Is Korea Worthy of a Nobel Prize for Literature?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

Joesph Leo of KL Management

Joesph Leo of KL Management (Photo: Korea Times)

By Dennis Abrams

Writing for the Korea Times, Chung Ah-young reports that despite the general lack of interest in reading among Koreans (spending on books continues to drop, sales of new books continue to drop, the aver Korean spent only 26 minutes a day reading a book over the last five years), “Koreans still pine for a Nobel Prize in Literature.”

And when year after year the prize goes elsewhere, Koreans blame both Korean authors and the government for not doing enough promotion. But in an interview, Joseph Leo, CEO of the Korean literary agency KL Management said, “Before asking why Korean authors fail to win the prize, I want to ask them how many books you read a year.”

Lee, who is arguably Korea’s top literary agent, has sold the rights of eight Korean authors’ works outside the country, including Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Jo Kyung-ran’s Tongue.

One thing that Lee learned while selling Korean books to foreign publishers: authors who win the Nobel have two things in common: they have been translated into foreign languages in 15-20 countries for at least a decade. And…they have a loyal readership in their own home country.

“The Nobel Prize cannot be achieved overnight only by an author’s individual talent. The great authors have strong supporters who fervently read their own works in their own countries. The authors who aren’t love by their people cannot be loved by readers in any other countries,” he said.

“As far as Koreans don’t have any interest in reading books, I think that winning the Nobel Prize is a far-fetched dream.”

But if winning the Nobel is just a dream, Lee has been committed to introducing Korean literature to the world since the early 1990s, even when no agency expressed any interest in Korean literature.

“Back then, I was emotionally hurt because bringing Korean literature to the world is my long cherished dream. At the time, Korean culture was almost all new to the Western world. But things began changing in the 200s when Korean pop culture began rising in the world,” he told the Times.

His first success came when he sold the rights to I Have the Right to Destroy Myself in 2004. And then came the breakthrough success of Please Look After Mom, which was sold to 34 countries worldwide and became the first Korean work to make the New York Times bestseller list.

“…I might have given up when facing countless rejections. But my enthusiasm and belief in Korean literature helped me overcome the obstacles and finally make it.”

Selecting the books that will appeal to a foreign readership is, of course, a challenge, but Lee has come to rely on the “intuitive knowledge” he’s accumulated over the years.

“Holding the Korean identity is a key factor in attracting foreign readers. As seen in other Nobel Prize winners’ works, great stories are universal while talking about their own politics and history, drawing empathy from readers. When we reach such books, we don’t feel unfamiliar although we don’t have any knowledge about their cultural and historical backgrounds at all.”

Just this year alone, through his agency, Shin’s I’ll Be Right Here will be published in the US by Other Press in June, while Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time (Atria Books), Lee Jung-myung’s The Investigation (Pan Macmillan) and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian will be published in the UK this spring.

And with Korea having a featured part of the Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair, Lee is optimistic that even more Korean novels will soon be reaching English-speaking readers.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.