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R.F. Kuang’s New Book Is Just Okay At Best

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ASU chapter.

I am sure that if you’re not new to the culture of YA and BookTok then you have heard of R.F Kuang, most famous for her Poppy War Trilogy, her book Babel, and now her newest book Yellowface

The frustration, as always, is that R.F. Kuang is an intelligent and steady-handed writer. She is ahead of many of her peers in craft as well as sales. She writes a page-turner, she crafts a strong perspective, she is a horror writer good at making the reader feel gut-churning revulsion (whether or not she earns the strong emotion she likes to pull out is another question), and in this book, she’s capable of being funny. Here’s a perfect paragraph, in which our white heroine works with her editor to chop and change the manuscript she stole:

The hardest part is keeping track of all the characters. We change almost a dozen names to reduce confusion. Two different characters have the last name Zhang, and four have the last name Li. Athena differentiates them by giving them different first names, which she only occasionally uses, and other names that I assume are nicknames (A Geng, A Zhu; unless A is a last name and I’m missing something), or Da Liu and Xiao Liu, which throws me for a loop because I thought Liu was a last name, so what are Da and Xiao doing there? Why are so many of the female characters named Xiao as well? And if they’re family names, does that mean everyone is related? Is this a novel about incest? But the easy fix is to give them all distinct monikers, and I spend hours scrolling through pages on Chinese history and baby name sites to find names that will be culturally appropriate. 

But the author is capable… of more than she writes. The problem with Kuang is that, despite a reputation for in-depth research, she refuses to interrogate beyond her scope. In previous books that meant that the sense of history was strong and the rest of the work of writing fiction—character work, plot, tone, anything reliant on the imagination—was comparatively weak. Here there’s no research to hold it up, just Kuang’s own posting habits and career success. The step down from Jstor to Twitter is a violent stumble.

But I think this book did a lot of things well. The discussions of grief, jealousy, and loneliness within the publishing industry were nuanced and interesting. The moments of this book that lean into horror are REALLY horrifying, which I shouldn’t have been surprised about considering I’m a fan of The Poppy War, but cemented Kuang’s potential as a truly excellent horror writer if she wants to pursue that.

It’s just very ironic coming from Kuang herself, in a book that is meant to depict success and failure in the literary-commercial circuit—something that Kuangkuang knows little about. Kuang is an accomplished academic but a deeply incurious writer which is on sharp display here. SheKuang is a genre writer who achieved crossover commercial success after blowing up on TikTok. Her debut was promising and lauded but not uniquely vaunted; she received genre award nominations (not wins) but her books blew up on TikTok after the fact and she launched an incredibly successful book this year in the genre space, off the back of her TikTok fame

Everything she knows about succeeding she knows about inside her particular bubble, and, also because she has been succeeding since she was an undergrad baby, has been told—and genuinely believes—that she has hit the summit of success. This leaves her totally unequipped to write about what literary success looks like when engineered by the house. She has no belief that there is a form of publishing greatness beyond that which has been bestowed upon R.F. Kuang, and a wilful desire not to google further

But the entire concept of the novel itself — a satire of the publishing industry and its marginalization of Asian writers — is just executed very, very poorly. Whole swathes of the book are spent on inane descriptions of fake Twitter drama. I have witnessed real Twitter discourse over breakfast cereal that was more entertaining than whatever was cooked up here. There is a very egregious and distracting author self-insert character, and the story often comes across as Kuang’s strange attempt to hit back at every single piece of criticism that has ever been lobbied at her throughout her career via this one self-insert.

In the opening stints, June mentions how her debut was left to languish by her editor at the pathetic imprint that was the only one that gave her a chance. It didn’t need to be repeated. It also speaks to a certain lack of, perhaps, awareness by Rebecca about how publishing classifies books. When they acquire a manuscript, the books are then delineated, and different budgets are assigned to the books based on what they think will be most profitable. In the current environment, poorly written horny romantasy, AI and climate change scare stories, American POC history and struggle porn, badly written romance, and whatever book Bootkok bestows its benevolent virality are the ones most likely to get publishing buzz.

The majority of the authors are very white, very North American, or very British. June’s lack of awareness of how publishing works spoke more to Rebecca’s ignorance or laziness. And ultimately, her scapegoating of publishing “wanting diverse stories” rings hollow. Maybe this story would have been better if June had whitewashed a literary navel-gazing story about vulnerability and identity.

And when you examine the publishing issues on display here…well they all definitely exist IN publishing and are familiar to Kuang, but they don’t match the book as described here. Mainstream literary successes don’t come up through pitchwars. Mainstream commercial novels don’t come up in most book box deals because there is a form of literary success that is not reliant on superfans buying multiple copies a piece. There’s a part where our heroine lists the major American literary awards her major literary-commercial war novel is up for and starts with the Goodreads Choice Awards. Please be serious. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if Rebecca doesn’t understand the literary Oscars season or if she was trying to pander to Goodreads Choice Awards voters (this book will definitely be listed under Best Fiction).

It’s also…unsavory…that a lot of this discourse is leveled at Athena (the previously mentioned deceased Asian woman) through June’s racist perspective. This isn’t an issue in and of itself, but the allegations reflect real-life criticisms that RF Kuang has received, flattened as subjective hearsay borne out of jealousy and prejudice. A lot of people have talked about how Athena isn’t really a stand-in for Kuang, but like, lol. Lmao, even. Athena is presented as a flawed character – which is another genuinely interesting part of this story – but the fact remains that she went to the same school as Kuang and had the same career trajectory as Kuang and faced the same criticisms as Kuang and has the same favorite whiskey as Kuang and even has the same beautiful professional braless headshot as Kuang (yes, really, oh my god). RFK was questioned in real life about her depiction of Taiwan in The Poppy War and…that same critique is pointed towards Athena in Yellowface, among many others. If Athena is not meant to be some sort of reflection of Kuang, positive or negative, it stands to ask why all these extremely specific similarities were added to the story. Authors do things with intention. What was the intention here?

Yellowface deploys the very same bluntness as her previous book Babel, which I don’t think translates well to this genre, to this time period, and to this book. Kuang’s handling of racism is far more appropriate to historical settings than it is to current ones. It’s quite embarrassing to see her translate criticisms that she herself has received and then write them off as thinly veiled racism. As an example, June’s description of Athena’s refusal to translate Chinese in her novels, and what she says about it is here:

She’s done this in all her other novels. Her fans praise such tactics as brilliant and authentic—a diaspora writer’s necessary intervention against the whiteness of English. But it’s not good craft. It makes the prose frustrating and inaccessible. I am convinced it is all in service of making Athena, and her readers, feel smarter than they are.

It’s an interesting passage, as it is one where for a glimmer of a second you could believe that Kuang was making an actually sophisticated point, something that you could expect from an academic as advanced as she is. But moments later, it is once again beat into your head that June is racist and wrong and incapable of a single intelligent thought: that her criticisms of Athena, many of which were wrong, many of which were racist, but some of which were correct and deserving, were drivel that should never be taken seriously. 

This brings me back to the very first thing that I said, which is that if you have differing opinions of Kuang, it is very obvious and very frustrating how shallow this “deep dive into the publishing industry” actually is.

There was also a glaring pattern where June kept pointing out Athena’s flaws. How she was once the actual bad art friend, how Twitter Hot Take enthusiasts called her a race traitor. But we never get to delve into that because June believes no one is that deep into Chinese history or politics. Great job, Rebecca. You have shut down your critics for the lack of nuance in Asian history and characters in Babel. Athena is so offensively superficially written that I almost wished we had gotten her point of view, as a villain who wants to step on all faces to the top of the literary throne. The few snippets we get of her prose show she’s a much better writer than June and her narration would have been more palatable than June’s weapons of mass boredom.

There’s a certain Discourse we’re supposed to have from this book about Bad White Women, and how publishing serves to silence writers of color. We also have to discuss who gets to tell certain stories. The problem is that we have spoken about this ad nauseam. So who is this book for? Outsiders who would like to know how it works? 

So much could’ve been made of this book. So many actually interesting and complex ideas could have been explored through June and Athena’s characters, but none of them were. Because of this, there are no actual characters, only barely fleshed-out mouthpieces that pop up as and when Kuang needs a vehicle for whatever message she is trying to convey at that moment. And I firmly believe that it is because Kuang doesn’t have the scope to even consider these ideas.

There’s a part near the end of the book where a character tells June that Athena didn’t really have a say in the kind of success she was given. She was picked up and put on a pedestal by Big Publishing in order to fend off accusations of racism, while also used as an excuse to reject other Asian authors. And I just couldn’t help but feel like that’s where the real meat of this story should be.

Not that we necessarily want to see a book that depicts injustices happening to people, but that’s where I feel the real indictment of the publishing industry lies. There’s little discussion of the class disparities that publishing holds over hopeful authors, the money that goes into the foundation to support a racist system, the ways that authors of color are made to fit a certain niche, or the immense privilege that is necessary to enter a creative field (and how that too is the product of a racist system). The choices from publishing that lead to June’s literal yellowface are not presented as decisions upholding a broken system, but as moves made by individual, flatly-characterized actors that the targets of this kind of criticism are easily able to detach themselves from. I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything new about publishing at all.

The amount of skin-crawling, second-hand embarrassment to watch an author write their own life beat for beat and also be like ‘Everyone hated her because she was TOO pretty and TOO smart’. Every critique that has ever been leveled against Kuang goes into the mouth of her proxy’s haters, including the pernicious and grasping white heroine. The belief that her haters are racist comes in a distant second to the belief that her haters are jealous—of her success, of her telegenic prettiness, of her comfortable life. Maybe baby but look at the material: there’s room for improvement. It is disappointing to watch someone technically skilled grind their intellectual curiosity down to a nub via posting and self-obsession, and it’s humiliating to watch an Oxbridge-Ivy Ph.D. student say ‘Talk to the hand! and DON’T tell me to log off!’ for three hundred pages. Is this the best she can do? Does SHE think this is the best she can do? I’m worried that she does.

Isys Morrow is a Junior studying English and is a writer at the Her Campus at ASU chapter. In their free time, they enjoys reading, writing, rating movies on Letterboxd, and trying new coffee shops. She especially enjoys walking her dog Ace in the summertime.