Korean Literature Is Diverse, Let’s Not Call It ‘K-Lit’

Starfield COEX Mall, South Korea
Starfield COEX Mall, South Korea | © Josip Ivankovic / Unsplash
Photo of Matthew Janney
Uk Books Editor14 May 2018

Since 2001, sales of Korean Books in the UK have soared over 11,000%. As the popularity of Korean literature grows in the West, so will attempts to reduce its identity to the realm of ‘K-Lit’.

In The Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong writes: ‘If Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a neurotic, with both an inferiority and a superiority complex.’ In what feels like the description of the quintessential Dostoevskian character, she captures Korea’s anxious, contradictory and fascinating essence. Are these not the ideal ingredients for its writers to explore and exploit?

When Han Kang’s latest book was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize – an award which she won in 2016 for The Vegetarian – her inclusion reaffirmed South Korea’s increasingly familiar prominence on the global literary stage. Meanwhile, in March The Guardian reported that Un-su Kim’s latest novel The Plotters sold for a six-figure deal in the US, while publishers in the UK were furiously engaged in a bidding war to bag the latest Korean thriller, the new genre set to supersede Scandi noir. (4th estate have now acquired the rights to The Plotters, due for release in spring 2019.)

But while authors such as Kang and Kim are stealing headlines and absorbing the spotlight, much is being done behind the scenes to support the translation and dissemination of Korean literature, a relatively new phenomenon for English-language readers. Deborah Smith, who has translated both of Kang’s recent works, described the process of translating Korean as ‘moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism’. Such ambiguity gave rise to what Claire Armistead described as ‘Han Kang-gate’, where academics and critics accused Smith of mistranslating chunks of text. A heated – but arguably necessary debate – ensued that helped open up Western audiences to literature from the region.

Han Kang | © Lee Chunhee

While media attention has increased the visibility of Korean literature, its germination has been accelerated by various Korean cultural institutions acting as financial backers. Writing in The Bookseller in 2016, Smith explains: ‘Other languages have seen a big hit translate into a short-term burst of interest, but failed to capitalise on this and turn it into a sustained trend. I doubt that will be the case with South Korea. One area where Korean fiction has a distinct advantage is funding.’ Smith, who also founded the not-for-profit Tilted Axis Press that solely publishes literature in translation, has been championing Korean writer Hwang Jungeun, with funding from The Daesan Foundation. More evidence for the ‘sustained trend’ of Korean literature, is the announcement that Tilted Axis are due to release I’ll Go On this November, a second translated work from the award-winning Korean author that explores the poignant relationship between two sisters.

Elsewhere, US-based independent publisher Dalkey Archive Press launched a series of translated Korean titles in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, with the aim of showcasing ‘the intellectual and aesthetic diversity of contemporary Korean writing to English-language readers’. (The Literature Translation Institute of Korea also co-created the special Korean market focus at the London Book Fair in 2014.) Yi Kwang-su’s socialist-realist novel The Soil and Lee Ki-Ho’s satirical work At Least We Can Apologise represent the wide spectrum of genre and subject matter among the 14-volume set, a refreshingly varied library for Western readers whose main interaction with Korean literature has come in the form of ‘dystopian novels written by people without any direct connection to the country’, according to Ed Park writing in The New Yorker.

Gangnam Station, South Korea | © Dmitrii Ivashko / Unsplash

In the UK, sales of Korean books exploded from 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015, a trend that is set to continue with Kang’s return to the Man Booker shortlist. To some extent, timing has played its part. Korean literature fortuitously emerged onto the scene when critics and readers alike were looking for the next big thing. ‘The inventiveness and styles of the Korean crime fiction coming to us seem to offer a whole new palette,’ as the mystery novelist J Madison David writes in World Literature Today, suggesting that Korean thrillers were able to sell themselves as crime fiction while reinventing and reimagining the recognisable and hugely popular genre.

The rise of Korean literature also appears to have benefited from a perfect union of supply and demand. While one literary world was looking for something to get excited about, Korea was looking for a way to recover from the recession, and turned to its cultural exports for help. As Park writes: ‘the South Korean government, reeling from the recession, decided to invest in pop culture as a prime export, resulting in the wildly popular boy bands and girl bands and soap operas that went on to make up hallyu, the wave of Korean culture that has swept over Asia, and, increasingly, the rest of the world’.

South Korea is now associated with supercharged coolness, with Seoul as its neon-lit, technicoloured capital. But could this wholesale acquisition of Korean culture be as problematic as it is helpful for Korea’s literary diversity in the West? For every reader who wants to read Korean literature, who wants to gain a deeper appreciation for the country’s literary tapestry, there’s no doubt someone else waiting in the wings ready to reduce its varied landscape to a bite-size nugget of commercial consumption. With its wide appreciation for genre – sci-fi, crime, avant-garde metafiction, literary fiction, manhwa (the Korean term for comics) – it would be a shame to hear about the state of ‘K-Lit’, after next month’s International Book Fair in Seoul.

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