Thursday, May 25, 2023

Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang

I read Babel last year, and heard murmurs about Kuang's next book, which was to be a satire on the publishing industry.  Yellowface is now out, and it is about the publishing industry, and other things, but its hardly a satire. It concerns two young women writers, one white (the narrator), the other Asian. They have a competitive sort-of friendship, and when the Asian writer accidentally chokes to death, the white writer steals her late friend's just completed manuscript, and rewrites it, passing it off as her own. Publishing success ensues, as well as controversy about a potentially plagiarized or stolen manuscript, about a white women writing about Asian history, and who should be allowed to writer about such stories. Of course social media goes nuts. And the reaction of everyone in publishing to the controversies and possible revelations is the heart of this narrative. The reason the book is not a satire is that all the craziness is true to contemporary life. Twitter, etc., is toxic, and the reactions on all sides are basically abuses of power done primarily for marketing reasons. Yellowface is still a page turner, even if it is cringeworthy at times, but it really is basically an attack on social media and on the posturings of privilege and exploitation, and other trendy issues. A very different book from Babel. When I finished Yellowface I felt like I'd just emerged from a literary sewer.

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