An advice column is a column traditionally presented in a magazine or newspaper, though it can also be delivered through other news media, such as the internet and broadcast news media. The advice column format is question and answer: a (usually anonymous) reader writes to the media outlet with a problem in the form of a question, and the media outlet provides an answer or response. The responses are written by an advice columnist (colloquially known in British English as an agony aunt, or agony uncle if the columnist is male). The image presented was originally of an older woman dispensing 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.
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—pioneered by the likes of Dr. Ruth—as well as general lifestyle issues. The Athenian Mercury contained the first known advice column in 1690.
Examples of advice columnist
Many advice columns are now syndicated and appear in several newspapers. Prominent American examples include Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It, and Daniel Mallory Ortberg's Dear Prudence. Internet sites such as the Elder Wisdom Circle offer relationship advice to a broad audience; Dear Maggie offers sex advice to a predominantly Christian readership in Christianity Magazine, and Miriam's Advice Well offers advice to Jews in Philadelphia.
Men as advice columnists are rarer than women in print, but men have been appearing more often online in both serious and comedic formats.
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.
On the Internet
Advice columns on the Internet provide ways to share one's interests, experiences and expertise. Anyone can be a columnist and create their own advice column. Users can post questions for columnists to answer. Users can also interact with the columnist and with each other to voice their opinions. E-mailing advisers 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.
Advice columns generally have limited capacity and are unable to answer all the requests they receive. They could potentially be criticised for raising the hopes of their correspondents for commercial gain. For this reason, Marjorie Proops regarded it as a professional duty to answer all the letters received, whether or not they were published.
In popular culture
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 (1933) by Nathanael West.
- In Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One, a Mr. Slump dispenses advice (on one occasion, it is lethal) under the name Guru Brahmin.
- As of 2012, Chris Ayres cowrote "Ask Dr. Ozzy" with Ozzy Osbourne for The Sunday Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. The column features readers asking Ozzy personal and health questions, often resulting in a humorous response that includes the fact that Osbourne is not a real doctor and that the reader should consult a legitimate doctor instead.
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, the Agony Aunts are elderly but violent enforcers for the Seamstress Guild, pausing in their pursuit of offenders only to shop for bargains at rummage sales.
- In The Brady Bunch episode "Dear Libby", the six kids of a blended family see a problem similar to their family is having in an eponymous advice column, and worry their (blended) family may not survive. After all the children also post their questions to the column, the columnist herself visits the family and provides them relief by saying that the person who posted the original question did not come from this family.
- Sherlock Holmes regularly consulted the "agony columns" of a number of newspapers, although at that time they seem to have been what we would call personal classified ads. In His Last Bow, "He took down the great book in which, day by day, he filed the agony columns of the various London journals." In The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, "I should have thought, sir, that your obvious way was to advertise in the agony columns of the papers."
- The pilot episode of Drake and Josh has Josh play an advice columnist named Miss Nancy.
- Amy Alkon (Ask the Advice Goddess)
- Helen Bottel (Helen Help Us!)
- E. Jean Carroll (Ask E. Jean)
- George W. Crane (Worry Clinic, Test Your Horse Sense)
- Alma Denny ("Alma Denny")
- Amy Dickinson (Ask Amy)
- Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer ("Dorothy Dix")
- Carolyn Hax
- Margo Howard (Dear Prudence and Ask Ann Landers)
- Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer (Ask Ann Landers)
- Marie Manning (Dear Beatrice Fairfax)
- Judith Martin ("Miss Manners")
- Jeanne Phillips (Dear Abby)
- Pauline Esther "Popo" Phillips ("Abigail Van Buren", author of Dear Abby)
- Dan Savage (Savage Love)
- Jeffrey L. Seglin (The Right Thing)
- Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar)
- Cary Tennis (Since You Asked)
- Emily Yoffe (Dear Prudence)
- Katie Boyle
- Cathy Cassidy
- ChildLine's "Ask Sam", a children's advice column
- Quentin Fottrell
- Suzi Godson, who has written a weekly sex advice column in the Saturday Times since 2004
- Wendy Greengross, agony aunt for The Sun, 1972-76
- Phillip Hodson
- Alex Hooper-Hodson, agony uncle of Sugar, The Daily Record & sex expert on Channel 5's Sex Pod TV Show
- Virginia Ironside
- Susan Sutherland Isaacs, who worked under the pseudonym "Ursula Wise" in several child care journals
- Marjorie Proops
- Susan Quilliam
- Claire Rayner
- Denise Robertson
- Coleen Nolan
- Deidre Sanders
- David Tang, who writes an advice column for the Financial Times Weekend edition