Yellowface Is an Addictive, Uncomfortable Evisceration of Modern Day PublishingBooks Reviews R.F. Kuang
It seems safe to say that R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface is like no other book you’ll read this spring. Possibly in the whole of 2023 entirely. It’s addictive, shocking, compelling, ridiculous, and extremely fun to read by turns. It wrestles with hot-button topics in publishing surrounding race, classism, white privilege, and tokenism. And its unlikeable lead characters will not only leave you wondering who—if anyone—we’re meant to be rooting for, but how potentially complicit we are in upholding publishing’s worse tendencies by reading a book called Yellowface in the first place. What I’m saying is, this book is a whole lot, and whether or not it is a book for you is probably going to have to be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
The story follows June Hayward, a struggling white author whose debut novel didn’t do so well and who is battling a bad case of writer’s block while working on her second. She’s incredibly jealous of her supposed “friend”, Athena Liu, a successful Chinese-American classmate from Yale who has racked up global accolades for her writing about the Asian diaspora and landed a movie deal for her latest novel. But when Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her unfinished manuscript—a historical story about Chinese day laborers in World War I—and passes it off as her own, rebranding herself as “Juniper Song” to sound more culturally interesting in the process. The book sells in s six-figure deal, rockets up the bestseller list, and suddenly “Juniper” has the success and critical acclaim she’s always longed for.
But on the heels of her triumph, cracks begin to form. Readers and online trolls start to pick apart cracks in her story and statements made during public appearances. Juniper’s writer’s block hasn’t abated, meaning that when her agent starts to clamor for her next big hit, she has nothing to give him. And she can’t shake the feeling that someone, somewhere must realize the truth of what she’s done—a truth given terrifying form when an anonymous social media account begins accusing her of plagiarism. Tweetstorms, threats of cancelation, backlash, half-baked not-apology apologies, panic attacks, death threats, and doubling down ensue, all told through the perspective of an unreliable narrator that even the book itself acknowledges is basically a racist, self-righteous, untalented hack.
That Yellowface will inevitably be one of the spring’s buzziest and most controversial novels seems like a foregone conclusion. In many ways, that reaction will be deserved: The book is almost compulsively readable, and its plot is fast-paced and relentless. You’ll find yourself promising just one more page the same way you always mean to spend just one more minute scrolling through your Instagram reels or Twitter feed. There’s an element of voyeurism here that’s hard to resist—the vibe is very “yes, finally, someone’s telling it how it is about the way publishing really works!”—-and, admittedly, it’s always kind of fun to watch an unlikeable character like Juniper exploit an unfair system for her own gain and be so unapologetic about it.
Yellowface feels incredibly necessary on many levels: Western publishing, as an industry, IS predominantly white. It does love to tokenize writers from marginalized backgrounds and often behaves as if there’s only ever room for one person writing about Asian, Black, or queer stories at a ta time, even as those same marginalized authors are generally encouraged to only write about their experiences as minorities rather than branch out into other genres. And we, as readers and critics and people who just generally like literature, should absolutely be thinking about these things, and reckoning with how we, as consumers, can push publishing to be and do better.
But despite its necessary and all too true themes, there’s also an uncomfortable, overly meta feel to this book—-if you’re part of the online world of publishing, be it Book Twitter, BookTok, or Instagram influencer programs, a lot of this story will feel painfully familiar to you. In fact, there are points where it seems as though Yellowface is simply recreating many of the arguments and dust-ups the author herself has probably (almost definitely) had on the internet. There’s a big chunk of the book’s midsection that’s almost entirely the sort of Twitter discourse that only means anything to those of us who are Terminally Online, and Goodreads plays a key role in the story’s plot. If you’re involved in these communities you will probably be very into this element of the book—-it reads like an entertainingly salacious gossip magazine—but if you aren’t, it all likely comes off as a cringe-y, possibly annoying inside joke whose mysteries readers simply aren’t privy to. (It does, additionally, make me wonder how this book will read in, say, five years.)
Moreover, Yellowface isn’t at all subtle about its critiques of publishing’s flaws. Much like Kuang’s previous (though still largely excellent) novel, Babel, Yellowface knows precisely how it wants its readers to respond to the story it’s telling, and frequently abandons nuance in favor of repetition or straight-up explanation and exposition. That this often in places where the story would have fared better if things like interpretation and meaning were left up to the reader to suss out on their own, is particularly tiresome and, once again, feels as though Kuang doesn’t entirely trust her readership to understand its themes of racism and tokenism without an external push.
Nevertheless, Yellowface is a fearless, often unhinged story that takes big swings and is quite rightfully going to drive a ton of conversation. It’s absolutely unlike anything Kuang has written before, and will likely bring a ton of new readers to her and her work. But it’s hard not to wonder what a version of this story that was allowed to stand on its own (and didn’t include quite so many real-life references) might have been like.
Yellowface is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.`