It used to be that when you wanted advice without turning to your friends or family, your only choice was Dear Abby or Ann Landers. Not anymore.
With the death last month of Ann Landers, whose real name was Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, neither of the two columns' longtime writers are mulling over readers' letters.
Landers' twin sister, Abigail Van Buren (née Pauline Esther Friedman), who started Dear Abby in 1956, passed her pen to her daughter Jeanne Phillips several years ago.
While their columns are still thriving, the genre they founded has expanded beyond them, and the advice field is more crowded than ever.
"I think it's a particularly American phenomenon," said Wendy Simonds, a sociologist at Georgia State University who has studied the self-help movement. "I think it sort of fits into the American character as self-building and self-improving."
The key to the popularity of the Ann Landers column was its innovation and Landers' ability to relate to her readers, says David Grossvogel, a literature professor at Cornell University who wrote a book about the columnist.
"She was able to make the people writing to her feel like they weren't writing to a stranger," said Grossvogel.
And when the columns started, there were very few ways for readers — primarily women — to get practical, optimistic advice about everyday problems.
Ann and Abby instructed readers on everything from wedding etiquette to divorce and infidelity, and the columns flourished. Today, Dear Abby and Ann Landers each run in about 1,200 newspapers, reaching potential audiences of 95 million daily.
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A Flood of Advice
While Abby and Ann remain the name brands in advice-giving, variations on the agony aunts' tried-and-true format have sprung up in every medium.
The Washington Post runs Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It, which offers 20-somethings a highly opinionated, brassy take on the standard topics of life, love, and family.
The online magazine Slate.com runs Dear Prudence, which addresses topics that might make traditional Dear Abby readers blush, such as what to do when your wife is in love with your sister. The column is written by Landers' daughter, Margo Howard.
Another online magazine, Salon.com, has weighed in with its own write-in advice feature, called Since You Asked. The feature is often among the most popular on the site, its author says.
Unlike Abby and Ann, newer columnists tend to be experts with established credentials — such as Dr. Laura, who is a physiologist, and Dr. Phil, a psychologist — or associated with something that already appeals to readers or viewers.
MTV's call-in advice show Love Line relies on the music channel's cool reputation, experts suggest, and Salon.com's advice column benefits from being associated with the site's edgy, literary style. Ask Cosmo Girl! similarly relies on the magazine's reputation.
"If Britney Spears started an advice column, people would read it — not because she's an expert, but because she's Britney Spears," said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
Who's Writing In? Who's Reading?
Readers may be looking for advice they could apply to their own lives, or simply reassurance that others are facing problems similar to their own.