By Dennis Abrams
It is perhaps more than a little bit ironic that today, with Korean writers beginning to make their mark on the world stage, that they’re so little recognized in their home country.
But it’s true.
As Lee Sun-young wrote in the Korean Herald, “If you’re reading a novel from Korea’s best-seller lists now, chances are that it’s not written by a local author.”
“Fiction, she writes, “is fading.” Or, more exactly, “the serious, high-caliber, literary fiction that Koreans refer to as ‘pure’ literature is fading.”
Kim-Hyun-jeong, a spokesperson for the country’s largest bookseller, Kyobo Bookstore, told the Herald that “Korean fiction is rare to spot in the best-seller section this year,” and, in fact, sales of Korean dropped by a staggering 28% so far this year over the same period last year.
Just look at what was on last week’s bestseller list: Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The Miracle in the Grocery Store by Japanese thriller author Keigo Higashino.
In fact, the only work of Korean fiction on this list is Kim Hin-myung’s Letter War, sitting in the #5 position on a chart that combines both fiction and non-fiction. And, Lee notes, prior to Kim’s book (which local critics described as “not literary enough”), it had been several months since another Korean novel had made the list.
Lee Kyeong-jae, professor of Korean Literature at Seoul’s Soongsil University told the Herald that, “Korean readers, who once found it difficult to relate to translated works, appear to be enjoying them more, thanks to their increased understanding of foreign cultures, as seen in the popularity of U.S. TV dramas here, as well as the burgeoning rank of qualified translators.”
Korea’s first culture minister, Lee O-young, believes that the “humble standing” of Korean fiction today is due to its “failure to adapt to the changing times, or the changes in the Korean psyche.”
“Literature, in the past, was not mere literature. It (in its own way) confronted the military dictatorship, as the container of the voices of that time,” he said in a recent interview cited by the Herald.
Readers today are not living under Japanese occupation, the Korean War or the uprisings in favor of democracy in the 1980s. “They have different desires. Literature now is failing to respond to them.”
But, as Lee writes:
“Outside the “pure” literature territory in Korea, writers of thriller, romance or sci-fi genres have been gaining ground in recent years, utilizing emerging platforms such as e-books and Web novels — characterized by serial publishing on the Internet or mobile phone platforms. New generations of high-caliber writers are emerging as well, crossing the line between “pure” and commercial fictions, although their major breakthrough is yet to come.”
Literary critic Suh Young-in added:
“If you look at foreign fiction titles that are selling well in Korea, they often fall in between literary and genre fiction. They have that commercial appeal of genre fiction, without sacrificing the depth and style of a literary work.”