A few weeks ago, I was complaining about how it’s kind of not cool for YouTubers like Shane Dawson and Pewdiepie to get book deals based on their pre-established YouTube fame, mainly because it means publishing houses are refusing to take on the risk of potentially good talent in favor of guaranteed sells. This is a bad thing for the industry of literature. Someone said to me, “Well, Watsky’s book is good,” and here’s the thing: Watsky? Isn’t really a YouTuber.
Also, his book is good.
The problem with lumping in someone like George Watsky in with someone like Shane Dawson is that you’re comparing apples and rotten bananas that have gone past even their best-for-bread-by date. In “How to Ruin Everything,” you’re not just getting prose written by someone who’s a hip-hop artist–you’re getting prose written by someone who knows what they’re doing, and whose thoughts are actually things that you might want to care about.
I am admittedly coming from a biased position; my running theme song that would get me up and down the really bad hills last summer was “Moral of the Story,” and I went into the essay collection already having a pretty good feel for Watsky’s writing in the first place. That said, just because you can write poetry does not always mean you’re going to be just as strong in writing prose and vice-versa. Luckily, Watsky has a good feel for prose. In a similar way to the Beats and how Kerouac’s prose reflected the jazz music that he listened to, Watsky does a pretty solid job in creating musicality in his writing. The words don’t sound forced together, but flow solidly.
Furthermore, he does a pretty good job of taking seemingly unrelated events and tying them together, and if you’re a nonfiction writer, that can be a difficult task. How do you relate the dead-great aunt you never got to meet to your own seizure disorder, and how do you relate that back to the bigger issue of the American eugenics movement? The crafting of that essay takes time and work, but a good writer makes it look seamless, and God, it’s like having a conversation with a person who knows what they’re doing.
As a reader, it’s always nice to be able to immediately identify with the voice of the author, and that voice is consistent throughout; there isn’t a struggle here in figuring out exactly the right way to make the narration sound like itself, because despite the phrase “Humorous debut” on the back of my copy, this is very obviously not Watsky’s first time in the rodeo. Frequently he mentions time spent on the college campus poetry circuit, about the time spent working to where he is now–and, more importantly, the moments in between.
Generally speaking, I think folks are interested in other people’s lives. It’s why “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” has been on air for so long, and it’s why YouTubers like Jenna Marbles became popular in the first place (even if some of their fame has fizzled out in the years since they got big). We like reading and hearing about other people’s lives–but they’ve got to make it entertaining, and they’ve got to make it worth our time if they want us to pay attention. Watsky is an inherently funny dude, and even when he’s describing little moments of despair–the kind that can keep us driving for thousands of miles and back in one night, or the kind that comes with the loss of a long time friend to suicide–he still keeps you holding on. It’s not pity porn and it’s not emotional blackmail. It’s what’s actually happens, and sometimes, the jokes or the rationalizations that you have to make or finding something funny in the irony of a situation are the things that can keep us going. It helps if you can see someone else doing the same thing.
Do I think that a book by any generic YouTuber who currently has the most subscribers is going to be able to offer that same thing? No–but then, if they haven’t been spending the time learning how to write in the first place, can we really expect them to? Watsky isn’t just a young celebrity writing a book about things that have happened to him; he’s spun it in a way that makes sense and can appeal to not only our immediate emotional response (that is, the pity center that lights up when we hear or read that something bad has happened to someone), but to our need for closure, too. These essays are good because, although Watsky is still living (and touring!), he’s still able to offer us some kind of closure on the stories he tells us.
If you’ve got the $16 to spend on the book (I recently splurged for a Barnes and Noble membership so I got 40 percent off–and if you do buy a lot of books, I would consider getting that, too), go ahead and get it. Don’t feel guilt about the purchase. “How to Ruin Everything” is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty big success.