We used to get plenty of free advice everywhere. All our female relatives, most of our male relatives, and virtually every adult we knew handed out comments about our behavior, our appearance, and our life plans. We also got advice from our peers, much of it jeering. As most of us in America have moved to urban and suburban living, we’ve substituted our office coworkers, or the people in our church (temple, etc.), or fellow team members in sports leagues for the smaller social units that used to rule our lives. Since these newer social worlds are strictly voluntary and often fairly political, we find we don’t get the amount of free advice we did in the past. You would think we’d all like that very much. Meddling, nosy busybodies don’t interfere with our lives anymore by spreading vicious gossip or inciting social cliques to turn against us because of our hemlines, our liking for loud modern music, or our taste in men.
Not so. We still desperately want advice. Deprived of censorious aunts or cynical divorcée cousins who think they can discern the difference between a player and good husband material, we seek help from advice columnists in newspapers and on the Internet. It’s like watching a train wreck when the young women write in to Carolyn Hax and describe their boyfriends’ selfish or abusive behavior. These women detail sad events in their relationships and then back and fill and try to pretend that they aren’t seriously uneasy about the implications. Hax then spells out the likely possibilities, and online commenters offer up their advice, too. It’s a lot more impersonal than getting a lecture from Aunt Ethel (who was a nice old bird, after all, but crazy). But it still fills the need both for the person who asks for advice, and for all the advice givers—and for the lurkers who merely read the columns. Advice columns are all over the Internet. We have one on this site, Ask Dr. Charmaine, and it’s a good one. When I was in college, I noticed that the boys read advice columns, not just the girls. Why? Because there is blood and guts (okay, only metaphorically) in these tales of woe. There is passion.
Romance novels major in those same powerful, intimate feelings, and I think to some degree we read romances to get the same charge we get from reading about someone’s dilemmas in an advice column. Romance novels often spell out the consequences of making bad choices. Bored heroines come to realize that their ennui is caused by settling for relationships with men who don’t appreciate them, and whom they don’t really like. Desperate heroines are fleeing ex-husbands who abused them and isolated them from their families and friends. Challenged heroines are testing how they feel being involved with men from a much higher socioeconomic level, and so on. Along the way, many of the common complaints (bossy in-laws, insolent children, selfish relatives) seen in advice columns also are illustrated. The boys and men who read advice columns don’t usually read romances, but if they did, they’d really get a window into how females think and what they feel. They’d also get the same visceral satisfaction we all do at entering into others’ personal lives and seeing their problems resolve happily.