|Active Writers in Korean Literature
Choi Jae Bong
Korean Novel Market
Love stories which are more or less like melodramas are prevailing in the Korean
"popular" novel market. "Perfume of Chrysanthemum" by Kim In Ha, "The Eleventh
Apple Tree" by Lee Yong Beom, "Flower of Tears" by Kim Min Gi and other works
mesmerize the public with sublime and absolutely pure love stories under adverse
circumstances rather than cold reality. "Fish of Bones" by Jo Chang In, in which
the author tells us a story of a father whose wife left him and who is taken
ill but looks after his children devotedly by himself until he dies; and "Mother"
by Kim Jeong Hyeon, a story of a mother who gathers her separated family members
and rebuilds her family, seem to just substitute the relationship between parents
and children for the love between a man and a woman. Except for "fantasy" novels,
which are just martial arts novels, modernized to attract teenage readers, other
genres of novels including detective stories, thrillers and science fiction,
have not yet gained ground in Korea.
In the non-fiction domain, humanities and social science are on the decline while practical books such as foreign language learning books, and books on health and how to make money are selling well. In "Sangdo" (Business Morality), a bestselling novel by Choi In Ho, the author tells us the story of a merchant in the Chosun Dynasty and makes a strong impression on readers who want to learn something about how to make a fortune. Choi made his debut in the late 1960s with short stories about lonely individuals in the city and caught the public's attention. But after his work "Home of Stars" became a commercial success, he has "converted" to "commercial" literature. "Lost Kingdom", a history novel and "A Road without a Road", a Buddhist novel, attracted a lot of attention from the public, but were hardly appreciated in terms of "quality literature".
At the turning point from the 1980s to the 1990s, "from society to individuals"
seemed to be the biggest issue for Korean literature. Writers and critics both
regretted and criticized the superfluous ideology of the preceding decade. They
made efforts to bring the existential anguish of an individual to light, free
from socio-historic burdens. The evaluation criteria of a literary work had
been its theme and effectiveness, but that changed to "literariness of literature",
i.e. literary perfectionism, in the 1990s. The literary tendency which might
be called "estheticism" gained ground. Responding effectively to the changing
demand of the time, Sin Gyeong Suk and Yun Dae Nyeong emerged as representative
writers of the 1990s. "Saseum Beolre Yeoja", a recent work by Yun Dae Nyeong,
combines existential questions with a few science fiction devices through the
story of an amnesiac man.
It is characteristic of the Korean literature in the 1990s that more female writers were active than ever. They attracted women readers not with heavy and epic stories but with amusing ones. Their favourite themes for their novels were isolation and the meaningless life which housewives feel, their escape from them, the shameful consequences of adultery and difficult struggle against the order of the patriarchal system. Two female writers, Eun Hee Gyeong and Ha Seong Ran, impressed readers with "Minor League" and "Hero of My Movie". "On a Boat of Glass, I Am Floating on a Strange Sea", a recent novel by Jeon Gyeong Rin, depicts very vividly the love adventure of a woman who loves two men at the same time but in different ways.
"Literaturism", which was prevailing in the Korean literary scene in the 1990s, became the target of criticism at the end of the decade. The realization that literature dealt with overly individual and trivial matters and that the sole emphasis was on esthetic perfectionism, led to criticism that it ignored socio-historic issues and its social function. Now there was a demand for literature to be more interested and engaged in social issues in different forms. Along with this consciousness, regret about the commercialism which had tainted literature in the 1990s, and criticism about the "literature power" were brought up. The fact that the so-called "literaturism" in the 1990s was nothing but an excuse for the commercialism of literature publishers, and that critics were silent about such deterioration or even advocated it, became very clear. Kim Myeong In, Kwon Seong Wu, Lee Myeong Won and other young critics attacked the close relationship between publishers and critics and their striving for power.
Notable Writers and Their Novels
Hwang Seok Yeong, who was imprisoned for 5 years because of his unauthorized
visit to North Korea, is a breath of fresh air to the Korean novel scene. In
"Old Garden", published in 2000, he rehabilitated the ideology of utopia which
had been dominant in Korea, and the "fighters" who had devoted themselves to
it. In 2001, his talent was reconfirmed through his second novel "Guests" after
he got out of jail. The latter deals with the reinterpretation of the massacre
of innocent people in Sincheon, Hwanghae Province, North Korea, during the Korean
War. While the North Korean authorities wrote in the history books that the
massacre was committed by the American army, the author, through his visit to
the town and interviews with witnesses and persons related with the massacre,
found out that it had been committed by Christians. He wrote his novel based
on his findings. He describes "Christianity" and "Communism", both foreign ideologies
introduced to the Korean peninsula in the 20th century, as "guests", and focuses
on their effects on the Koreans and the problems which they have caused. In
particular, he narrates the story through a shaman's ritual for a dead person
from Hwanghae Province, North Korea, and thus attempts to expand the extensive
domain of the realism.
Kim Hun, who was once a literature reporter for a newspaper, got his talent as a novelist verified in his second novel "Song of Sword", whose protagonist is the admiral Lee Sun Sin, the hero of the Korean-Japanese War from 1592 to 1598. He contrasts the cold-hearted admiral with the feeble-minded king who is full of doubts, and brings their characters to light through the former's short and dry sentences and the latter's long sentences full of rhetoric and exaggerations, which he does very skillfully. In addition to the two novels, he also released "Jindo", the Intact Island, a prose collection with photos, which presents the nature and culture of the island in the south of the Korean Peninsula, and also its history and people.
Kim Seong Dong, the author of "Mandara", also released a novel entitled "Dream" after a long break. In this novel, he depicts, through the form of a very short dream, the wanderings and searching of a young monk who tries to harmonize love for a woman and ways of searching after truth. He also tells us about his father, who was killed during the Korean War because he was allegedly a leftist, and the authorﾕs own experience of excommunication because he had allegedly attempted to harm the Buddhist order, which is quite remarkable in his novel.
Lee Dae Hwan released "Slow Bullet", in which he tells us very calmly about a Korean man who participated in the Viet Nam War and suffers from the aftereffects of defoliants; whose disease is inherited by his son and thus destroys his family.
(translated by Moon Seung Hyun)
Choi Jae Bong
Born in 1961, Yangpyeong, Korea. After he got M.A. in English Literature, Kyonghee University, Seoul, he joined Hankyoreh Shinmun, a Korean daily newspaper in 1988. Since 1992, he worked as a reporter for its department of literature. Writings: "Literary Travel to Meet History", Press Dept., Hankyoreh Shinmun, 1997