Kuang’s Yellowface and its message on social media’s vanity

All it takes is a breached Instagram account and Photoshop skills (or AI these days) to bring down the most invincible of us.

This is not a typical book review that we do for Cybernews. But, as usual, it does include spoiler alerts.

When I picked up R. F. Kuang’s thriller, Yellowface, set in the publishing industry, it wasn’t my intention to add it to Cybernews’ reading list. This is not a book about technology or science.

The plot follows two young novelists – Athena Liu and Juniper Hayward in Washington, DC. While both are graduates from Yale, Athena, of Asian origin, becomes a successful writer, and Juniper, a white female, is a somewhat jealous underdog.

Juniper happens to be a witness to Athena’s tragic and accidental(?) death and leaves Athena’s apartment with the late novelist’s raw manuscript. It’s not hard to guess what follows – Juniper can’t resist working with the draft on Chinese workers during the First World War and making it her own.

While the book is largely a witty satire about cultural appropriation, discussing the ins and outs of literary trends like diversity hype, sensitivity readers, and how “Asian” is nothing but a brand, the tech angle is inevitably woven into the novel, and I’ve cherry-picked some of the most telling and haunting ideas.

The first is intellectual property theft. Since ChatGPT became mainstream, the copyright issue has become more prevalent – AI models are leeching on hundreds of years of human creativity, mixing and matching literary and painting styles and presenting them as if they were their own.

Now, in Yellowface, the manuscript that Juniper steals is, to some extent, her book. Yes, she did work on Athena's draft. However, it served more like an IKEA instruction to her, providing the skeleton of the novel but not the book itself. That is partly why Juniper doesn’t feel entirely guilty – after all, she, and not Athena, wrote the book.

But, unfortunately, the plot and the literary genius are far from the only things that matter these days. It’s also important to know who wrote it and if they had the right to do it. If you are a white woman writing about Chinese people, you might and most probably will be accused of cultural appropriation.

Recently, two real-live stories made the headlines. In January, Rie Kudan, a 33-year-old writer, won a prestigious literary prize in Japan and revealed that her novel was written with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), specifically ChatGPT. Last December, an AI-generated science fiction novel won a literary prize in China. Apparently, it only took three hours for Shen Yang to generate the award-winning admission.

It’s brutal to say, but from a reader’s point of view, it doesn’t really matter who wrote the book as long as it's captivating. I’m not looking for an industry-pre-approved author with all the “right” values. I’m looking for a good story, and whether it’s written by Dan Brown, Yoko Ogawa, or some AI model, I don’t really care.

However, since intellectual property and the debacle of AI content theft are the bread and butter of many creators, I kind of have to care. Just as I can’t eat in restaurants belonging to a businessman who still hasn't exited Russia’s market, I can’t enjoy AI-written text, can I?

But haters gonna hate. Just as they hated the protagonist character, Jupiter. Naturally, it all started on Twitter (now X). All it took was one troll account alleging the novel was plagiarized, and it all derailed very quickly. But we all know how narratives on social media go – people keep shouting into the void, do their best to insult and belittle others, pouring their personal resentment towards life into social media feeds.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe how nasty this gets. My colleague Niamh Ancell this week ran an explainer on epilepsy trolling. Can you imagine someone hacking into your X account and flooding it with flashy images hoping some people might experience a seizure upon seeing the feed?

Twitter is more real than the real world, says R. F. Kuang, the author of Yellowface. Juniper’s name and reputation is being torn apart on X, and interestingly enough, all she can do is keep reading the posts, comments, and replies to those nasty threads.

While putting away devices would seem a better choice for many, for Juniper, going through all the negative content seems to be the only soothing action. She finds condolence in the belief that this is the lowest point in her life, her career, and it won’t get any worse.

Social media, which, ideally, should welcome pluralism, is more like a public lynching, where one can go from adoration to being canceled in mere moments. The worst thing about social media is, though, that we, despite understanding the whole vanity and toxicity of it, can’t pull away from all the negative comments, no matter how hurtful the whole experience is.

Social media is, indeed, an insular place. It’s not real, but, in a way, more real than anything else.

The trolling takes an unsurprising turn in the end when yet another of Juniper’s haters logs in to the late Athena’s Instagram account and uses Photoshop to “revive” her on social media. While Juniper knows it’s not real, this is what, in the end, gets a confession out of her.

Just by logging in to a social media account, prominent writer or not, you harm yourself just a little bit. And yet, you can’t stop. It’s not real, yet, there’s no other place you’d rather be.

Enjoy the book.

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