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Review: Yellowface

Book: Yellowface

Author: Rebecca F Kuang

First published: 2023

Current publisher: The Borough Press (in the UK)

Format: audio book

Page count: 326

The physicals: It is beautifully narrated.

Procurement: I must confess I listened to this audiobook on Spotify. It's one of the titles available to Premium subscribers.

I don't often get on with audiobooks. I've tried a few over the years, but I usually lose concentration or I don't like the narration. Yellowface is great though: Helen Laser reads it brilliantly and the story, until the last third, had me hooked.

Where to start? This novel takes such a swipe at the publishing industry that I'm quite surprised it ever got published. But perhaps that tells us enough about the industry and its rather... well... arrogant view of itself. I don't think I've ever encountered such a self-congratulatory industry. (It's all in Yellowface, it's not just me, trust me!) I was once quite feted as a writer... then I wasn't... and that fickleness is starkly drawn in Yellowface. Having been on the receiving end of the less than... encouraging side of publishing, I found myself nodding along to much of this book... we do feel for June, our "heroine". Even though she's greedy, crass, and pathetic, I did care about her... up until the last third. The story isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but I was annoyed by the over-the-top finale and the cheap events that get us there. The novel is so intelligent for the first two thirds, if a bit stodgy in places... but it absolutely did not need the silly ending. However, I'm not sure if this wasn't all deliberate on the part of the author and publisher: the entire industry is lambasted, including writers, from head to toe, so I hope the increasingly cheap, bland, and silly last third was a deliberately ironic creative decision.

I must admit I have a weakness for unlikeable characters and Yellowface doesn't disappoint on that front. Almost everybody is rotten, crooked, shallow, dishonest, performative, and downright unpleasant, often accompanied by an outer shell (brittle, transparent) of niceness. I have met these people, I chortled to myself, several times. And I really have. Caricatures, yes, but based on a kernel of truth? You bet. The publishing industry is made up of caricatures.

No plot spoilers here, but the basic premise of the novel is not original. (If you haven't already read it, I can recommend The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson and published by me in 2019. It's still available as an audio book, and as an e-book from Scarlet Ferret here.)

Yellowface talks quite a lot about how hit books in the industry are pre-ordained... books picked from a publisher's schedule that will be 'The One'... perhaps the publisher paid a fortune for it so has to market it hard to try to make that money back... maybe it's just the book that the publisher feels stands the best chance of selling big. Perhaps it's "zeitgeisty". All of this, explored frankly in the novel, is quite a sad reflection on an industry that should really be guardians of good writing and talented writers, and sometimes it is... but too often it's not. So in many ways this novel serves as a warning to would-be published writers: proceed with caution, and don't be dazzled by the promises. Publishing is anything but deep, and Yellowface explores this brilliantly.

When I finished listening to Yellowface my main questions were Is nobody in publishing embarrassed by this book? If not, why not? Because they should be. Yet the impression is that publishing is laughing along at its own take-down... and it is of course laughing all the way to the bank.

All-in-all, a fun read that had me nodding along in recognition rather too often for comfort! It's also a sad reflection on an industry that is so far up its own backside that it is content to publish a book which exposes its truths so openly and sharply.

Shelf: Not shelved, listened to it for free on Spotify.

Would recommend to: Readers who enjoy intelligently-written books that take a swipe at publishing (and social media). Also quite useful for wannabe-published writers to get an insight into the publishing industry! And if you enjoy audiobooks, the narration is great.

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