Book Review: YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang Part II

This is a continuation of my review Part 1. If you missed it, click HERE.

Social Media is Bad Sauce

As cringe-worthy as Kuang makes the publishing arena out to be in her amazing work of fiction, Yellowface, she holds another industry in even greater contempt.

Social media.

In case you aren’t aware, the platforms we’ve embraced have turned literary life into The Hunger Games. Authors are routinely stabbed, excoriated, drawn-and-quartered, doused in flame, kicked in the teeth, scorched, buried, and sent to oblivion.

You might feel this is justified in some cases, but here’s the thing. Sometimes social media goes too far. Or gets it wrong altogether.

Society loses when too many creative people are left dead on the playing field.

What happens to story when nobody dares to take chances out of fear and intimidation? What kind of books will be written if narratives are totally sanitized, scoured, and stripped of flavor? What if writers decide it’s just not worth the hassle, anymore, to innovate? To attempt the alchemy of creativity which is, by its very process, one of blending and mixing and building and tearing apart and putting back together again?

When literary creativity becomes too dangerous for the creators, we’ll end up with nothing to read but dreck.

Social media users–you, me we–are the jeering, cheering, soul-crushing mob. We are killing our authors, our artists, our creatives in our zeal to be “noticed” and “relevant” or “monetized.” 

It’s so easy to jump on the Cancel Train and run over an artist for the sheer nasty joy of it, for the dopamine-laden likes and retweets and “you go girls” and the pseudo-intellectual bravissimas we crave. We, with our brains hooked on this social media, might actually kill literature if we keep it up. Is that what we want? Is that what you want?

When we have no more good books to read, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Schadenfreude Much?

Juniper Song Hayward is a writer. She’s actually a good writer who does something really, really, really bad. In Juniper, Kuang created a supremely unlikable anti-heroine character, one you might pity or hate or fear. You might also see a bit of yourself in her, a frightful thing indeed. 

Kuang sets June up as the villain and then shows us how the online mob can make everything So. Much. Stupidly. Worse.

I imagine for some people, this book is schadenfreude at its best. Basic white girl does all the bad things we just know all basic white girls do, or at the very least want to do and would do if they thought they could get away with it. Then that basic white girl gets what’s coming to her. (Or does she? You’ll have to decide for yourself.)

If that’s the lens through which you choose read the book, then enjoy that. I’m not here to tell anyone how to interpret or feel about the material. I’m only here to give you my opinion, my take on it, and (trigger warning; proceed at your own risk) IT’S NOT THAT.

So here goes.

To me, June isn’t a simply a stand-in “basic white girl” created solely to get her comeuppance for our viewing pleasure and to “right historical wrongs.” For me, she personifies the soul (no color; no race) twisted not only by jealousy, frustration, rage, and yes entitlement, but also goaded by a tiny but sharp jab of justified outrage at the literary establishment. 

Nobody in this book is perfect. Athena certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her and her legacy. Athena’s past actions, however, helped create the steam that drove the plot of the story. She, too, appropriated June’s and others’ stories for her own creative work, and there were consequences to her actions down the line, a domino affect. 

I don’t know Kuang and don’t presume to know what reaction she wanted to elicit in her readers. Maybe schadenfreude was her goal. Or maybe she was poking fun at it all along. Maybe both? I’m not even sure it’s important we know her actual intention. The experience of reading a book is created by the book and the reader, together. 

I do know it’s very easy to pile on creative people these days for the smallest perceived infractions of the current Political Correctness Playbook. There are few risks, for one thing. Even if the accusations are eventually proven wrong, the damage is already done, the mob has loosed the guillotine, and individual mobsters (you, me, us) face few, if any, repercussions for our wrong assumptions and actions.  

Trolling someone on social media doesn’t take courage. Jumping on a bandwagon of recrimination and gotchaism doesn’t make you a hero. You aren’t even clever when you do it. You’re just repeating what everyone else is saying on Tik Tok.

That doesn’t make you a warrior. It makes you a parrot. (And that’s insulting to the parrot.)

Meanwhile, the platforms rake in more money with each and every drama, deserved or otherwise. Platforms amplify outrage. They feed on it. They grow on it. Social media is tearing our society apart, and when we engage in the trolling for our own wicked pleasures, our gross self-righteousness, and increased “visibility” or whatever, we are complicit in the destruction of the commons.

Kuang exposes social media and our complicity. There are pages and pages of social media-type comments and slams, and it sounds as bad on the pages of Yellowface as it does in real life on the platforms.

We have been scathed, folks, as in “assailed with withering denunciation.” [See 2]

How perfectly delicious. 

I Don’t Love to Hate June Haywood

So if I don’t love to hate June Haywood, what do I feel?

My personal emotional reaction is a nauseating mixture of disgust and pity and embarrassment. June is morally and ethically weak. She’s self-delusional. She’s racist. She’s a cheat and a liar. A literary thief. A fraud. I don’t like her. I don’t respect her. 

Part of me understands her, though, and that’s where things get weird for me in this book.

As a writer, I empathize with June’s yearning to be seen, the frustration at being bypassed and dismissed, the angry suspicion that the deck is stacked, the horrible truth dawning that, gasp, life isn’t fair.

And what of the obvious race thing? As a white female writer, I felt a teeny bit . . . hard to describe, but I’ll try . . . lumped in by association, maybe? Rationally, I understand that a character that looks like me isn’t a commentary on me personally. I also understand that a satire is a commentary on society, and many people in our society DO think white females are like this in general, so maybe June stands in for that archetype that we’ve created. June as generalization. The fragile white person, privileged and demanding, outraged when things don’t go her way. A “Karen” figure, of sorts.

But I am not June. I do not possess her particular gift for self-delusion and her lack of moral and ethical compass. Can I imagine being and acting like June Hayward? Sure . . .

If I lost my freakin’ mind first.

I so admire Kuang for stepping into that crazy June Hayward mind and rooting around in it the way she did. Was it painful, I wonder? Or fun? A little of both?

From a meta point of view, the juxtaposition of an Asian author writing–from a white character’s point of view–a book whose main theme is cultural appropriation is both ironic and brilliant. If she can do it, maybe we all can. Is this permission to get over ourselves and get on with creating complex, many-layered characters as they make themselves known to us through the creative process?

Damn, I hope so.

I also hope Xverse (and every ‘verse) gets the memo. The real Big Bad Buffy monster in the book isn’t the pathetic white girl. It’s not the industry. It’s not the gui, either. These are powerful but minor monsters.

The real monster is the public grafted together with social media into a malignant, creativity-destroying cyborg.

But here’s the thing. We don’t have to be the monster. Let me say that again in bold. We don’t have to be the monster.

Let’s stop “punching down” and “punching up.”  Let’s stop punching all together. Let’s let the artists create. Let’s celebrate what we love rather than draw attention to what we hate. Will you get as many likes and comments? Nope. Get over it.

Of course, if there is a situation where the facts are proven facts, with actual evidence of wrong-doing, not conjecture, then there should be consequences.

In a court of law.

If you don’t know the facts, if you are tempted to parrot some Tik Tok influencer whose existence depends on your attention and ratcheting up the drama, maybe take a breath and step away from the machine. Might I even suggest you undertake some independent research.

“What?” you gasp. “Work?” 

Yes, it’s work. Why should breaking someone’s world apart be EASY for you? 

With Yellowface, Kuang holds a satiracal mirror up to all our ridiculousness and forces us to look at ourselves, social media, and the publishing industry. Plus she gives a nod to vengeful, female Chinese ghosts.

It’s freakin’ awesome. I can’t wait to read it again.  

[2] Scathed definition at

Another Novel About Literary Theft

In my debut women’s mystery, P.I. Olivia Lively is asked to investigate a potential literary theft at a prestigious liberal arts college in Portland, Maine when an MFA student accuses his mentor of stealing his manuscript and passing it off as his own.


  1. “Yes, it’s work. Why should breaking someone’s world apart be EASY for you?” – love this!

    Can’t wait to read the book over the holidays!
    * Great review

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