Ask Matt Labash: An anti-advice advice column, or why you should not seek advice from advice columnists
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Matt, I was shocked to read an article in the Atlantic surveying developments in the area of advice columns for men. The shock was not that I was reading the Atlantic, but that you were not mentioned as a man’s advice columnist. Some other hipsters were mentioned. Anyway, the article wanted me — a man — to be upset that men’s advice columns tend to be “practical and unemotional” and focused on the “superficial” — and this is a national problem or something. Now, when I think of practical, unemotional and superficial, I’m thinking Matt Labash. But according to the Atlantic, what I — a man — really should want is weepy, unfocused and serious advice. So, my question for you is this: are you making pussies of us all? Or, are we not pussies because we read your column? Help me please, I got no place else to go! — Sydney (and I’m using the man’s version of that name, even though I should use an “I” — oh, god, I need help)
First, apologies for my protracted absence and to the legions of readers demanding my return, even if they didn’t have time to write letters to that effect. (The deepest hurts are often left unvoiced.) I do have a real job, of sorts, which had me out in the real world, or what’s left of it, fraternizing with Bronies and buglers. Also, I was taking some time for personal reflection, shopping for fast-wick workout gear, and trying to get my body rock-hard for when the bottom inevitably falls out of journalism, so that I can pursue exciting new career opportunities as a Zumba instructor. If you haven’t heard, they’re shaking up the circuit down at Curves!
But yes, you are correct to be troubled by anyone who takes the position of “men’s advice columnist” seriously enough to write an entire prescriptive article scolding them for their shortcomings. So it did not wound me in the least to be omitted from such a piece. For I do not write advice for men. I write advice for people. People who just so happen to have either penises or vaginas. Both, if they’re lucky.
By my count, I’ve written about 110 of these babies. So you might think that I’ve learned a thing or two about human nature in that time. Well, you’d be thinking wrong. Because most of the people who write to a guy in a fishing hat on a red-meat political website break down into roughly one of three categories:
1. People who want to discuss the ins and outs of Barack Obama’s Kenyan citizenship.
2. People who want to discuss fly fishing tips. (That’s my fault.)
3. People who write 500-word mini essays with a “what-do-you-think?” gratuitously pegged onto the end, since they don’t have enough of an outlet in their Feelings Journal or in the creative writing class they’re auditing down at the community college.
So, often, I go many columns without being called upon to dispense actual life advice. A pity, since faux-modesty aside, I’m wise. I haven’t just lived my life to get through, waiting for the Reaper to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Out of the pool, bub.” Rather, I have lived my life to accumulate knowledge and experience. Which I hope to share with others, so that they may benefit from me setting such knowledge and experience down in print. So that I can then lawfully deduct many of those experiences on the Schedule-A form of my income taxes. Thus providing more material wealth to have more experiences. As you can see, unlike with some of the other advice columnists that the Atlantic writer takes to the woodshed, shallow-ness ain’t my bag.
That said, anyone who writes to some stranger on a website, genuinely hoping that what that stranger says might alter the course of their existence, probably needs more help than I can give them. Advice columns are typically written by self-appointed experts without expertise, also known as journalists, or some variation thereof. And have you ever met a journalist? It’s not a pretty picture. They’re grubby. They’re superficial. They tend to have all the vanity of someone who has accomplished something, without having gone through the bother of actually accomplishing it.
Journalists are generalists by nature, who as a species, tend to evidence two behaviors in spades: a. they know a little about a lot of things b. uncertainty about what they don’t know is no impediment to popping off about it with utmost certainty. And nowhere is generality more useful than when writing advice columns. Much of the advice columny racket is populated by those who didn’t have the specialty knowledge or ambition to become something more useful, like gardening columnists or horoscope writers. If you’d ask me if you should seek serious life-altering advice from an advice columnist, as a professional advice columnist, I’d have to advise, “No way.” Or rather, if you like an advice columnist’s take on the world — let’s say, mine for the sake of illustration — then by all means, solicit it. But that opinion should carry no more weight than any other nudnik’s, since any nudnik’s opinion is essentially what you’re getting.
Not that I’m knocking advice columns. They’ve been good to me. Where else would I get the chance to encounter so many lovely, logorrheic fly-fishing birthers?
Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.