I was worried I wouldn't relate to Tyler Oakley's new collection of essays, and the book's dedication only heightened my apprehension:
For my people.
I might be about the same age as Tyler, but I doubt that I'm one of those nebulous persons to whom he refers. As the 26-year-old slowly built his online empire over the course of the past eight years, I kind of blanked on the whole YouTuber phenomenon, save for a couple scattered memories of watching gnostic gay vlogger William Sledd in 2007. The video-sharing site was, for my college-years self, the place where I'd go to in order to watch episodes of the WB's Popular in three parts, marathon Hole or Beyoncé's entire music videographies in an afternoon, or do any number of other super isolating activities that had nothing to do with building a community, much less a career.
One of us was clearly more enterprising with his time. Tyler's YouTube channel now boasts over 7.7 million subscribers (that's a lot) and more than 512 million video views (also a lot), making it the 76th most subscribed YouTube channel in the world. That online platform has helped him nab everything from Teen Choice Awards to an interview with First Lady Michelle Obama. He's even gotten RTed (well, MTed) by Harry Styles. (Not Zayn, but still! Big deal!) And last week saw the release of Binge, Oakley's very first published work.
Does Binge, as a book written by a "YouTube author," run the risk of "ruining the publishing industry," as Kathryn Lindsay warned last year on xoJane? No, of course not—I'm pretty sure the unauthorized supermarket-aisle Hanson biography I got for Christmas in 1997 was responsible for that. But I will say that, as a relative newcomer to the world of YouTubers, I did not close the 307-page hardcover feeling any more #TeamInternet than when I started.
Despite claiming to detail many of Tyler's "shocking…personal mishaps and shenanigans," the misadventures contained within Binge did not, for the most part, leave me very shocked, nor did they always satiate my appetite for shenanigans. Self-deprecating anecdotes about having a middle-part bowl cut as a child in the '90s or playing a tree in a school play (in Tyler's case, it was a statue in a middle school production of Jack and the Beanstalk) hardly break new ground, nor do they reveal very much about the collection's author. Even when an essay does verge on vulnerable territory—like, say, when Oakley writes about hooking up with a dude from Grindr who's into footplay—the messier details—like those concerning the actual sexual encounter—are often glossed over in favor of a clean ending, complete with an instructive moral related to book's overall theme of owning your desires and indulging in them.
A good chunk of the essays in Binge, especially the ones focusing on the author's early life, follow a similar pattern: Tyler opens with a problem in medias res, like shitting his pants in elementary school or not discovering he had a lisp until his early adulthood; Tyler momentarily extrapolates said issue to some greater societal or pop-cultural level; Tyler dives back into his specific issue as it pertained to his life; Tyler speedily resolves his problem; and Tyler concludes by explaining how he learned to say yes to life from the experience.
That plot structure works better for Oakley's "It happened to me…" stories. But when applied to seemingly more serious subject matter, like his preteen struggles with disordered eating, this aversion to truly exposing himself to the reader kind of just left me blue-balled. Perhaps the internet's "first-person industrial complex" has left me jaded, but I guess I prefer my personal essays to be a little more harrowing these days.
Tyler Oakley's writing is at its best when he stops mythologizing his life story and simply tells it. The essay about Tyler's early-college relationship with a still-closeted fellow student, the longest of the 30+ essays at 40 pages, is the standout of Binge. He actually allows himself time to stew in the simultaneous joy and discomfort of those memories, and the essay's moral is more nuanced and satisfying than almost any of the others. I obviously don't think that Oakley should've brought more Sturm und Drang to lighter, more listicle-esque pieces like "Disney Princes" or "20 Things I'd Do If I Were Beyoncé for the Day," but I wish he'd challenged himself to be more honest when the writing called for it.
The guiding principle as to what Tyler chooses to reveal to the reader and what he decides to keep to himself appears to be spelled out near the end of Binge. In "Pleasure & Payne," he describes how he "regained control" over his public narrative after pissing off basically the entire One Direction fandom—a fate that, based on the essay, I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. He writes:
Throughout my now eight years online, I've found that what I want to give to the world is my decision. As soon as I feel bound by expectations, it's okay to step back, reevaluate whether it's actually something that I want to give, and proceed accordingly.
The author's certainly right; what he wants to give to the world is his decision. But Oakley promised an intimate portrait of Mathew Tyler Oakley—the Michigan native's birth name—and instead delivered something more akin to the @tyleroakley persona he inhabits online.
Instead of an essay recounting his experience getting called out for racism on a public scale that none of us can imagine, we get a piece about the author's favorite Cheesecake Factory menu item—the inclusion of which uncomfortably evokes the kind of sponsored product placement found in many of the YouTuber's videos. Instead of finding out how Tyler, say, confronted and unlearned that problematic behavior, we're left to believe that he came out of the womb fully versed in identity politics and able to check his various privileges on cue, as he does many times within the pages of Binge.
But the dedication makes it clear that Tyler Oakley's book was not written for everyone. And that's fine. I get the sense that Tyler's aim, in penning the collection, was to give his young fans the kind of insight that might help them get through a particularly trying period in their lives—just as, in one of the earlier essays, an understanding teacher once comforted Oakley with readings of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Binge is, as he said in the beginning, for Tyler's "people." Maybe its follow-up won't be.
By Tyler Oakley
307 pp. Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. $24.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.