Surprise! Slate's advice column is full of fake letters

Slate has an advice column called “Dear Prudence” which has been written by a number of people over the years. The usual letter is some semi-plausible domestic situation which is always anonymous of course since no one would want their real name associated with these problems in public. But it turns out that kind of anonymity and the desire for a certain brand of unbelievable, yet morally fashionable, dilemma created another problem. It left the column open to fakes. Today, the revived Gawker has a piece written by a young adult novelist who admits he made up a bunch of letters which have been published by Slate over the past year.

In my anonymous, fabricated letters to Prudence, I could follow the most demented threads of my imagination without having to anticipate the omnivalent flavors of opprobrium that might rain down on me from YA’s brigade of cultural revolutionaries…

After a few false starts, I learned that a good letter is defined by two opposing values: it must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous. This is a delicate equilibrium to manage, and one that I botched frequently.Help! My Friend Thinks I Am Stealing Vaccines From African-American Grandmothers To Attend Sex Resorts ran, but was a disappointment; it needed another flourish of insanity to justify its existence…

When they did run, my letters were often edited in ways that I didn’t care for. Spelling or usage errors and malaprops were key to the voice of my characters, but they usually got corrected before publication.Help! My Husband and I Can’t Agree On What To Name the Baby We Might Get! was a pleasant exception: it was important to the story that this fictional couple was “getting” rather than “having” or “adopting” a baby, and my word choice was thankfully allowed to prevail…

It was ironic, then, that the letter that received the most attention was also my final one. The evening after Help! My Husband Won’t Remove His Mask, Even For Sex! ran, I was on my first margarita at a Mexican restaurant when a colleague texted me that it was getting traction on Twitter. I was on my second when another friend alerted me to the fact that the letter had been picked up by Tucker Carlson on Fox News.

I’m pretty sure I actually read that last one when it was published in May. It did make it into our headlines. I guess that’s a good way to go out if you’re going to stop writing fakes, with something that really generates attention.

The author concludes by noting he’s certain there are others out there writing similar fake letters. Reading over a few of the ones that Slate has published recently, it’s not hard to believe that most of them are fakes. For instance, “Help! My Family Is Mad I’d Rather Build My Life Around My Cats Than Them.” Or maybe, “Help! My Family Wants to Do Thanksgiving in Texas, but I Don’t Want to Support the State.” Wait, actually, I can believe that one is real. But a lot of these are hard to tell.

I think there was a time long ago when writing to a newspaper for advice sort of made sense, back before the internet when your opportunities for appearing publicly but anonymously were pretty rare. Also, long ago, people did live more insular lives where they may not really know what people outside their circle would think about something.

These days, I don’t see the point to columns like this. Anyone could post these stories on Twitter or Instagram or wherever anonymously and get plenty of blunt, honest reactions. They could also just observe how other people talk about these issues online without saying anything. It’s not hard to get outside the family bubble in 2021. I think the real reason these columns still exist is for public entertainment and a bit of cheap moralizing. Both things can be done with fake stories as well as with real ones.

So I’m guessing Slate really won’t care about being fooled. Fake or not, the letters served their purpose. And if they don’t respond then they’re clearly just begging people to send in more fakes.

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