Yellowface by RF Kuang (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5

This book never goes where you expect it to go. Ostensibly the story of an author (Juniper Song) who takes the latest manuscript from a recently deceased friend (Athena Liu), completes it, and publishes it as her own. But the depth of introspection, thought, and reaction every step of the way neatly details the complexities of every aspect of the world of writing, publishing, marketing and fandom. And it is absolutely fascinating.

Ever noticed how easy it is to have a (strong) opinion on something for which you’ve only read a headline? You’re not the only one. This book forces us to think a lot more deeply about a whole slew of issues: What is plagiarism vs influence vs mashups? How are we influenced by both direct marketing / branding and the more subtle (but equally insistent) influence of current trends and fads? How quick are we to leap to conclusions without analysis or an attempt at understanding?

Kuang also tackles the hydra of cultural appropriation by having her narrator (a white woman) writing a (thoroughly researched) book about Chinese history. Does she have the right to write about something that is not her heritage? Is it more reasonable for someone who is of Chinese descent but has never experienced (or been exposed to) anything like the characters in the book to write it? Kuang (who herself is ethnically Chinese) presents multiple sides to a whole slew of issues via the opinions, thoughts, and comments of various characters — both fully fleshed out and spewed in every angry storm of social media commentary. If Kuang herself has a strong opinion on these topics, she keeps it well camouflaged through her characters’ many disparate voices. I think she showed real courage tackling the subjects — helpful that she is already an award winning author — but I hope the strong-minded Internet trolls bother to think things through before attacking!

Lots of literary references, real insight into the industry, and a wildly convoluted plot that is actually clean, believable, and easy to follow. Human nature presented with all of its intricate folds dancing about in the intersection of morality, social acceptability, and judgement. Very different from her last book (Babel — which I loved) — it is equally compelling.

A fantastic first line, which drew me in instantly: “The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.” A fantastic last line, too, but I won’t include that here!

A small selection of good lines — there are so, so many:
“I stare at Athena’s brown eyes, framed by those ridiculously large lashes that make her resemble a Disney forest animal, and I wonder, What is it like to be you?”

“Cue the myth making in real time, the constructed persona deemed maximally marketable by her publishing team, paired with a healthy dose of neoliberal exploitations. Complex messages reduced to sound bites; biographies cherry-picked for the quirky and exotic.”

“The Last Front hardly breaks new ground; instead, it joins novels like The Help and The Good Earth in a long line of what I dub historical exploitation novels: inauthentic stories that use troubled pasts as an entertaining set piece for white entertainment.”

“In any case, Twitter discourse never does anything — it’s just an opportunity for firebrands to wave their flags, declare their sides, and try to brandish some IQ points before everyone gets bored and moves on.”

“It’s hard to reach such a pinnacle of literary prominence that you remain a household name for years, decades past your latest release. Only a handful of Nobel Prize winners can get away with that. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.”

“But enter professional publishing and suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers. Editors go in and mess around with your words, your vision. Marketing and publicity make you distill hundreds of pages of careful, nuanced reflection into cute, tweet-size talking points. Readers inflict their own expectations, not just on the story, but on your politics, your philosophy, your stance on all things ethical. You, not your writing, become the product — your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one in the real world gives a shit about.”

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 16th, 2023

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