A Novel Concept

‘Yellow’ Card! Author Calls Foul Play on Publishing Biz

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By Michael Malone

Yellowface“Yellowface” is a highly entertaining read that serves as an exposé on book publishing, and showcases the plight of minority authors, with some dashes of horror tossed in.

Written by R. F. Kuang, the book looks at a couple young authors who were pals at Yale. June Hayward’s debut novel got zero buzz and not many more sales. Athena Liu, on the other hand, is a literary superstar – and she’s chic and gorgeous.

“She has everything: a multibook deal straight out of college at a major publishing house, an MFA from the one writing workshop everyone’s heard of, a resume of prestigious artist residencies and a history of awards nominations longer than my grocery list,” Kuang writes on page 1. “At twenty-seven, she’s published three novels, each one a successively bigger hit. For Athena, the Netflix deal was not a life-changing event, just another feather in her cap.”

June is white and Athena is Asian. Their friendship is complicated, thanks in large part to Athena’s abundant success and style. They’re not exactly BFFs, but they are friends who enjoy each other’s company.

The two are out celebrating Athena’s Netflix deal in Washington. They get drunk and end up back in Athena’s apartment. They are eating pancakes and drinking milk and Athena starts choking.

On page 17, the literary wunderkind is dead.

She has left her next novel, a giant tangle of loose pages, out in her apartment. June grabs it and, over time, realizes she may just have a hit on her hands.

“Yellowface” made me think, a lot, about “The Plot,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. That book is about a struggling author who is teaching aspiring writers. One surly student has a can’t-miss manuscript, a plot that essentially guarantees the book will be a smash. Years later, author Jacob wonders what ever happened to his student, and the manuscript.

The student has died and the book was never published.

And so Jacob makes it his own.

Both Jacob and June spend half the novel enjoying being a star, and the other half fending off mounting questions about where the idea for the novel came from, and if they truly deserve to have their name on the cover.

Making things more complicated for June is that her novel, called “The Last Front,” is about Chinese laborers in World War II. To distance herself from her inauspicious literary debut, she’s gone with a pen name, Juniper Song, her real first name and middle name. Many inevitably think she’s chosen this name because it sounds Asian.

But here’s the thing: Athena’s manuscript was brilliant, but a mess. Hayward essentially made it her own.

“By the end, I’ve become so familiar with the project that I can’t tell where Athena ends and I begin, or which words belong to whom,” Kuang writes. “I’ve done the research. I’ve read a dozen books now on Asian racial politics and the history of Chinese labor at the front. I’ve lingered over every word, every sentence, and every paragraph so many times that I nearly know them by heart—hell, I’ve probably been over this novel more times than Athena herself.”

“The Last Front” is a huge hit, and Juniper Song is a celebrity. It is everything she has ever wanted.

Then the questions start coming on Twitter, wondering about the white woman with the story full of Chinese characters and history, not unlike what we saw in the real world, when Jeannine Cummins was charged with getting rich off the experience of struggling Mexicans with her otherwise well-received novel “American Dirt.” Some wonder about the relationship between Athena and Juniper. Some wonder what role Athena played in the novel.

At first a trickle, the negative online comments turn into an avalanche.

Then June learns that Athena’s mother will donate her daughter’s notebooks –where the ideas for her novels were sketched out – to Yale, which would give the doubters proof that “The Last Front” was not really June’s work. And Athena’s ex-boyfriend, a struggling novelist, starts up a fake Twitter handle claiming to be Athena’s ghost. It turns out Athena had shared bits of “The Last Front” with him before they broke up.

June’s secret, it turns out, isn’t much of a secret anymore.

Kuang writes of anxiety well. June sustains a ton of it, staring at her phone as the negative missives pour in and she hangs on the verge of being canceled. Just as the ex-boyfriend’s Twitter handle suggests, June starts seeing Athena’s ghost, and wonders if she’s being followed, and if she’s losing her mind.

Kuang also brings up key issues in publishing. Women authors are subject to a far different degree of online attacks than male authors are. Touching on similar themes as the film “American Fiction” (which was inspired by the novel “Erasure”), which I have not seen (or read), minority authors might hear their book will not be published, as the publishing company already has its Asian author, its Black author, and sees no need for another.

It all makes for a very good read. “Yellowface,” which came out last year, has a 3.83 score, out of 5, from 344,000 reviewers on GoodReads. I felt it deserved something north of a 4.0. It is Kuang’s fifth novel; her previous ones, including “The Poppy War” and “The Dragon Republic,” are in the fantasy genre. They have very high marks on GoodReads.

The New York Times said of “Yellowface,” “It’s a breezy and propulsive read, a satirical literary thriller that’s enjoyable and uncomfortable in equal measure; occasionally, it skirts the edges of a ghost story. It’s also the most granular critique of commercial publishing I’ve encountered in fiction, and seeing the cruel, indifferent vagaries of one’s industry so ably skewered is viciously satisfying.”

After June has hit rock bottom, she does what true authors do – lets a fresh idea or two start to simmer, and starts sketching it out.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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