Loneliness, as many of us have learned in the past year of the pandemic, can be jarring. T.S. Eliot describes hell as simply oneself, and Stephen King takes it a step further to say that “hell is only a poor synonym” to alone. But loneliness can also be a hopeful concept. In House Fires, Connor Franta’s poetry, photography, and essay collection—loneliness, both good and bad, resonates through the mediums. 

“My mind has never been this open,” said the 29-year old author, in an interview for The Tempest. In a book that centers around relationships and adulthood, Connor Franta closely analyzes his own reflection and view of the world. Franta is no newbie to writing, but his third book, House Fires, casts a new light on the solitary existence of being a “trailblazer.”

Even with nearly 5 million followers on YouTube and 4 million on Instagram, Franta’s numbers still don’t reflect the entirety of his influence on the social media landscape. In the 2010s, he was at the forefront of the YouTuber phenomenon, as well as a founding member of one of the first content creator houses (a recognition that stirred controversy earlier in the year with Jake Paul’s attempt to claim the title). But Franta is also well known as an LGBTQ+ advocate on social media, with one of the most viewed “coming out” videos on the YouTube platform. 

Still, years later, Franta continues to grapple with his evolving view of sexuality and relationships. “Even the ‘me’ that existed 5 years ago would be shocked to see the ‘me’ that exists today […] I feel like a bird finally released from a cage and left to soar throughout perpetually blue skies. My orientation and identity are only the beginning of that unlocked gate,” Franta said. 

But that exploration isn’t an easy one, as House Fires shows. Franta writes openly about anxiety, depression, and heartbreak in both his essays and poetry. The photographs in his collection are of suburbia, landscape, and everyday items—many of them with a grainy quality, like a polaroid or the sun getting caught in the lenses. Notably, they are broadly void of people. The few figures that appear in the collection are often in the distance or out of focus. If anything, their limited presence seems to make them isolated on their own. 

Halfway through reading House Fires, I turned to my computer and searched for Franta’s YouTube channel and Internet content. What fascinated me was how similar his voice and cadence as an author sounded to the one that he had online, with easy camaraderie and self-deprecation. But in light of House Fires, that same style and “relatability” came across as shockingly lonely on screen as well. While I had grown up in the 2010s and was familiar with the concept of YouTubers, I never really considered the experience of being a vlogger itself: sitting alone in a room, speaking to nothing but a camera—an experience that I imagine is not so different from being a writer

“I see solitude as a way to force rejuvenation and revolution within myself to be a better version of myself for the people around me,” Franta said. And among those people around him, Franta notes that he is not truly alone.

In House Fires, Franta reveals a discussion among social media influencers and Internet celebrities about their own struggles behind the glossy image on cameras and phone screens. House Fires is a series that deals a lot with isolation—vacillating between seeing solitary life as an opportunity to redefine oneself or as an extremely lonely experience. 

“There’s peace and growth found in both places,” Franta said. 

Reading House Fires, I was initially conflicted over what to take away from the book and its wavering experience of isolation and adulthood. Although his struggles with depression and anxiety are understandable to many readers, Franta’s perspective, entrenched in the privileges of social media and Internet celebrity power, is so specific to himself. Furthermore, his relatable and self-deprecating style of conversation that works so well on camera, translates to a sometimes awkward, self-consciousness in his writing. But it was his essay about seeking a role model that struck me and cast the entire book in a different light.

“The older you get, the more isolated you can become,” Franta writes in House Fires, as he acknowledges approaching 30 years old. He bemoans the lack of a role model in what he calls “Gay Adulthood.” It reminded me how teenagers and young adults often look to pop culture and social media for examples or pathways of a life that they can pursue, and how strange it must have been to be on the other side of building that path and creating that model for others.

Franta admits that his role as an LGBTQ+ advocate and openly gay YouTuber has put him into the same position of a role model that he wishes he had for himself. 

“It wasn’t something I ever sought out or dreamt of being, but there’s an undeniable responsibility that comes with any elevated position,” Franta responded when I asked if he saw himself as a role model for others. “All queer young people deserve to see hope and possibility reflected on every screen. If I happen to be that, well, I consider it an honor.”

Ultimately, House Fires is an attempt to blaze a path forward. Having paved the path for many of today’s social media influencers and YouTubers, Franta is still pushing forward, filling the roles that he seeks to find in others. Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I imagine Franta is trying to do something like that for his life. 

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.