The Reading Life: Turning the Screw with Ask Polly


A friend of mine was in town over the weekend. He and I both talk too much, forgetting often why we are going into so much detail. At one point, we were walking in the East Village. I had a headache, and he was reminiscing about his college days, which were not the same as mine. In his day, everyone awaited Friday’s edition of the college paper in a frenzy. He assured me this probably does not happen anymore.

“And why not,” I challenged.

“Because the movie listings were in the paper,” he replied, as if this were self-evident. I nodded. Okay, sure. This no longer happens. But people obviously still do this. That whole things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be schtick is obviously a song and dance. All that’s changed is the form of the object of your rabidity, not the foaming at the mouth itself. Who hasn’t enjoyed waiting as a group for something to be released? These days, I get plenty excited about album leaks, movie trailers, the big books of every season, rumors of every size in the Daily Mail. Collective baited breath is pretty exciting. Something something Twitter something something.

On Wednesdays, a group of friends and I watch the clock with the kind of frenzy my friend was recalling fondly.

“When is Ask Polly going to be up? It’s almost 5,” I have typed at least twice, betraying a near-psychotic attention to the rhythms of the Awl’s posting schedule. Ask Polly is an advice column—an existential one, written by Heather Havrilesky under the moniker Polly Esther. The questions people ask range from basic dating queries (last week’s letter writer wondered if she was just a booty call) to more serious issues like substance abuse and lifelong friendship dealbreakers. Example: one particularly horrendous Polly letter-writer tried to justify, with bullet points, why he should be able to cheat on his wife. Needless to say, Polly tore him to pieces. “You’ve been watching too much ‘Mad Men,’” she said. For someone who loves hearing other people’s secrets, Ask Polly is chocolate cake.

Havrilesky’s tone can be pegged in two words by the ubiquitous phrase “real talk.” She calls it like she sees it, you know? She is a proponent of the types of women my friends and I see as ourselves, which is to say opinionated. Also weird, smart, etc.—in looking forward to Polly’s advice we’re playing out an aversion to the wilting flower, the well-kept, the overly sweet, without dismissing it or being overly prescriptive to others. Even if we are not tough ourselves, listening to someone tough is a quick drug. It’s like hearing, say, Chrissie Hynde speak in something like tongues in “The Wait,” as her band’s guitars snake around like garden hoses. Or whatever it is you listen to when you want to feel confident.

The guise of prophets is important. Let that beggar in, for he might be a god, but if you get to choose what the messiah looks and sounds like? Well, you have your pick: Dear Prudence, Ask Polly, Dear Sugar, Ask a Grown Man, Ask a Queer Chick, and so on. I never jumped on the Cheryl Strayed bandwagon with Dear Sugar, the Rumpus’s big advice column that launched Strayed’s ship. Her tone was less Barbara Stanwyck with a sawed-off shotgun, more earth mama with some tea. Both are fine, both are good. But there are so many advice columns on the internet for this precise reason, this variance in how we want to hear the same words of wisdom repeated to us like a hymn. “YOU ARE CURRENTLY PRAYING AT THE ALTAR OF THE MOST TEDIOUS RELIGION IN THE UNIVERSE,” Polly recently said to a woman who couldn’t get over her exes. With Polly, it’s like you forgot your mantra, and your mantra is shut up for a second.

Have you read Miss Lonelyhearts? I imagine you have. Nathanael West is no literary secret. But if you have not, I’ll summarize. Miss Lonelyhearts is a short novel about an advice columnist who contracts a savior complex under the duress of reading so much about suffering. It’s dark stuff, one of my favorite pieces of fiction. And my favorite character, or at least the character that makes me laugh, is Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s abusive editor. Shrike teases his writer with faux-religious blather about preaching and duty, and I smile every time. (My sense of humor might not be advisable.)

“Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend,” goes one diatribe. “I advise you to give your readers stones. When they ask for bread don’t give them crackers as does the Church, and don’t, like the State, tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones. Teach them to pray each morning: ‘Give us this day our daily stone.’”

Thinking this monologue over, Miss Lonelyhearts adds that he has a stone in his gut, formed by all the letters he gets asking for an end to pain. Do most advice columnists feel this burden? They must, to some extent. West was drawing from the Great Depression, from real letters taken from a friend of S.J. Perelman’s who had been tasked with writing an advice column for the Brooklyn Eagle. These letters were about deformity, mental illness, sexual assault, abuse, and the absence of love. It might be that the letters Polly sees fit to publish are the ones she can answer, and there are many that sit accusingly in her inbox. The Miss Lonelyhearts mailbag certainly seems more serious, anyway, than some of the questions posed to Polly or Sugar or Prudence. (God, especially Prudence. Pru’s letter-writers might all be insane or idiotic, I can’t decide: “Help! I caught my husband sniffing my niece’s underwear!” and other issues easily solved by common sense.)

But what is Polly giving us if not stones? Her column is not about blame; it’s about responsibility. Lots of companionship is about assurance and echo. Lots of therapy is about listening and not interrupting. Polly and her ilk interrupt quite a bit and don’t echo quite as much. Somewhere between therapist and friend, priest and charlatan, the internet advice columnist is helping with her personality. By not being as anonymous as someone like Miss Lonelyhearts.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from internet advice columns is how to tell my problems to others. It’s kind of awful how you learn from others’ mistakes. It’s kind of tricky, right, to tell a story in such a way to hide the thing you already know is true? You should leave him, you should get help, you should apologize, you should shut the fuck up. I usually know the answer somehow—rarely do I find myself shocked by Polly’s responses. If I’m ever shocked, actually, it’s due to how comforting it is to hear discomforting truths. Perhaps it is as comforting as reading passages like this one:

He had given his readers many stones; so many, in fact, that he had only one left — the stone that had formed in his gut. Suddenly tired, he sat down on a bench. If he could only throw the stone. He searched the sky for a target. But the gray sky looked as if it had been rubbed with a soiled eraser. It held no angels, flaming crosses, olive-bearing doves, wheels within wheels. Only a newspaper struggled in the air like a kite with a broken spine. He got up and started again for the speakeasy.

Or this one:

You pity the old ladies. What you don’t know is that they pity you even more. They know what a burden you’re carrying around, and they know how bad it makes you feel, to think of losing this thing that’s actually a crutch that keeps you from maturing and connecting with the real world. I know you’re just being honest. I don’t want to give you shit for that. I just think you need to get a bad haircut and eat a big piece of cherry pie and join the rest of us.

These are my rites, my weekly readings. The sky holds no angels or wheels within wheels. Eat some pie. Join the rest of us.

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