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What to Read Next: Dorian Gray and Yellowface
Issue #292: Featuring Vain Main Characters
Happy Friday, readers!
Your excited response to my announcement of the Pulitzer Project was surprising and delightful. I’m so glad you’re eager to follow along! I’ll be sure to provide regular updates on my progress here in the newsletter. You can find my entire list of books in this spreadsheet, which also has a sheet for finished and upcoming titles.
(A number of you expressed interest in a Pulitzer Prize Book Club — it’s a fun idea, but I already have a book club going at The Big Read. Check it out if you haven’t already!)
As mentioned on Tuesday, I’m cruising through Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and I just finished Amity and Prosperity on audio. (I enjoyed that one immensely but didn’t love consuming it as an audiobook. More about that on Tuesday.)
I expect Caro to take a couple more weeks — at 1,200 pages, it’s the longest single volume on the list — and then I’ll be jumping into The Black Count by Tom Reiss, which won the 2013 award for biography. It dovetails perfectly with The Count of Monte Cristo, which is The Big Read’s summer title. I’ll be sure to let ya know when I start that one.
In the meantime, today I’m highlighting a couple of great books that feature vain protagonists. One is a well-known classic and the other is a hot new title that’s been all over the bookish internet. Thankfully, I quite enjoyed both!
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
“That is one of the great secrets of life. Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
Published: 1891 | Pages: 215 | Genre: Fiction (Gothic)
Before reading Oscar Wilde’s 1891 classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, I couldn’t have told you what it’s about. It’s an incredibly well-known title, but the actual content hasn’t permeated pop culture the way other classics have.
So here’s a brief overview of the story, in case you aren’t acquainted:
Basil Hallward has painted a striking portrait of his young friend Dorian Gray. Another friend, the shallow Lord Henry Wotton, muses to Dorian about the fleeting nature of youth and how beauty is to be worshipped, no matter the moral cost.
Gray comes to embody Wotton’s philosophy and wishes that his portrait would age instead of him. As Gray’s life unfolds, he comes to discover that the portrait indeed acquires the characteristics of his descent into depravity — a cruel sneer here, a wily wrinkle there — while the man himself doesn’t age a day.
The story then follows the consequences of that deal with the devil. The plot itself, while unique and page-turning, wasn’t actually the highlight, though. Wilde’s real strength was in putting so many probing (and accessible) philosophical questions into the text — it abounds with themes of art/creativity, vanity, morality, character, friendship, and retribution.
Dorian Gray is a bit of a wild ride given its brevity (just ~200 pages). The tone is gothic, the story skirts the edge of horror and fantasy, and the prose isn’t always straightforward.
But that’s a big part of why I loved it.
Even though Oscar Wilde has a point of view, it’s clear that he wants the reader to inquire within themselves about the questions asked in the story. There aren’t any easy answers and Wilde doesn’t bash the reader over the head with how they’re supposed to think — something far too many modern authors are guilty of.
I highlighted more passages in this slim novel than in any book I’ve read so far this year. It’s a story that I know will get better with additional readings, which I look forward to doing in a couple of years. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an approachable philosophical novel — with a great story, to boot — that should be on everyone’s lifetime reading list.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
“Twitter is real life; it's realer than real life, because that is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists on, because the industry has no alternative.”
Published: 2023 | Pages: 336 | Genre: Fiction (Contemporary)
Few niche subjects attract my immediate attention like thrillers set in the world of books and publishing. I know that sounds sort of ridiculous and low stakes, but there’s a surprising amount of murder and other types of deviousness to be found in the likes of The Plot, A Ladder to the Sky, The Shadow of the Wind, and others.
In Yellowface, Kuang takes a satirical shot at the publishing industry as well as social media culture.
June Hayward and Athena Liu were published the same year; while Athena was crowned as literature’s rising star, June’s debut fizzled. So, after Athena’s accidental death, June only barely hesitates in taking her friend’s almost-finished masterpiece and claiming it as her own.
From the jacket cover:
So what if June edits Athena's novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song — complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn't this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That's what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.
The story is narrated by June, so readers are immersively brought into her fears, her vanity, and her repeated attempts at justifying her actions. Kuang expertly crafted her main character to be clearly in the wrong, but still sympathetic at times. Publishing is a tough industry and social media has amplified critics and naysayers to a degree that hurts even well-known authors. This tension is perfectly displayed in Yellowface.
There are some truly unforgettable scenes (you know what I mean if you’ve read it) and the hours flew by on the audiobook. As someone who loves insider accounts of the publishing industry, it was catnip for me. The second half wasn’t quite as propulsive as the first, but overall I enjoyed Yellowface. It’s not only an enveloping story but also a thought-provoking inquiry about art, appropriation, publishing, and ownership.
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