Kuangs Yellowface and Its Message on the Vanity of Social Media

The most unbeatable of us can be brought down with just an Instagram account breach and Photoshop expertise—or, these days, artificial intelligence.

We don't usually review books for Cybernews like this one. However, spoilers are included as usual. I didn't intend to add Yellowface, a thriller by R. F. Kuang set in the publishing sector, to Cybernews' reading list when I first picked it up. This book is not about science or technology.

The story follows Athena Liu and Juniper Hayward, two young novelists in Washington, DC. Despite the fact that they both graduated from Yale, Athena, an Asian woman, succeeds as a writer, while Juniper, a white woman, feels like the slightly envious underdog.

As Juniper leaves Athena's apartment with the late novelist's unfinished draft, she just so happens to witness the terrible and accidental (?) death of Athena. It's not difficult to predict what happens next: Juniper can't help but take on the role of her own while working with the conscription of Chinese laborers during World War I.

The tech angle is unavoidably woven into the novel, and I've selected some of the most telling and eerie ideas. The book is mostly a clever satire about cultural appropriation, discussing the ins and outs of literary trends like diversity hype, sensitivity readers, and how "Asian" is nothing more than a brand.

Intellectual property theft comes first. The copyright issue gained greater traction after ChatGPT became widely used because AI models are stealing hundreds of years of human innovation by combining and matching literary and artistic genres and presenting them as original works of art.

In Yellowface, Juniper's stolen manuscript is, in a way, her book. She did indeed contribute to Athena's draft. But to her, it was more like an IKEA manual—it gave her the book's outline but not the actual text. Although she created the book—not Athena—Juniper doesn't feel guilty for this reason.

Unfortunately, though, these days it's not just the plot and the literary brilliance that count. It's also critical to ascertain who wrote it and whether they were authorized to do so. Writing about Chinese people as a white woman increases the likelihood that you will face accusations of cultural appropriation.

Two true stories made headlines recently. Upon receiving a renowned literary prize in Japan in January, 33-year-old author Rie Kudan disclosed that ChatGPT—a type of artificial intelligence—had assisted her in writing her work. A science fiction book created by AI took home a literary award in China last December. It appears that Shen Yang created the winning admission in just three hours.

To put it bluntly, as long as a book is engaging, it doesn't really matter who authored it in the eyes of the reader. I'm not seeking a writer with all the "right" values who have been pre-approved by the industry. I don't care who writes the story—Dan Brown, Yoko Ogawa, or an AI model—as long as it's a good one.

But I kind of have to worry because for many authors, intellectual property and the disastrous practice of AI content theft are their main sources of income. I can't enjoy AI-written content any more than I can dine in restaurants owned by a businessman who hasn't left the Russian market yet.

Haters will hate, though. They detested Jupiter, the main character, in the same way. It all began, of course, on Twitter (now X). Everything fell apart in an instant, all it needed was one troll account claiming the story was plagiarized. However, social media narratives are well known to us; users constantly shout into the abyss, try their hardest to denigrate and offend others, and pour their own bitterness toward life into feeds.

It's difficult to believe how horrible this may get at times. This week, my coworker Niamh Ancell provided an explanation on trolling related to epilepsy. Can you see someone breaking into your X account and uploading a ton of eye-catching photos in the hopes that someone would have a seizure after viewing the feed?

According to Yellowface author R. F. Kuang, Twitter is more real than the real world. Surprisingly, Juniper's only option while her reputation and identity are being destroyed on X is to go through the ugly threads and their corresponding posts.

For Juniper, looking through all the negative stuff seems to be the only way to relax, even though putting electronics away would seem like a better option for many. In the conviction that this is the lowest point of her life and career and that things won't get worse, she finds solace.

Social media is more akin to a public lynching, where one can quickly go from being adored to being rejected. The worst thing about social media, however, is that even while we are aware of its toxicity and vanity, we are powerless to ignore all the harsh remarks made there.

Social media is indeed a closed environment. Though it's not real, it is more real than anything else in a way. When yet another of Juniper's enemies visits the late Athena's Instagram account and utilizes Photoshop to "revive" her on social media, the end of the trolling takes an expected turn. Even though Juniper is aware that it's not real, it's ultimately what causes her to confess.

Whether you are a well-known writer or not, you hurt yourself a little merely by signing into a social network account. You just can't seem to quit. Even if it's not real, you wouldn't want to be anywhere else.