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An advice column is a column traditionally presented in a magazine or newspaper, but 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 very few newspapers. Prominent American examples include Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It, and Emily Yoffe'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 Jewish people 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.
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 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 pop 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[update], 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.
- Amy Alkon ("Advice Goddess")
- Helen Bottel
- E. Jean Carroll
- George W. Crane
- Alma Denny
- Amy Dickinson
- Dorothy Dix
- Margo Howard
- Ann Landers
- Marie Manning ("Dear Beatrice Fairfax")
- Judith Martin
- Jeanne Phillips
- Pauline Phillips
- Dan Savage
- Jeffrey L. Seglin
- Cheryl Strayed ("Dear Sugar")
- Cary Tennis
- Emily Yoffe ("Dear Prudence")
- Katie Boyle
- Cathy Cassidy
- ChildLine's "Ask Sam", a children's advice column
- Quentin Fottrell
- Phillip Hodson
- Alex Hooper-Hodson
- 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
- David Tang, who writes an advice column for the Financial Times Weekend edition
- Phoebe Halliwell
- Miss Lonelyhearts, novel
- "Mrs. Mills Solves all Your Problems"
- Straight Talk, a 1992 film featuring Dolly Parton as an agony aunt
- The Athenian Mercury (1690), first periodical with an advice column ever used
- The Ladies' Mercury (1693), first periodical just for women; mostly an advice column