“[A good letter] must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous”
September 13, 2021 12:59 PM   Subscribe

For Gawker, Bennett Madison writes about being a fabulist: “Help! I Couldn’t Stop Writing Fake Dear Prudence Letters That Got Published”
Writing fake letters to advice columns could not be considered a good career move; after all, it was unpaid and I wouldn’t even get a byline out of it. On the other hand, it was easy and creatively fulfilling.
posted by Going To Maine (76 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Am I the asshole?
posted by box at 1:06 PM on September 13 [28 favorites]


Huh, I always assumed most fake advice letters were written by the columnist themselves, maybe that is just for the smaller columns.
posted by muddgirl at 1:13 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


I've long speculated about why people write those awful fake letters. "Mad that Danny Lavery told people not to call the cops" wasn't on my radar, though.
posted by Frowner at 1:15 PM on September 13 [20 favorites]


My favorite obviously fake letter that has run in an advice column was the post about office turtles on AskAManager the other day.
posted by all about eevee at 1:16 PM on September 13 [7 favorites]


Maybe this is itself a fake column? Otherwise, seems like a kind of random pointless asshole thing to do. It's not actually that hard to "fool" people when they're professionally required to extend you at least a little extra presumption of good faith. And when you don't care about wasting their time, or depriving others who were sincerely seeking help of that help.
posted by praemunire at 1:19 PM on September 13 [29 favorites]


I cannot believe this person thought Daniel Lavery was the tiresome scold, after Emily Yoffe spent years as Dear Prudence shaming anyone who partook of alcohol or marijuana, or had/desired sex that was not within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

Also people from “the neurotic milieu of the Brooklyn middle class” always seem to believe it’s a universally fascinating, meaningful setting to explore in writing.
posted by snowmentality at 1:26 PM on September 13 [61 favorites]


Luckily nothing like this could ever happen on AskMefi.
posted by Phanx at 1:29 PM on September 13 [43 favorites]


Slate's How To Do It column also seems like a honeypot for fake letters.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:29 PM on September 13 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of my disillusionment with Found and Post Secret - I loved the first few but before long the "found" and "anonymous" letters and lists and items started becoming suspiciously poignant or well-written, almost as if a creative writing student was using the platform as a prompt. Unless there's some compelling reason to think otherwise, I've always considered all anonymous correspondence on the internet to be, if not outright fake, then at least highly doctored.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:34 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Those darn Yalies! (And I know he said he didn't go to Yale, but his credibility is kind of shot after that article.)
posted by TedW at 1:40 PM on September 13


You saw it here first folks, I'm christening this the "Dead Advice Column Theory"
posted by Hatashran at 1:43 PM on September 13 [8 favorites]


Emily Yoffe spent years as Dear Prudence shaming anyone who ... had/desired sex that was not within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

You mean like when she wrote, "I agree that couples can have various understandings about fidelity, but the key is being in agreement."?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:45 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


And I know he said he didn't go to Yale, but his credibility is kind of shot after that article.

It was nice of him to include the scenario for a Dear Penthouse letter, right in the column. (Wait, does Dear Penthouse do gay stuff?)
posted by praemunire at 1:46 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


You mean like when she wrote, "I agree that couples can have various understandings about fidelity, but the key is being in agreement."?

You mean, the one where where she said that a husband demanding an open marriage was a natural consequence of the wife cheating, and she had some nerve thinking otherwise?
posted by praemunire at 1:47 PM on September 13 [9 favorites]


After using up most of my free Slate articles reading the columns linked in the article, I have to say a lot of the letters in the column seem a little fishy. About the only thing they lack is an intro saying "Dear Prudence; I never believed the letters in your column were real. But just the other day I had an experience that turned me into a believer!"
posted by TedW at 1:49 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


Damn, praemunire, you beat me to it!
posted by TedW at 1:50 PM on September 13


I’ve often thought some of the popular advice column letters seem to speak in the same “voice,” and wondered if it was because they were edited to sound that way, or because they have a very insular group of engaged readership that all grew up together and went to the same schools, or because the columnist wrote them. Even the obnoxious ones are often obnoxious in a similar voice.
posted by acantha at 1:55 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


More than a couple times have I thought those advice letters to Slate were trollish.

Luckily nothing like this could ever happen on AskMefi.

Yes, and occasionally, same with the questions posted here from anonymous.
posted by Rash at 1:59 PM on September 13


Every month or so I go on an AITA binge and read a whole bunch at once. I tend to give lots of letter writers the benefit of the doubt, because most of the time when the average commenter is declaring something fake it's due to lack of experience, imagination or empathy. However the last time I binged I found myself thinking "this seems really fake" over and over again. Not because the scenarios seemed outlandish but more that they seemed calculated to elicit the most over the top response.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:19 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


My favorite obviously fake letter that has run in an advice column was the post about office turtles on AskAManager the other day.

The percentage of questions she posts where I think "this is fake" and/or "she wrote this herself" grows week by week.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:23 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


I mean, as someone who has trolled, I guess I see the appeal, though I don't like the idea of fooling a professional journalist for lulz. I used to do a persona in a certain comments section. I wrote things that were so silly that I laughed until I literally cried, and I felt like people got what they deserved for taking it seriously. (On that note, I remember seeing the Prudence headline about the mask thing. I didn't read it because it struck me as...dumb?)

Part of the thrill is making it silly enough that some can see the joke, but others can't. I once got somebody going who wanted to scold me about my poor writing (because the character was semi-illiterate.) Other people started trying to dissuade the mark, saying "can't you see how hard he is trolling you?" and that was the best reward of all.

So I guess my point is that trolling can be fun enough that it is worth going to hell for it.
posted by anhedonic at 2:29 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


The percentage of questions she posts where I think "this is fake" and/or "she wrote this herself" grows week by week.

I've spent the last several years in the kind of job that makes me ready to believe every last AAM letter there is, and the pandemic year panic-followed-by-isolation has engendered such a wild and wholly-detached derangement here that I wouldn't even put turtles past this crew.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:30 PM on September 13 [23 favorites]


The “badly-behaved boss” letters I can totally believe - there will be some crazy small business owner somewhere willing to coerce his workers into donating their liver to his brother. Or whatever.

The part I think is fake is the “oh here’s an update or three, within a week of the letter being printed, that includes a good five highly unlikely coincidences to tie everything up in a big bow”.
posted by tinkletown at 2:43 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]


TERRIFIED LIBERALS KEEP THEIR MASKS ON DURING SEX.
NOT THAT KIND OF MASK, TUCKER. It's the mask that hides the shame of our innermost selves from our partners
posted by adamrice at 2:43 PM on September 13 [9 favorites]


Part of the thrill is making it silly enough that some can see the joke, but others can't.

That's the thing, though, right? The answerer has to choose between "eff off, troll!", possibly injuring or at least not helping someone in need of help, or appearing to "get trolled."

I admit I make an exception for when people write in with scenarios that are clearly drawn from classic literature, because I feel like they're meant to be spotted by all and either ignored or laughed at. But, in general, I don't think it's that fun to take advantage of someone feeling obligated to extend you some presumption of good faith...because it's not that clever. I read news stories with an extremely critical eye, but I choose not to deploy that skill on AskMe for a reason.
posted by praemunire at 2:45 PM on September 13 [26 favorites]


You know, I didn't think I believed this from reading the headline but the article has a ring of truth to it. The one and only time I ever wrote to an advice columnist, they edited and altered point of my question completely in order to go on their favorite rant. At the time I had come to the conclusion that the problem with advice columnists was really the opposite of what I had always thought it was.... I used to think people were writing in with made-up problems, but after my question had been mangled, the more common theory about advice columnists - that *they* make up these questions and conundrums - seemed obvious to me for the first time.

I had almost forgotten this experience until I read this article and how often it happened to this fabulist. Grr. Now I'm peeved all over again.
posted by MiraK at 2:46 PM on September 13 [10 favorites]


So...I'm kind of reluctant to talk about this because I had to scrub a lot of my identity a few years ago for ~reasons, and it makes me nervous to say this. But quite a few years ago, I edited the Dear Prudence column, starting when it was still being written by Ann Landers's daughter. She was kind of a handful and I frequently got into hot water because I could not get her to change things, which editors technically were allowed to do (not when I was just the copyeditor, which was most of my job, but then I got put in charge of Prudie I think because no one else wanted to deal with her) but that never seemed to be the case with me and the writers. I suppose people didn't want to take me that seriously, also, because I was primarily on the copy desk doing copyediting and proofreading. A lot of the more well known writers at Slate were complete dicks to us, which is why the ones who treated us well I will stan for life.

ANYway, at least back then, I'm fairly sure that most letters were genuine--they certainly came in from people (they certainly came in from different addresses), and we edited them to make them at least readable (I mean, you can see just here on any given post what the writing skills of the majority of folks who don't work with words are like; sometimes things were nearly incomprehensible but the problem was interesting enough that we practically had to rewrite it just to make it publishable, or it'd be filled with swearing, vile talk, etc.). You really get to see the dregs of humanity when you read the stuff that comes in to the ask boxes. As far as I know, neither Margo nor Emily Yoffe, who took over Dear Prudence when I was there, ever made up anything themselves. I mean, I can't see why they would--the stuff that was coming in, whether true or not, was juicy enough.

The only real joy I got out of editing the column was in writing headlines, which I loved, because back then we were allowed to be creative with heds and captions, but that ended up going away eventually, first with captions because it was all about clicks for ad dollars and creative captions didn't always get click-throughs, and after I left Slate, they went for more direct, meat-and-potatoes heds, too.

I say that was the only joy because it was a difficult job--as I mentioned the writers had directions they wanted to go, and I often tried to push back but they went ahead and did their thing anyway. I still get tense and annoyed when I think about the time I tried very hard to get Emily to not tell someone who wrote in about how to handle family conflict over their choice to be child-free that they should reconsider their stance because they might change their minds when they find out how wonderful kids are. It was stuff like that, constantly, that sapped any enjoyment I got from my "promotion."

But that was all still in the Web 1.0 era, bleeding into the 2.0 era, and there were a lot fewer choices for advice columns, and newspapers, while struggling, were still alive. Nowadays, you can fulfill your creative writing desires by making up shit for reddit, or any number of advice columns. People seem to really love them, and I remember at the time, Dear Prudence had the most active comments section on Slate--readers got very involved, and everyone has opinions. I think a lot of folks believe they could be better advice column writers than Columnist X, but I gotta tell you, even if only a percentage of letters are real, it's still just A Lot. They'd find themselves feeling less certain once they tried it.

There were so many letters we didn't publish; we could have devoted dozens of pages to the amount of email we got. Sometimes we got real snail-mail letters. Sometimes they were pages and pages long, and I had to edit things down to the bare minimum or else you'd be there all freaking day reading those things. I know people who are actually in advice column fandom--they read all the columns, all the letters, they play on message boards and communities devoted to discussing the columns. Which I can only shake my head at and say "go with god."

It makes me a little sad that now this area is all about attention seeking and writing as dramatic and fucked-up a problem as you can create just for the lulz. I felt like I got pretty good at figuring out the directions of where advice should go, how things should be answered, even if I couldn't make recalcitrant writers do those things, and I got pretty good at understanding what made decent advice and what didn't.

But it has never made me want to write an advice column, I rarely read them, and I don't even weigh in often on some of the advice-columny Asks we get here. I've had my fill.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:15 PM on September 13 [96 favorites]


I suppose this puts me in the same category as the author's marks, but the thing that really annoyed me about this was that he seems to think something like a question about whether or not to call the cops is some sort of silly, self-indulgent question of etiquette. When it's literally a possible question of life or death!

Personally, I enjoyed Lavery's rants, though I guess that's not surprising because I enjoy his work in general. Yes, sometimes they felt a bit in lockstep with left-twitter-dom, but they always felt very well-thought-out and empathetic to me. Not really po-faced at all. I'm mostly talking about the podcast here, which I thought was a lot better and more interesting than the column.

And yes, he used the questions as a jumping-off point for what he wanted to talk about, but that doesn't really seem like a problem to me. Advice columns are a terrible way to actually get advice - it probably takes weeks or months for your question to get answered, and when they do, the columnist can't ask you any follow-up questions, so it's going to be very easy for their advice to meet the mark. They're entertainment for the readers/listeners, with some general life advice (for the audience, not the letter-writer) that they may or may not take.

Anyway, this author seems really pleased with himself for having successfully trolled someone for being annoyed that they advised people to be careful about their neighbors' safety.
posted by lunasol at 3:25 PM on September 13 [9 favorites]


Welp, ta hell with ‘im, then.
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 3:44 PM on September 13


I suspect that this person has a long-standing personal grudge against Lavery going back at least to the Toast days if not before. Why else would one writer take a dig at another writer for accepting an advance?
posted by Think_Long at 3:50 PM on September 13 [12 favorites]


This is kind of like, how can I put this, so self-involved as to be wandering around a museum with a baseball bat smashing things for fun and then only later kind of half-thinking "Hm, should I not have done that?" type behavior that I thought was perplexing & mysterious when I read it assuming it was one kind of person and then I thought was absolutely believable and predictable when I realized it was another type of person.

I'm not surprised to find out that any number of these letters were fake. I spend a lot of time reading AskMe, perhaps you could say that was my hobby, and only about, I dunno 1-2% of the time do I feel like I don't understand what the person is asking. I pretty much never feel confused or perplexed by the questions; a lot of the time I don't know how to answer them, or the question doesn't interest me, but I hardly ever feel like "Literally what are you trying to say?" But that is how I feel about most of the popular advice columns out there now. I have no idea what the letter writer is asking OR what the columnist is trying to answer them with, it's just long, long, long paragraphs of words that don't mean anything to me. I didn't know what this was about, but finding out at least some of it is "The first half is creative writing, the second half is stream of consciousness nonsense" at least solves that mystery for me.
posted by bleep at 3:58 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]


Why else would one writer take a dig at another writer for accepting an advance?

That's straightforward jealousy. Writers are always obsessed with how much their peers are making. The trolling happened before the advance.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:29 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]


Having now finished the article, my take-aways are:
1. Bennet Madison should commission an artist to make a series of 50s-pulp-eque illustrations of his question titles
2. He wrote a book called "September Girls" which is cool since now I have a cool song in my head that I haven't thought of in a while
3. The poor man's initials are BM :-(
posted by acantha at 4:32 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


I've heard that both David Mamet and Stephen King cut their teeth in the early 1970's writing fake letters for Penthouse magazine.
posted by goalyeehah at 4:34 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


what an incredibly toxic and shitty bad-faith column

Was it wrong for a letter-writer to call the cops when she saw a home invasion taking place on her street? (“You can’t go back in time and undo what you did, of course,” an unamused Prudie tsked.)

omitting the context that the letter writer was torn apart by guilt because her nephew was arrested as part of this call and her sister was actively blaming her for ruining her son's life

Would it be morally acceptable for another to steal their parents’ phones and secretly delete objectionable content from their Facebook feeds? (“Go ahead and unsubscribe them with my blessing,” Prudie advised.)

with the group being described as one that "traffics heavily in racist fake news concerning real and imagined crimes by “African youths.”

I know Gawker is a real pos drama rag but jfc this column sucks and targets someone who has gone through some incredibly painful things in their life. would be lovely if we avoided driving more traffic to this
posted by paimapi at 4:36 PM on September 13 [26 favorites]


Fun to read, but also there's this giddy sense of "ooh guys I'm such an asshole... am I an asshole?" feel to it. Makes me think those fake letters were probably preceded by some real ones.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 4:51 PM on September 13


I feel like this line says it all:
Now, Tucker Carlson made me consider that what I thought of as harmless trolling might actually have evil consequences.
I don't understand why it's so hard for some people to understand that bad-faith engagement is bad.
posted by biogeo at 5:01 PM on September 13 [33 favorites]


So did the father really walk in on his daughter having sex with her boyfriend while he (the boyfriend) was wearing the mom's Mrs. Santa Claus outfit?

This is a shitty article by someone who's proud of . . . what? My mother used to say it was easy to fool honest people because people who don't lie assume others don't lie as well. So I guess he stuck it to the man? Fooled all those rubes who believe the letters are real? Showed that he's really a great writer after all, since he was able to convince people he was telling the truth? I'm not sure exactly what he thinks his accomplishment is, but he's sure enamored with himself about something.

But I have to mostly agree with his assessment of Lavery as Dear Prudence. The good thing was I got so annoyed by Lavery that I was able to break my Dear Prudence addiction, which worked out well, since Slate now limits free articles - and there's not enough there that's worth paying for (I do miss Laura Miller though - and the occasional piece by Rebecca Schuman ).
posted by FencingGal at 5:19 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]


I've heard that both David Mamet and Stephen King cut their teeth...
Yes, I have heard the same one, and with lots of other authors of that period, I'd be surprised if way more creative people did it than we know.

Robert Anton Wilson (Illuminatus! trilogy etc.) was the letters editor for Playboy in the late 1960s, and was inspired by the sheer mischief and weirdness that turned up in the post, to the extent that he and collaborators started seeding it with deliberately odd references to gigantic secret conspiracies. As you do in a skin magazine
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:30 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]


omitting the context that the letter writer was torn apart by guilt because her nephew was arrested as part of this call and her sister was actively blaming her for ruining her son's life

...no, having going and found the text of the column, Lavery is in fact saying the LW is in the wrong for calling the police. In fact, they spend the entire first paragraph on how wrong they were, before giving any advice about the current situation. I wouldn't say the LW is torn apart by guilt, either -- unhappy about the outcome, but doesn't think they did anything wrong. Which I guess is why Lavery wanted to lecture them.
posted by tavella at 5:41 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I found this to be a refreshing bit of evidence that the brand new Gawker is still hiring the same old assholes.
posted by chinese_fashion at 6:08 PM on September 13 [8 favorites]


While part of me was excited to have duped a dweeb like Tucker Carlson with such an obviously phony scenario

Yes, I'm sure he would have buried his head in the pillow and sobbed if he only knew that he was the one who got taken in.
posted by polecat at 6:24 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


So…. Do people read advise columns assuming everything is real? Does that even matter? I read them for fun, and maybe there are no real office turtles, but it’s fun to think about!

I also quit reading Dear Prudence during the Lavery run. Reading sensible answers was not the point, I prefer to think about how I could do it better.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:03 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


This is pure punching down, sticking it to the SJWs. I admit that Lavery wasn't at his most fun when giving advice, but that doesn't mean he was always wrong. For example, the "house invasion" referred to above was at a house that was vacant.

This guy has made himself a right-wing troll. His moment of blinking surprise that he'd ended up on Tucker Carlson doesn't matter. We are what we pretend to be, like the man says.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:32 PM on September 13 [13 favorites]


Daniel Lavery gave, on balance, good, serious advice that resonated with LGBTQ people, especially women, agender people and trans men - many of us do in fact live lives where we are a teensy bit skeptical of the police, many of us don't have an affluent white cis gay man's ability to integrate into upper middle class Brooklyn, etc.

His advice reflected his values and it made us the primary audience. We're never the primary audience. Nobody ever treats, eg, trans women as if they're the norm to which advice should be pitched, it's always normie cis people with standard vaguely right-wing American values. I loved his column because it was a normal American advice column, except it was for people like me so the advice made sense for my life.

People believe their beliefs. Parts of the left tend to believe that the right doesn't believe their beliefs, they're just misguided or playacting for fun or whatever, but no, they do in fact believe all that racist, homophobic, man is the head of the house and in charge of nature stuff. Similarly, many left-leaning LGBTQ people do in fact believe that the police system we have now is bad and should be avoided as much as possible because it causes bigger and more permanent problems than it solves. We're not pretending to think that for, like, cool points or to be popular on tumblr, etc. So advice that starts from "all cops are bastards based on actual lived American experience" instead of "back the blue except for the very occasional bad apple" is pretty refreshing.

Americans think that being right-wing is normal and the default and anything else is lazy, self-indulgent special pleading that can only exist off in a tiny barely tolerated corner somewhere. We tend to think this even if we're not right-wing. Daniel Lavery's advice column was important because it treated being left-wing as a normal, intelligent, reasonable thing instead of some freaky-deaky aberration for trust fund beatniks or whatever.
posted by Frowner at 7:48 PM on September 13 [57 favorites]


“Help! I can’t stop humblebragging about how adorably clever I was when I sent outrageous made-up soap-opera plots to an advice column written by one of those humorless SJWs!”

I mean, if the author were one of my man-attracted friends, I’d be inclined to ask what exactly he hoped to catch with this kind of pick-me bait. But, Gawker, so I guess I already have an answer. This just seems like a cheap ploy for attention, at Lavery’s expense.

I admit Emily Yoffe stunk up Slate beyond repair years before, anyway — with or without her haughtily-credulous responses to salaciously-sus letters. Maybe I’d be less grossed out if her sympathies (if any) had been the ones preyed-upon.
posted by armeowda at 7:56 PM on September 13 [7 favorites]


This guy has made himself a right-wing troll. His moment of blinking surprise that he'd ended up on Tucker Carlson doesn't matter. We are what we pretend to be, like the man says.

that he comes up towards ending with a realization of the serious harm that bad-faith engagement can cause, only to go "heh. no, though" at the end, takes some real courage of your shitty convictions I guess

lavery's great, his run on prudie was a totally fine and good run of that kind of advice column (plus the other net-positives Frowner articulated well). and as mentioned above, advice columns operate on a premise of good-faith -- so even if you remove the potential for actual harm caused by inventing new types of guy, this is sort of like trolling a tech support phone line with made-up but plausible problems?

the imagined javert-valjean relationship this dude had going on is a real bizarre and sad topper
posted by Kybard at 8:00 PM on September 13 [8 favorites]


King's never mentioned having written for Penthouse Forum, although he has been open about the majority of his pre-Carrie short story sales having been to the lesser porn magazines.

As for fake letters/posts on reddit or whatever, I tend to be pretty cynical about that sort of stuff; even before it became common on social media, lots of people in the blogosphere noted how certain bloggers could always depend on catching a taxi whose driver made the exact point that they were belaboring their readers with. And the audience seems more than willing to play along; not too long ago, I commented on Twitter, in response to someone seeming upset about something on /r/AITA, that it was probably fake, and in return got overweeningly snarked at. Apparently, I broke kayfabe.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:06 PM on September 13


So…. Do people read advise columns assuming everything is real? Does that even matter?

I find advice columns far less engaging if they're not about actual problems, personally. I can imagine what I'd do in a hypothetical situation that could never possibly happen, because I can write in the perfect solution to my fictional problem. Given that often these problems are about how one person or another has come to see the situation in a bizarre way, finding out that the problem is less that you need to induce them to challenge their perceptions, and more that they've been written that way for maximum drama, is dispiriting.
posted by Merus at 8:20 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


And yes, he used the questions as a jumping-off point for what he wanted to talk about, but that doesn't really seem like a problem to me.

This is why we used to have personal blogs.
posted by bendy at 8:21 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]


In terms of fake letters/AITA, etc:

1. The really heart-wringing ones are always especially weird to me because obviously someone really enjoys fantasizing about, for instance, that chronic reddit favorite the totally un-self-aware and monstrous parent who is incredibly cruel to their kid. I mean, not that there are no monstrous parents, but they don't talk like tumblr while still indicting themselves out of their own mouths. Are the writers revenging themselves on a cruel parent? Are they fantasizing about cruelty without admitting it to themselves? A little bit of both?

2. I don't especially care for fake letters because I don't like getting all wrought up over nothing. The rest of my social media is a constant stream of real-life queer people in actual crisis, local police brutality, etc. I don't care for either constantly being on my guard or getting faked out over some kind of horrible abusive parenting that's completely imaginary.

3. The whole troll-the-humorless-SJWs bit is extra weird to me because it seems to suggest that the troller has, well, let's say a lot of emotional distance. "Lol I made people think I was a trans kid getting kicked out by an abusive parent!!! But in a furry costume, which made it funny!!!" or whatever.

4. There's always the whole question of what's an advice column for, aren't all letters fake on some level etc etc etc, it's cringe to take any of it too seriously and blah blah blah, but I lived through the nineties so I already did my time in the "sincerity is cringe, carefully calculate your ironic distance so that you never get caught out being weak by having a feeling unless it's your strong emotional attachment to Althusser/Trotsky/Agamben/etc" mines.
posted by Frowner at 8:25 PM on September 13 [19 favorites]


I gotta say, I loved The Toast, but Danny's substack is...not for me. It's like, what if The Toast but every article was "Everything That's Wrong of Raccoons"? It's good for an article, but it's tiring for a publication. And I also found some of his sanctimony as Prudie tiring, like I understood why he was doing it but to me, critiquing people's politics is like the least fun part of advice columns. People of all political stripes have crazy personal lives that need untangling!

Well, to each their own I suppose. Life, as Danny says, is a rich tapestry, and I'm sure that his work is right up some peoples' alleys, and good for them. But...none of this explains why you'd spend your time writing him fake advice scenarios? I just really, sincerely, don't get it.
posted by goingonit at 8:43 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Part of the value I found in advice columns is to help me perceive the breadth of human experience, to get some data points on what people outside my own head and outside my social circle are struggling with. For so many letters to be fake casts doubt on the composite sketch of the world.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:46 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that trying to decide if a letter to an advice column is fake or not is a fool's game. There are 370+ million people in this country, there's bound to be a whole lot of weird shit happening out there in the great unknown. Since you can never know one way or the other, just decide they're all real if that's what makes the exercise of reading an advice column better for you.
posted by axiom at 9:00 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


My mother used to say it was easy to fool honest people because people who don't lie assume others don't lie as well.

Here, here, FencingGal's mom. Ease is, of course, relative but I would hate to live in a world where it was hard to fool an honest person. Which seems fundamentally where this type of casual deception leads.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 9:30 PM on September 13 [7 favorites]


(1.) I found myself thinking "this seems really fake" over and over again

Especially chronically fake in the case of the Penthouse of my undergrad years, wherein their incessant monthly barrage of loss-of-limb-sex advice letters, vis-a-vis their ineluctable stream of luscious perfect-naked-body Pets, seemed so luridly antithetical. Still I read each one as part of my monthly magazine experience.

(2.) As a 4th grader, Ann Landers made me consider our daily newspaper beyond perusing the more jokey comic strips. I expected prim Puritan, but got my first taste of compassionate empathy from her serious advice.

From her column, I became curious about what the rest of the newspaper might hold. IIRC, it began with following the soap-operatic sagas of the likes of (weird) Rex Morgan, (inexplicable) Mark Trail, and (sickening) Mary Worth; then discoveringing the sport pages section, where I got hooked on the fascinating Actual Baseball Statistics dutifully published in important-looking tiny fonts; and finally reading the Letters to the Editor, largely penned by certain griping suburbanite adults. Their gripes seemed real, if one-sided. (After all, I was living among them.) And actually, they didnʻt strike me as much different from the deeply felt concerns of Ms Landerʻs fodder.

(3.) Yʻknow, I was an actual Yalie, but during my four years there I never came across mention of a Secret Society whose fakery seemed to be her anathema. Of course, none of us preterite outsiders knew what really went on beyond those closed doors and masoned-up windows.

Iʻm starting to suspect the provenance of those loss-of-limb sex letters as well.
posted by Droll Lord at 11:38 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


Wasn’t it supposed to be good practice to write letters to the editor, or that sort of column, to develop writing skill, not fiction writing skill? My impression is this erodes work that attempts to be a public good for people who struggle enough to ask for an outside opinion. So if they read something that matches a life experience, then checks it with a friend saying “I read this in Advice Column”, and before they can even consider sharing a matching personal anecdote, they hear “ it’s fake” it can be silencing. In my work with people with disabilities, they are constantly disbelieved. I can’t give the writer in this article my attention. It feels like they are part of the Fake News mantra, not someone who is trying to leave the world a little better than they found it. Yes, people do lie, and exaggerate, and it harms real people who would benefit from social support and appropriate health care (in my work) who are disbelieved and ignored rather than engaged within thoughtful exchanges and solid deliberation.
posted by childofTethys at 4:52 AM on September 14 [12 favorites]


Daniel was pretty open in the chats about not trying to discern whether letters were or weren't fake. And I don't know how much I care, either, tbh. As long as they aren't publishing my letters (oh, Carolyn Hax, why hast thou forsaken me?) then the advice isn't going to be directly applicable to me anyway. But I often find nuggets of truth and perspective in advice column answers that are interesting or useful even if I've never been in anything close to the situation described.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:08 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


It's not actually that hard to "fool" people when they're professionally required to extend you at least a little extra presumption of good faith.

Absolutely right. I hate it when comedians make prank calls to customer service staff too. It's punching down, and all the more obnoxious when the perpetrator seems to think they're so bloody clever for doing it.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:59 AM on September 14 [16 favorites]


I cannot believe this person thought Daniel Lavery was the tiresome scold, after Emily Yoffe spent years as Dear Prudence shaming anyone who partook of alcohol or marijuana, or had/desired sex that was not within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

Every time I read a "from the archives" and am absolutely appalled by the advice being given, it's Joffe. I've considered writing and suggesting they take her columns out of rotation, but I don't care quite enough (yet) to do it.
posted by Orlop at 7:52 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


I have never been a dedicated reader of advice columns, but now I am quite amused by the idea of Ann Landers occasionally punctuating her columns with asides like, "If this is another one of you damn Yalies, you should know I'm on to you! I hope New Haven sinks into Long Island Sound, you secret society bastards!"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:02 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]


I cannot believe this person thought Daniel Lavery was the tiresome scold

I’ll bet a nickel this was based on the response to the letter from the first-year teacher whose “snack drawer” for students who were coming to class hungry was raided nightly by a janitor. Link for the full story.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:42 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


I love advice columns and Dear Prudence especially, and I have been a fan of Daniel Lavery since The Toast, though my feelings about his turn as Prudie are a bit complicated (a little too quick to reach for the "cut them out of your life" tool, though for understandable reasons given his personal family history.)

I am not sure how I feel about the idea that these letters are made up. On the one hand, at least I don't have to feel guilty for my prurient interest in the personal problems of these fictional characters? I mean, advice columns always make me feel like a peeping Tom, but this is just watching a cartoon of sorts, and I don't have to worry that the writer is being exploited for my entertainment.

On the other hand, I this guy is a jerk, even if I personally am not the victim of his jerkitude (because I was never entitled to honest letters). He is wasting the time of a person I appreciate (Lavery.) And he's so fricking full of himself. Some of us are just trying to figure stuff out. We want some validation for our choices or guidance on how not to violate social norms. Some people just want to tell their stories. Why mock that? And how unfair to the people who wrote sincere letters and wanted to get answers, and didn't because he took their spots?

And then it ends with him feeding Tucker Carlson some new disinformation to spread around? Yuck.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:45 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


Dear Prudence is the only Danny Lavery output that I don't really care for, so I totally get it not being someone's cup of tea, but who tf looks around at a) literally everything else going on in the world and b) Danny Lavery's life over the last couple years and thinks, "Man, you know who really needs to be taken down a peg right now? Danny Lavery."
posted by naoko at 9:54 AM on September 14 [17 favorites]


who tf looks around at a) literally everything else going on in the world and b) Danny Lavery's life over the last couple years and thinks, "Man, you know who really needs to be taken down a peg right now? Danny Lavery."

For real, it's just sour grapes. Lavery found success very quickly, and continues to be very successful and prolific despite everything he has been dealing with for the last several years, and some people are just jealous assholes who can't fucking deal.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:23 AM on September 14 [11 favorites]


Very tangential but fascinating: The original Dear Prudence was Herb Stein. It was a late-in-life career twist; earlier he served as Nixon and Ford's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He also wrote essays for Slate, including the heartbreaking Watching the Couples Go By.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:57 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


But quite a few years ago, I edited the Dear Prudence column, starting when it was still being written by Ann Landers's daughter. She was kind of a handful and I frequently got into hot water because I could not get her to change things, which editors technically were allowed to do (not when I was just the copyeditor, which was most of my job, but then I got put in charge of Prudie I think because no one else wanted to deal with her) but that never seemed to be the case with me and the writers.

Heh, my mother went to college with her at Brandeis. She (Howard) was apparently super obnoxious, and would go and sit in guys' laps even when they didn't want her to, such as right before a class that was about to begin. Successful people have to be super competitive, I guess.
posted by Melismata at 11:10 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I have never been a dedicated reader of advice columns, but now I am quite amused by the idea of Ann Landers occasionally punctuating her columns with asides like, "If this is another one of you damn Yalies, you should know I'm on to you! I hope New Haven sinks into Long Island Sound, you secret society bastards!"

I remember reading a column of hers when I was little, where her response to the letter was basically "nice try." I can't remember what the letter was about, but she did say something about the New Haven postmark being part of what gave it away (I didn't know what that meant at the time). Which makes me wonder why the Yalies wouldn't be smart enough to drive a few towns over to mail the letters.

The thing is, if these are fiction, they're not good fiction, at least not good enough that a literary journal would publish them or people would even read them if they were labeled as fiction. McSweeney's publishes fake and outrageous very short stories and sometimes fake letters, but they're good enough that they don't need to pretend they're real to get readers. If you can only get your fiction published by trolling advice columnists and lying to readers, then I'd say you've failed as a writer, even if Gawker is ready to publish your first-person piece about what an asshole you are.
posted by FencingGal at 11:59 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


This article was a delight, thanks for posting.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:37 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


This all just sounds lame and like this person needed a better hobby.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:25 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


If you can only get your fiction published by trolling advice columnists and lying to readers, then I'd say you've failed as a writer, even if Gawker is ready to publish your first-person piece about what an asshole you are.

He has four novels that were traditionally published, which is more than many writers get nowadays. Even though this article is all about how he is less than truthful, it sounds plausible that the fake letters were a result of wanting a quick hit in the middle of burnout.

I'm a little surprised that so many people here take advice columns so seriously. I guess it has been nearly ten years since Slate brought us the clickbait incest twins.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:47 PM on September 14


Danny Lavery is a good friend of mine, and I have zero sense of humor about this one (which I haven't brought up with him yet; I have no doubt he's handling it with his customary and almost alarming equilibrium). I mean, man, congratulations on trolling a fellow writer with a challenging job, and one who's had a very publicly rough few years, and one who you know does more than publish books of fictitious texts and "write about geese." It's like being proud that you wrecked your car artistically.
posted by thesmallmachine at 3:50 PM on September 14 [10 favorites]


I'm a little surprised that so many people here take advice columns so seriously.

I don't generally take them seriously, but I don't see the point in being a dick to those who do. Seems like a situation where, under normal circumstances, you could just let people do their thing, silly/futile as it may be, instead of going out of your way to fuck with them.

(Also, while not every bit of Lavery's work lands perfectly with me, even if I thought he was a lousy comedy writer I'd not feel any particular need to set him up in my mind as a fun nemesis to mess with, given the crap he's been through in the last few years.)
posted by praemunire at 4:06 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


She (Howard) was apparently super obnoxious, and would go and sit in guys' laps even when they didn't want her to, such as right before a class that was about to begin. Successful people have to be super competitive, I guess.

I don't think there's a better illustration of how thoroughly society has shifted than Slate's advice columnist changing from someone who used to casually sexually assault people to Yoffe to Lavery.
posted by zymil at 4:12 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Seems like he should have written a YA novel about an orphaned wizard teenager who writes fake letters to wizard advice columnists.
posted by LarryC at 12:28 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Pull quote from casual Googly-searching -- donʻt know if the sentiment applies to the modern Miss Lʻs.

"At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.”. ― Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
posted by Droll Lord at 1:08 PM on September 15


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