Recent trend in Korean literature
Since novelist Cho Nam-joo’s book “Kim Ji-young Born 1982” was first published in late 2016, depicting the struggles of a young woman under socially-embedded gender discrimination, more than 1.23 million copies have been sold in Korea — the first million selling novel here since Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” in 2009.
The book’s film adaptation is currently hitting screens nationwide, also garnering more than two million ticket sales in just some 10 days following its release.
The book’s overseas sales are also high; it earned particularly strong responses from neighboring East Asian countries, such as Japan, Taiwan and China, becoming a fast selling book there. Altogether, the book’s publication rights have been sold in 17 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Spain.
The book’s editor Park Hye-jin at Minumsa Publishing Group said the book has touched upon issues which many have experienced, but that were not openly discussed.
“I believe the book’s sensational popularity has to do with it exposing common experiences among people that were previously just locked up in their minds. Exposing and shedding light on the issues has provided sympathy and consolation to people,” Park told The Korea Times.
Seo Hyo-in, a poet and another book editor at Minumsa, also explained the book’s global sensation has in part come from its ability to reflect the spirit of the times.
“The previous million seller novel ‘Please Look After Mom,’ a story of a mother in a typical patriarchal family in Korea, was not the sort of book that could lead a global cultural trend. However, this book touches on issues that are very timely, especially when there is a lot of talk globally about women’s rights, such as the MeToo movement,” Seo said during an interview with The Korea Times.
Indeed, one of the most distinctive features of recent Korean literature is that both authors and writers are showing a keen interest in the female narrative or female voice.
Surging interests in female narrative
“Female novelists like Chung Se-rang, Choi Eun-young, Gu Byeong-mo and Kim Keum-hee are gaining a lot of attention these days. For example, Chung Se-rang’s novel ‘School Nurse Ms. Ahn,’ has independent female characters along with elements of feminism. Gu Byeong-mo’s novel ‘Your Neighbor’s
Table’ is a black comedy that takes place in a community formed for the sake of raising the birthrate. Kim Keum-hee’s novels highlight people who work in unstable temporary positions in Korea, reflecting the changed topography of Korean society,” Seo said.
Widened spectrum of subject matters
Besides the interest in female voices, another distinctive characteristics of recent Korean literature is the wide spectrum of its subject matter; original literary works from the science fiction (SF) genre and crime to so-called queer literature are extending their readership not only in Korea, but also in major literary markets, including the U.S.
This wide spectrum of interest includes newly-given attention to social minority groups, such as migrant workers and sexual minorities. For instance, young authors such as Kim Bong-gon and Park Sangyoung published collections of short stories, “Speed, Summer” and “The tears of an Unknown Artist,” respectively, dealing with issues of sexual identity.
In the case of SF, Korean writer Kim Bo-young sold her three novels’ publication rights to major U.S. publisher Harper Collins earlier this year.
Kim Un-su’s suspense thriller “The Plotters” also received rave reviews from critics in the U.S., since an English translation came out in January through Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, another major U.S. publisher.
The crime novel was listed as the Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review, and The Best Books of the Week by the New York Post. It was also published in French and shortlisted for the Grand Prix de Literature Policiere.
Korean literature market diversifies
Experts on Korean literature generally agree that Han Kang winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for her book “The Vegetarian” became a watershed moment for Korean works.
Undeniably, the continuing global popularity of hallyu, or Korean pop culture, has also largely boosted the rise in the interest in Korean literature in general.
“I believe the current achievements of Korean novels on the international literary scene were possible because of the efforts by previous generations of Korean authors. With the rise of the global popularity of Korean pop culture, drama and music, the Korean language and its culture have become more familiar with a greater number of people worldwide, benefiting Korean literature,” Seo from
Yoon Bu-han, Director of the International Affairs at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTIK), said the global position of Korean literature has changed from the era of simply being introduced to a new foreign market to the new era of receiving quality treatment and specific attention from readers abroad.
“It is true that we see heightened global interest in Korean literary works since Han Kang’s winning of the Man Booker International Prize. As in Kim Un-su’s case, we now see more interest and demand in various genres of Korean novels, such as SF, mysteries or crime novels,” Yoon told The Korea Times.
“We also see more major publishing groups in foreign markets printing Korean literary works. Previously, publishers that printed Korean novels were mostly international literature-focused magazines or middle-sized publishers. But during recent two to three years, we have seen major publishers opt to print them,” Yoon added.
The state-funded translation agency, has also played a significant role; during the last two decades, it helped to translate more than 1,700 Korean literary works into 40 languages. It still provides grants to foreign publishers aiming to print Korean literature.
Yoon said regional diversity in countries where Korean books are translated and introduced has been particularly marked during recent years: “Many Korean literary works have so far entered into North American, European or Northeast Asian markets. Now we see more demand from countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway and Finland are also showing more interest in Korean literature.
“At Sweden’s Goteborg Book Fair held in September, Korea was the Guest of Honor and the theme country. We also held a literary event in Brazil, which is geographically very far from Korea, where several works of Korean authors, including novelist Park Min-gyu and poet Kim Ki-taek, have been published.”
Experts added that in order for brilliant Korean authors to get more chances overseas, the domestic book market and distribution system need to be healthier and stronger.
“Ultimately, we need to create an environment where authors can freely and stably write. We will get good quality works, if we have a larger pool of authors. In order to do that, Korea needs to work on strengthening its own book market. The global success of ‘Kim Ji-young Born 1982’ was possible, because it had strong domestic sales in the first place,“book editor Seo stressed.
Korean books translated into various languages are displayed in a media center during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
France’s Brive Book Fair holds an author event with Korean novelist Kim Un-su, second from right, in this November 2018 file photo.
Sweden’s 2019 Goteborg Book Fair invites South Korea as Guest of Honor and the theme country.
The U.K. edition for “Kim Ji-young Born 1982” to be published by Simon & Schuster next year
Kim Un-su’s thriller novel “The Plotters”
Award-winning novelist Han Kang