Ask The Sophist.

in Hmm Weekly
on December 11, 2020

For our new readers at The Brick House:

Dear The Sophist,

I’ve had an idea for an advice column kicking around forever. I drafted up a whole debut version of it once—way back in the 20th century. But before we ever got around to putting it into print, the New York Times Magazine up and came out with its The Ethicist column, which would have made my column look like a mere parody of that, rather than a concept that could stand on its own. Now I’m too old to care about that, and The Ethicist messed around with its format anyway and I’m not even sure who writes it. So I return to a question that’s gone unanswered since before the Forever War, a question that’s outlived the newspaper it would have been published in: If I want to launch an advice column, and I need material, is it OK to make up a fake letter to get it started? 


Dear Anonymous,

It is a settled fact that the egg did, in fact, come before the chicken—an egg fertilized by the mating of two amorous and mutating fowl who had almost, but not quite, attained chickenhood. Without that primeval creative act, we might never have had a chicken, let alone chicken eggs as we know them—those same eggs, moreover, that you cannot make an omelet without breaking. You cannot, furthermore, cook that omelet without a fire, and as the man sang in one of his only two good songs, you can’t start a fire without a spark. Nothing was ever born from nothing.

How can the people know what to write to your column, if they don’t know what the column would be? You could try soliciting letters from people in advance, but you’d just be conscripting them into a different kind of artificiality, pressing them to pretend to be addressing something that doesn’t yet exist. No one will be satisfied, and the pump will go unprimed, so you can’t even wash down your omelet with a glass of water. Go ahead, make up a letter yourself. Gin up another letter with a colleague who has a real question, but who knows how to work with you to play the game. It’s not just OK, it’s your duty. The readers will come around when they’re ready. Or they won’t, if the column stinks. If they don’t, it won’t be because you didn’t give them the best questions you could. 

Go get ’em,
The Sophist

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