Blog - R.F. Kuang, Criticism, and Metatext - Part 1
November 17, 2023
I did something this year that I don't normally do: I read two unrelated books by the same author in very short succession. They are Babel (2022) and Yellowface (2023) by R.F. Kuang. Babel is a historical fiction novel with a fantasy twist set during the Opium Wars between England and China in the early 19th Century. Yellowface is what the New York Times described as a "satirical literary thriller" set in modern day. (It also has this pull quote from actress Constance Wu: "Reading Yellowface felt like being inside a wild, brutal, psychological knife fight with a deranged clown." Which.... damn. Also, spoiler, there's a textual reason I like that quote that I'll get to later)
So how did this happen? Well, my friend June, who is kind of my unofficial book club partner, heard about Babel on a podcast and thought it sounded interesting. We read it, had some thoughts and discussions, and pretty much landed on the idea that it was "good, I guess, BUT..." etc etc. I was a little more positive on it than she was, but we agreed that it was a cool idea and it ended really strongly, but it maybe could have used another draft.
Soon afterwards I saw Caroline from Dreamwalker Productions post a picture of the books in her summer reading pile. One of them was R.F. Kuang's Yellowface. I asked her to let me know how it was, because I was curious how Kuang's follow up was, especially since it was in a different genre.
A few weeks later I was at the recording studio and Caroline had left it for me to borrow. (She's a fast reader.) To avoid being "that guy" who absconds with a book forever, I bumped it to my "up next" slot in my reading list.
I ended up blowing through it in about a week as it's relatively short and Kuang is a fast paced writer. I've looked at some of the critical reception and there's an interesting aspect of it that I haven't really seen anyone discuss, and that is Yellowface as a metatextual response to Babel.
(Note: metatext = a text that comments on itself or another work)
That idea was the inspiration to write this but while I was outlining I realized that I had a lot of other thoughts that didn't really relate. Both novels provide a lot to think about, in story, theme, and writing mechanics, so I'm going to spend the next [redacted] talking about them.
This is going to be in two parts. The first will be setting up and unpacking that metatext idea without spoiling very much of either novel. Part 2 will focus on the writing in Babel, and the ideas of Yellowface. I'm not going to avoid spoilers in part 2 for anyone who cares about that kind of thing, but I still probably won't spoil too much.
At the end of Part 2 I'll talk a bit about whether I recommend them.
(Spoilers - Babel: Qualified Yes, Yellowface: Definitely)
Part 1 Novels in Dialogue
Babel: Or a Mundane History of Criticisms
Babel, full title Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator's Revolution is the story of Robin, a young, multilingual Chinese orphan in the 1830s who is "adopted" by a British professor and taken to Oxford where he is taught the art of translation. In this alternate reality the engine of British colonial dominance is their mastery of silver, which has magical properties, with the locus of the silver working being the translation department, aka Babel, at Oxford University..
It is set in the run-up to the Opium Wars where (in real history) the Chinese government tried unsuccessfully to prohibit the British East India Company from selling opium in China. Britain responded to opium confiscation and destruction with warships and it all ended with unequal treaties, reparations from the Chinese to the British, and Hong Kong in Britain's hands. The whole thing was... bad.
The book deals with ideas of colonization, divided loyalties, and systems of power. The revelation of how the silver works is a really cool and interesting idea, although sometimes it's best not to think about the mechanics too hard.
Prologue: Who is the real racist?
I didn't look into Babel before I read it, though afterwards I found one sublime 1-star amazon review whining to the effect of "the-book-was-the-real-racist-because-all-the-white-people-in-it-are-evil-or-stupid something something Western civilization something something wokeness."
Which...come on, man. It's not generally worth engaging with that kind of strident and over the top response, but I shall briefly try.
There are really only 2 major white characters in the novel and one of them is the main author of the whole conflict so of course he's the bad guy. Kuang even inserts his machinations in with the real life letters that British members of the "Warlike Party" in Canton used to convince the British government to go to war. Are we really surprised that in a book about the powers behind a really ugly imperialist conflict that the architects of that power might be the villains? And I personally think the characterization of the second major white character as "evil" or "stupid" is reductionist at best and projection at worst.
Also, of the other 3 minor white characters with any plot relevance, two of them side with the protagonist.
I didn't look into it further, but I think it's a safe assumption that the aforementioned review was not the only one of its kind. (More on that later)
So on to the real critiques. These are ideas that June and I came up with after a lot of thought and discussion.
A Blunt Instrument
This book is not subtle. At all. The characters have a propensity to VERY bluntly state the themes and ideas of the novel. Characters say things like "You've identified so hard with the colonizer you think any threat to them is a threat to you." Which is a correct and potentially interesting perception to have about a character, but would have been way more effective if shown rather than just overtly stated.
Characters also tend to repeat the same ideas over and over. I'm a little ambivalent on this as a point of criticism, though, as I do think it's plausible that characters plucked out of their native countries and co-opted into the power structure that is exploiting said countries might have that exploitation top of mind all the time. It did start to stick out a lot to me as the book went on, but I don't really feel like I'm in a position to judge whether it was realistic or not. But realistic or no, it was very noticeable. I'd stop just short of using the word "preachy" but I'd understand if someone else wouldn't.
Wikipedia Narrative and Characters
June pointed out that a lot of episodes in this book felt like they were written in summary. It's almost as if Kuang wasn't super interested in writing the interstitial material between the major plot points and was kind of speeding through it. At times it was like reading a wikipedia summary of the characters lives rather than an exploration of them.
This issue bleeds over into the character writing which was kind of flat. The novel is almost exclusively in Robin's perspective and pretty much all the other characters were primarily functional.
The character's relationships with each other also felt kind of perfunctory in the same way that the between-plot moments did. We're told a lot that they've bonded over their shared academic experience, and it absolutely makes sense that they would, but you don't see very much of it, and feel it even less. The destination is not the problem. The journey is.
No one other than Robin is particularly well realized. Characters tend to be defined by one trait that becomes the shorthand for them. Ramy is irreverent, Letty is stubborn, etc. In general they aren't inconsistently written, there just isn't much to latch on to. Their actions fit with their situations but there was some head cannoning I had to do to make the actions feel grounded in character.
Well, I guess there is one character action about 2/3 of the way through that felt really contrived to escalate the drama and stakes. The scene is shocking and the aftermath handled reasonably well but I didn't quite buy the pivotal action from that character. And weirdly I think everything would still have worked without it. It was just pushed a touch too far.
Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest, Dawg
There were several things that felt really anachronistic in the dialog. At one point a character says "The British are turning my homeland into a narco-military state to pump drugs into yours." For me that doesn't ring very true for 1839. I'm not asking for Henry James level stuffiness but at times it veered a little too far into modern idiom. There's also a moment that really leans into the "white woman's tears" / "white fragility" defense mechanism. It was appropriate to the situation they were all in, but felt very off being articulated by the protagonist in such modern terms.
Additionally, there's also a lot of explicit "colonizer" language used in a way that feels distinctly 21st century. Again, I don't have a great read on the historicity of any of this usage, and I might not have noticed it if the text as a whole were more subtle.
The anachronistic language was kind of interesting considering there were a lot of small things that Kuang seemed to be really insistent on getting right. For example, she used the spelling "Haroun Alraschid" when referring to the Abbasid Caliph, which would be the period appropriate spelling. (We generally transliterate his name now as Harun al-Rashid). It was a nice touch, but it was for something that really was flavor text. Even the deliberately awkward full title of the novel is evocative of academic treatises and some novels of the time. (e.g. the full title of Frankenstein is Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus)
In the forward to the novel, Kuang makes it clear that she really was really invested in giving an accurate representation of Oxford's geography and she seems almost apologetic about the places she had to invent for the story. It's kind of odd to have so much affection for and fidelity to what is essentially just set dressing, and less concern with the verisimilitude of what the characters are actually saying.
Yellowface in Conversation
Yellowface is the story of struggling young author June Hayward, told in first person narration from her POV. She, a white woman, is the friend and contemporary of much more acclaimed author Athena Liu, a woman of Chinese descent. Very early on in the novel Athena dies of a freak accident in her apartment, with June being the only other person present. In the aftermath, June takes Athena's secret unfinished manuscript for her next novel about Chinese laborers in England and France during World War I and publishes it under her own name. Well, under the name "Juniper Song," her real first and middle name. Hijinks ensue.
(I'm going to refer to the character as Juniper to avoid confusion. Also, I already returned the book to Caroline so I only have my notes to work from. I'm flying solo on this section, as June hasn't read this one yet.)
Echoes of Criticism
What interests me the most are Juniper's assessments of Athena's unfinished manuscript, titled The Last Front. So many of the critiques Juniper has for Athena's writing were the same critiques June and I had for Babel.
A Blunt Instrument, Redux
For a characteristic that was literally the first thing I said to June about Babel (I read it slightly before she did), the bluntness is weirdly uncommented on in the official reviews I've seen. The New York and LA Times, Kirkus and Guardian reviews don't mention it. Book Reddit does show some discussion of Babel's "lack of subtlety," but it's definitely more muted than what June and I came up with.
If Kuang did peek at the online criticism and incorporate it into Yellowface, then we already have an amusing metatextual thing, as Juniper's editors keep telling her to stay off the internet in relation to her book but she just. can't. quite. stop. looking.
Juniper has two direct statements that go to the bluntness of Athena's manuscript:
It's far from a first draft it's not even a proper "draft," really; it's more like an amalgamation of startlingly beautiful sentences, bluntly stated themes, and the occasional "and then they travel - complete later]." (emphasis mine)
It's clear Athena was trying to point out all the racism the laborers suffered from people fighting on their own side. But there was already so much of that throughout the book. It was starting to feel heavy-handed, repetitive. (emphasis mine)
It's pretty much exactly what June and I had talked about.
Also, the following line to that second quote is this:
Why not include a scene that showed the potential for interracial love, instead?
This was not a criticism either June or I had (and honestly it's kind of a shallow, one), but it's interesting because Babel is almost entirely aromantic. There's only one brief nod at a one sided interracial interest and it is not even entertained as a possibility. Seriously, it's probably like 3 paragraphs in a 540 page book. We didn't make that critique, but I would be willing to bet someone did, either as a way to soften racial conflicts or because people like stories with romance in them.
And then there's the end of that first excerpt:
But it needs work. It's far from a first draft it's not even a proper "draft," really; it's more like an amalgamation of startlingly beautiful sentences, bluntly stated themes, and the occasional [and then they travel - complete later]. (emphasis mine)
That is so almost exactly what June said Babel occasionally felt like that I was genuinely kind of weirded out when I read it in Yellowface.
This may be stretching the premise, but is the perfunctoriness of the characters in Yellowface a commentary on Babel too? Characters in Yellowface are kind of one note, because they honestly don't really interest Juniper. They're purely functional. Brett is the agent. Candice is the over-sensitive Asian editor. Juniper thinks in the same shorthand Babel fell into.
Less History, Please ("Who's the real racist?" Redux)
I didn't notice Juniper giving any hint that Athena's writing was anachronistic in either language or concept. Quite the opposite, she makes the argument that Athena should have made The Last Front less historical:
Athena's original text is almost embarrassingly biased; the French and British soldiers are cartoonishly racist. I get she's trying to make a point about discrimination within the Allied front, but these scenes are so hackneyed that they defy belief. It throws the reader out of the story. Instead we switch one of the white bullies to a Chinese character, and one of the more vocal Chinese laborers to a sympathetic white farmer.
This actually ties in to the "Who's the Real Racist?" vaguely (or overtly) bad faith critique I started the Babel section off with. There's no indication in the narrative that Athena's "hackneyed" scenes aren't true or that The Last Front isn't rigorously researched. The 1910's era West was not exactly a racially tolerant utopia. For reference the USA's Chinese Exclusion Act wasn't repealed until 1943, Canada's in 1947. The Last Front takes place on a different continent, but I don't think it's a stretch to assume France and Britain, two countries who later had VERY ugly breakups with their colonial empires wouldn't be any better in that regard. (This article about the British Chinese Labour Corps is really interesting btw)
Juniper's statement is couched as an argument from verisimilitude, but the definite subtext is that either Juniper herself is uncomfortable with the events as portrayed or she's worried that overly sensitive grievance-readers will freak out and leave the exact kind of review I shared above.
There's an artistic question baked in to the statement that the scenes "[throw] the reader out of the story." Is verisimilitude more important than realism? What should an author do when cultural perceptions change enough that the actual history seems to "defy belief?" These are big complicated questions and intersects with the forces that shape perception and whether they're "good." (i.e. so much of our perception of history is based on movies which are not great mechanisms for historical contest and nuance)
Also, was I making Juniper's argument before against Babel? To quote me: "I don't really feel like I'm in a position to judge whether it was realistic or not. But realistic or no, it was very noticeable." Yikes. (I think I really like this book.)
Athena, superficially, has a lot in common with R.F. Kuang herself. She's a young, Ivy League educated writer of Chinese descent, with a lot of buzz and Discourse so I feel like all of the parallels between the criticism and the follow up novel were not an accident. And it's extra interesting because of the framing of the meta criticisms. They're not obvious straw man arguments that Kuang has the unreliable narrator say just so she, Kuang, can prove them wrong. We get very few excerpts of Athena's writing, so there's no real indication that Juniper's assessments are incorrect.
Does Kuang agree with the criticisms? Were they meant to be straw men and she fumbled them? I don't know.
Juniper also says this kind of stuff about Athena's writing:
Athena's sentences are so engaging.
It's more like an amalgamation of startlingly beautiful sentences
But Athena's war epic sounds like an echo from the battlefield. It rings true.
I can see why if you thought Athena was Kuang's self insert (I don't, btw) that you would think she was really self-congratulating. That was the thrust of another rather strident "Who is the real racist" type 1 star review I saw of Yellowface. (Is that a genre a of review now? It should be. A WITRR review, pronounced "Whiter.") Along the lines of "She thinks she's such an amazing writer and any criticism of her work automatically can only be because of racism something something Western civilization something something wokeness."
I guess I have a hard time believing that Kuang believes she's writing the kind of sentences she attributes to Athena but isn't willing to ever actually quote in the text. I didn't notice any in Babel, at least. Kuang also wrote The Poppy War which I know very little about but, from the little bit I have read, doesn't seem like it's any more elevated in style than Babel. And I haven't see either book described as "an echo from the battlefield."
Here's what seems to be a fairly representative review of "Poppy War" by Megan Neda on "Writer's Hearth"
I got a good "big-picture" idea of the world, but I never felt immersed. I never felt that I was right there with Rin. I think this book is a good choice for readers who are primarily interested in action, and who don't necessarily need an emotional connection to the story in order to enjoy a novel.
Juniper also says this about writers and epics, which is funny in light of The Poppy War's existence:
It's a running joke that every Serious Author at some point does a grand and ambitious war novel, and I suppose this one is Athena's. [...] Most grand war epics by young writers tend to read like mere imitations of grand war epics; their authors come off as toddlers riding toy horses.
So is Kuang laughing at herself here? Or is Kuang watching, amused, as people try to parse all of this via psychological insertion of her into Athena? Is that what I’m doing?
Sigh. I think maybe this book is brilliant.
Continued in Part 2