Advice Columns Vs. Self Help Books

This morning this headline on The Awl grabbed my attention as I was trolling my list of zines for a good read: A Q&A with the Advice Columnist Called ‘Sugar’.  I suspected “Sugar” was Sugar the anon advice columnist from the lit magazine “The Rumpus” which I read now and then and I was right. I’d seen Sugar’s column featured prominently on “The Rumpus” but had never actually read it since I’m not a fan of advice columns and I figured it was all about sex anyway (not that that’s a bad thing!); however, I was curious as to what Sugar had to say in this interview so I clicked through. I skimmed through the first half when I realized it was all about how the interviewer knew Sugar in real life but didn’t know she was the anon Sugar of “The Rumpus”…. yadda, yadda, yadda and then I zeroed in on the following question and Ms Sugar’s answer (boldface is mine):

“Tell me what that message is.”

“Well it’s so many things that I feel like, what you could do, if you read all of my columns they do boil down to some pretty essential truths. You hit on one of them when you said ‘the hard choice is often the best one,’ that life is both more simple and more complex than most of us would like to believe, that there is something about the essential, that we all have an essential truth within us which if we really listen to that, which is totally different than that bumper sticker ‘follow your bliss,’ which is bullshit. You know? And that’s, I have never read a self help book in my life. I think self help is pretty much bullshit. I don’t pay attention to this…what’s that Oprah book, like The Secret, or some sort of crap like that? ‘If you only believe, then it will be true,’ I think that’s a really aggressively entitled bullshit sort of approach to life’s complicated questions. And at the same time there’s a piece of that in Sugar that says ultimately we’re all responsible for our lives, we’re all going to fail, we all have something inside to offer, and our work here is to find out and express it in whatever channels are appropriate. So it’s not Sugar’s message, but it’s really just my life, everything I think about how to live, which is in opposition to that self help crap.

I find it ironic that Sugar thinks self help books are bullshit , apparently not recognizing that she engages in the same “bullshit” on a different level. I’ve read a self help book  or two in my day, in a quest for finding workable solutions for life issues, by people educated and published in their area of interest.  It’s easy to find experts on a given subject by simply researching a subject and assessing the qualifications and education of those who have written about it or soliciting recommendations from friends and colleagues. The same cannot [always] be said of advice columnists, many of whom are people who are hired by infotainment newspapers and magazines to give their opinions on any and every subject under the sun without any discernible expertise. In the answer above Sugar even states herself that “…but it’s really just my life, everything I think about how to live “.  Um, o.k. But don’t read those self help books by psychologists, physicians and educators because that’s, ya know, bullshit. Interestingly, in this interview, Sugar describes her column thusly:

“It’s self-help and it’s also anti-self help.”

It seems to me Ms Sugar is as dazed and confused as the rest of us poor slobs trying to make sense of this thing called life.

While I’m not a regular reader of advice columnists, I’ll admit to occasionally rubbernecking a particularly sensational advice column headline in the newspaper or a magazine. In my opinion, though, most advice columns are really just voyeuristic exploitation of people’s confusion and hopelessness for the ratings game and/or public recognition and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But everyone is entitled to their opinion and is free to seek help from whatever forum they please. Maybe an anonymous advice columnist of unknown qualifications has more validity for some because of her life experience than the author of a self help book. And that’s….o.k. I’ll just take my chances with a well researched book, thank you.