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‘Yellowface’ Review: Fast-Paced Critique at Times Falters

3 Stars

Cover of R.F. Kuang's "Yellowface."
Cover of R.F. Kuang's "Yellowface." By Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
By Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

The first rule that one learns in college is quite simple: Don’t steal work from others. R. F. Kuang’s latest book, “Yellowface,” delves into what happens when one strays from this golden rule. “Yellowface” follows white author June Hayward and her friend Athena Liu, a Chinese-American author who has been working on a book about Chinese laborers in World War I. Following Athena’s untimely death, June steals her manuscript and attempts to build up her career through Athena’s work. The book then follows the anxiety-inducing ways that June tries to hide and then justify her theft. “Yellowface” is a fast-paced and biting commentary on racism, white privilege, and the publishing world’s evils, but it fails to reach its full potential due to its lack of narrative subtlety.

“Yellowface” deftly deals with serious, pressing topics. It offers up an important analysis of the publishing world, which tramples authors underfoot and tokenizes minorities. In the novel, readers see authors of color forced by their publishing houses to write stories only about their experiences as minorities, and white authors complaining that authors of color are just trendy instead of talented. Kuang clearly demonstrates sides of the book world that readers often choose to ignore, including how publishing houses see authors of color only through the lens of diversity, the ways in which the industry normalizes casual racism, and the various excuses that white authors make for insensitivity and ignorance. Kuang doesn’t refrain from holding publishing houses accountable for their treatment of writers of color, and “Yellowface” explores an underbelly of the writing world that few acknowledge.

While the novel discusses heavy topics, it moves at an incredibly engaging speed. Through fast-paced dialogue, June’s racing inner thoughts, and nonstop anxiety-inducing plot twists, Kuang’s prose mimics the constant streams of content that flood social media feeds. This allows the reader to fly through the novel’s pages as if it were a particularly engrossing Twitter thread. It also mirrors the rapidity of public opinion and outrage, both of which play significant roles in the novel’s plot. It feels impossible to put “Yellowface” down as its twisting plot unfolds.

The positive aspects of “Yellowface,” however, can be overshadowed by the novel’s not-so-subtle connections to its author. One can’t help but compare Athena, the author that dies at the beginning of the novel, to Kuang herself: She is a young, Ivy-League-educated, Chinese-American female author who got her first book deal in college, writes about the Asian diaspora through a historical lens, and raves about her books on Instagram — many qualities reflected in Kuang herself. Athena at times feels like a stand-in for the author who wrote her, resulting in a distracting disruption of the suspension of disbelief. Still, this makes the book feel meta: June proclaims near the novel’s end that she will write “a pseudo-autobiography in which I blur fact and fiction.” “Yellowface” does indeed toe this line between fact and fiction, but it’s not subtle enough to be satisfying.

“Yellowface” is also bogged down by its constant references to social media, and it is easy to see the book becoming dated in a few years. It refers to Twitter ad nauseam, Goodreads plays a part in the plot, and the main character is addicted to “death-scrolling.” Ultimately, the book spends more time analyzing June’s Instagram feed than developing a critique of the publishing industry or the oppression of minority authors. Especially when one considers the uncertain future of Twitter, the book seems to hold elements which may quickly become obsolete. However, this also proves that “Yellowface” is a book of its own moment, and it may captivate readers who are themselves prone to going down the rabbit hole of Twitter threads all day.

“Yellowface” is a novel difficult to put down, especially as its darker elements unfold. Kuang’s commentary on the dark side of publishing is eye-opening, especially to those heavily involved in the book community, but it also appears as if she can’t fully remove herself from the subject. The novel is too heavy-handed to feel revolutionary, but “Yellowface” is still addictive, entertaining, and important.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at hannah.gadway@thecrimson.com.

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