Maureen Lipman as the agony aunt with an overbearing mother, an unreliable husband, neurotic gay neighbours, and a career in media surrounded by self-promoting bizarros. Anna Raeburn herself works as an agony aunt on radio call-in shows, much as the main character of the sitcom does.
  • Mrs. Mills deliberately gives terrible advice to her clients, and is a satire of an agony aunt.
  • Another classic example of the agony aunt in fiction appears in Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.
  • In Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One, a Mr. Slump dispenses advice (on one occasion lethal) under the name Guru Brahmin.

Other uses of the term

The Agony Aunts, Dotsie and Sadie, are the chilling elderly enforcers of the Street of Negotiable Affection in author Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Advice column" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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