‘The Story of P.C.’ by Gu Byeong-mo (Review)

Much as I enjoyed German Literature Month and its annual incentive to devote the whole of November to German-language reading (and a few other things besides…), it does mean that some of my other favourite areas were neglected a little.  Now that it’s December, it’s time to rectify that, and the first week of the last month of the year will see a couple of reviews from one of my most frequently visited literary destinations.  On Thursday, I’ll be looking at the latest release from a very familiar face, but today’s review focuses on a writer whose work has made it into English for the first time – and hopefully not the last 🙂

Gu Byeong-mo’s The Story of P.C. (translated by Stella Kim) is the latest in the ASIA Publishers K-Fiction series of bilingual short stories.  While her debut novel Wizard Bakery has been translated into several languages, English (as far as I’m aware) isn’t one of them, but on the basis of this short work, I’d be very interested in seeing an English-language edition.

The story is a monologue told by a woman with a vicarious interest in the work of a reclusive writer known simply as P (the P.C. of the English title comes from the gender-neutral respect suffix -씨).  The author, a mid-list writer with respectable sales thanks to a TV-drama adaptation, has just brought out a new book, a social thriller that is slightly closer to the bone than previous works.  The woman, who follows the writer’s semi-inactive Twitter account, watches the reaction to the new book with interest, particularly when the number of online comments begins to rise.

This reaction is less than positive to say the least.  The novel reportedly features an immigrant as the bad guy and a disabled woman as an assistant to the main protagonist, all of which allows a host of keyboard warriors (many of whom haven’t even read the book) to get fired up.  The demands for apologies start to roll in, in addition to pressure on the publisher to edit the novel, or even withdraw it from sale.  Eventually, bowing to the inevitable, the publisher, and later the writer, see fit to comment publicly on the issue – as you can imagine, this only increases the digital frenzy…

The Story of P.C. is an interesting examination of the role of the writer in the social-media age, with the idea of readers’ expectations of authors at its heart.  In her writer’s note, Gu comments:

Some people are pained when they read my stories.  And they have their reasons: because they remember their own childhoods: because they’ve experienced similar events that were wrong or violent; because they dislike the situations and difficulties the characters face and find them to be uncomfortable.
How much responsibility should I take upon myself for their pain?  Did I inadvertently turn people into instruments?  Did I make characters into important people in order to manipulate them, and in the end discard them?

pp.87/9 (ASIA Publishers, 2017)

This is the situation faced by her creation, and when P.C.’s readers think the writer has overstepped the mark, they’re only too happy to let the world know about it.  In addition, there are digs throughout the story at P.C.’s inability to write anything but fiction.  It’s an idea that may puzzle a western reader, but there can be an expectation in East Asia for writers to act as social commentators, with literary success bringing with it an obligation to offer views on social matters, and in neglecting, or refusing, to do so, P.C. (in the eyes of many of the Twitter followers) is showing a lack of social conscience, or even cowardice.

However, when anyone can call you out on your comments, rightly or wrongly, this has an effect on your writing.  The narrator notices how P.C.’s subsequent books become safer, more anodyne, in an attempt to head off potential criticism, a tactic that is unlikely to work.  No matter how inoffensive you strive to make your writing, there’ll always be someone who isn’t happy, there’s always an angle that someone will be offended by.  Gu’s comments here regarding the writer’s responsibility towards their characters and the public touch on this, but surely the writer also has a responsibility to be true to their writing and beliefs?

What really fuels the anger of the online critics in The Story of P.C. is the secretive writer’s refusal to engage with society.  Their Twitter account has 50, 000 followers, but only follows three other accounts – the writer’s various publishers:

On top of that, P.C. never appeared in public or agreed to do an interview  Since no one knew P.C.’s real name, sex, age, occupation, or address, the mysterious image created a kind of appeal for the readers. (p.13)

It’s hard to avoid thinking  of a certain Italian writer at this point, even if P.C. has no interest into getting into discussion of the books, but there are also hints of Elena Ferrante in the realisation that staying aloof is impossible.  The power of social media and the way in which issues snowball mean that simply ignoring criticism is an unsustainable strategy, and any reasonable voice attempting to support the writer will be drowned out under the weight of numbers.  The narrator’s reticence to engage online comes from observing what happens when scandal erupts:

As for me, I didn’t comment in any of these threads, instead observing with curiosity from afar. I wasn’t eloquent or articulate enough to critique or discuss something or someone, and I’d occasionally seen how people who added in a word of agreement on a small matter would become victims of a backlash, harshly accused of advocating or self-righteously shielding the person or thing under criticism, when all they had done was offer an innocent agreement with some limited information.  I knew it was best not to partake in this kind of controversy if I were to avoid stepping in dirty mud puddles. (p.47)

This is exactly what happens when the writer is finally forced to respond, and issues a few terse tweets.  The pack howls and launches into a vicious, coordinated attack.

The Story of P.C. is a clever, thought-provoking piece that makes us consider the extent to which writers should be held accountable for what happens in a work of fiction, asking whether they should be prepared to change their style and content in an attempt to placate the more sensitive elements of society.  This is even hinted at in the title.  The original, 어느 피씨주의자의 종생기, can be literally translated as something like ‘That P.C. Type of Person’, and the English version uses a similar play on words, with the homophones P씨 and P.C. connecting the ideas of the writer and political correctness.  Make of that what you will – just don’t expect me to enter into any lengthy online discussions about it…

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