Nothing is given so profusely as advice.
— François, duc de La Rochefoucauld
How embarrassing for Bill O’Reilly. It must be tough to do promotional work for a book of advice for teenagers right after being sued for suggesting improper acts involving loofahs to a subordinate via cell phone. (Indeed, the pugnacious host cancelled numerous appearances pushing the book right after the allegations came to light.) The only thing tougher, I would venture to say, could be writing a good teen advice book in the first place.
In my time as a columnist at the recently-defunct ym magazine, I realized that a lot of the work of the advice giver rested on carefully ignoring certain facts of life, e.g.: People can smoke pot and not end up addicted to heroin; 2. Making out with boys/girls you barely know can be fun; 3. Sometimes, your parents just don’t have to hear about it.
O’Reilly, like many other teen advice givers, gets around these issues by toeing the regularly accepted party line on what teen behavior should be. Much of the actual advice doled out in this book, which intersperses anecdotes from O’Reilly’s childhood with tips for handling crises and everyday life, is innocuous, bordering on helpful. I can’t argue with “Look in the mirror and figure out for yourself what is good about you” or “If you have to rush off to the mall the minute you see something advertised, you’ve been tricked.” (About that last one — who knew O’Reilly could be so anti-consumerist? Somebody pinch me, because I think I just agreed with him.)
One of the serious problems with the book lies in O’Reilly’s seeming belief that everything that works for him will work for others. For example, this book turns a tin ear to the problems of teenage girls, in particular. There’s no mention of facing sexism or how to deal when people don’t think you’re pretty or what to do when you know you shouldn’t like this one guy because he’s obviously bad news but you really are attracted to him and besides his friends are pressuring you to go to a party with him. The subtlety of teen girl interactions is totally missing, replaced with O’Reilly’s regular-guy stories about lying to a boss about getting paint on his shrubbery and then feeling really badly about it.
O’Reilly also falls prey to the number two hardest thing about writing advice for teenagers: He dresses everything up in “kid talk” in order to make a point. The most cringeworthy sections feature “instant messages” with a lot of unintelligible, randomly placed acronyms. There’s a glossary in the back to help parents figure out what these mean, but I’ll bet you a buck O’Reilly himself didn’t know what they meant before some clever 22-year-old editorial assistant at Harper made up a list for the authors to choose from. It rings hollow in the worst way, like the gratuitous use of the descriptor “whack” at various points, to describe unsavory behavior.
O’Reilly’s tough-love philosophy is also under girded by a serious Horatio Alger complex. He reiterates over and over that work will be the salvation of the teenager in question. “I was always working and learning at the same time,” he says. “This very strong work ethic has prepared me for what I do today and has brought me success and big money. Hard work rules! Don’t forget that.” (No word about how to “deal” if you work really hard but because you’re black and from the inner city, not Irish Catholic from Long Island, nobody wants to give you a chance.)
He also seems to endow himself with moral authority because of his very wealth. On the very first page of the book, O’Reilly poses the question “what does an adult know” about “the challenges of this crazy but exciting time of life.” His immediate answer — totally jarring in its glibness — is: “Well, I have a career that’s lots of fun and makes me a lot of money. I’ve also never forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. No one does.” O’Reilly’s lesson here is that any millionaire with a long memory can give kids advice. It smells corrupt, and it’s too bad, because a lot of the other stuff in this book is not nearly so evil as my blue-state prejudices would have thought.