‘What is Korean Literature?’ by Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton (Review)

Having read a fair amount of Korean literature over the past six or seven years, I’ve developed an interest in the stories behind the books and have started to look out for works offering a glimpse behind the scenes.  However, where several of the books I’ve read have focused on a specific genre or era, today’s choice takes a more holistic approach, attempting to look at Korean literature as a whole entity.  Like me, you’re probably wondering if that’s even possible without resorting to a mammoth twenty-volume mega-project, so let’s see just how much can be said about the topic in one book…

Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton were the brains behind the short-story collection Modern Korean Fiction, and they’ve come together again for a new project, What is Korean Literature? (review copy courtesy of Fulton).  This new collaboration, running to around 300 pages, looks like (and probably is) a primer for university students, and marks an ambitious attempt to provide an overview of Korean literature, written and oral, from its origins to the present day.

In terms of style, there are similarities here with M.A. Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, but there are also several differences from that book.  This one focuses on Korea, of course, and doesn’t restrict itself to contemporary writing.  As well as discussing writers and books, it also includes samples of some of the works discussed, with several poems, prose excerpts and short plays included.  Of course, this is just a taste of the entire banquet, but these morsels of writing are still very welcome.

What is Korean Literature? is divided into two main sections, looking at classical and modern literature, and the two parts are further subdivided by genre.  The classical section looks at verse, narrative, literature in classical Chinese and oral literature, taking us from ancient times up to the late-nineteenth century. We then move into the modern era, where Kwon and Fulton explore developments in poetry, fiction and drama against the backdrop of rather tumultuous times.

The classical half of the book is an impressive overview of older work, with the writers providing insights into genres such as hyangga, shijo and kasa poetry.  There are some beautiful examples given, too, such as the following brief poem by the famous kisaeng (courtesan), Hwang Chini (translated here by Kevin O’Rourke):

I’ll cut a piece from the waist
of this interminable eleventh moon night
and wind it in coils beneath these bedcovers, warm and
fragrant as the spring breeze,
coil by coil
to unwind it the night my love returns.
p.20 (2020, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California)

There’s also plenty here on prose works, with lots of familiar names.  For example, we have several narratives (also covered in. the Premodern Korean Literary Prose anthology), examples of family writing (such as The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong) and fabulous tales such as The Nine Cloud Dream and The Tale of Cho Ung.  In a slightly different vein, there’s a section on P’ansori, explaining the origins and traditions of this uniquely Korean art form.

The second half (actually two-thirds) then goes on to describe the development of modern Korean literature.  Here the writers discuss the rise of the short-story form, the emergence of (and crackdown on) proletarian writing in the colonial era, as well as new ways of disseminating writing:

Newspapers and magazines were the two greatest contributions to the establishment of a modern literature in Korea, providing a social base for the formation of a professional writing class.  Commercial publishers formed partnerships with professional writers, supporting them and giving them a means for a livelihood that allowed them to pursue their craft. (p.104)

Anyone with an interest in Japanese literature will recognise this idea from the colonial era, with Natsume Sōseki’s newspaper career, in particular, coming to mind.

There’s a nice chapter to finish the book off, with Fulton attempting to give an overview of developments over the past few decades. There are some more familiar names here, especially in fiction, with mentions for writers like Kim Sagwa, Hwang Sok-yong and Ch’oe Yun, even if the chapter doesn’t quite capture all of the recent crop, especially the last few to make it into English.  A concept it does discuss, though, is that of women on the rise, and that’s not just the writers:

The demographics of this transformation are startling: there are today more women professors of Korean literature (whereas in 2004 there was not a single tenured female professor in the Korean literature department of any of the top five universities in Seoul), more women debuting as literary critics, and more women occupying editorial positions among the publishers of literary fiction. (p.228)

And yet, there’s a sting in the tale here – the writer suggests that this is largely due to men abandoning academia for more stable and lucrative professions…

The added bonus in What is Korean Literature? is the addition of actual literature, and there’s plenty here to enjoy, including several poems from various eras, an earlier, shorter, translation of The Story of Hong Gildong (or The Tale of Hong Kiltong as it is here) by Marshall R. Pihl, and Hwang Sun-won’s seminal 1952 story ‘The Cloudburst’ (translated by Edward W. Poitras), a piece that seems to be included everywhere, but which I’d surprisingly never tried before.  There are also a few plays, including a fun one, Yi Kunsam’s ‘A Respectable Visitor’ (translated by Song Yo-in), in which a Professor of the History of Culture is disturbed in his sleep by a burglar, who’s annoyed that the house doesn’t contain anything worth stealing!

A running theme throughout the book is the effect society in Korea has had on the country’s literature.  If we only take the twentieth century, there was the colonial era, the Korean war, the dictatorship, the Gwangju uprising, and the severe financial crisis of the early nineties.  This traumatic background certainly provides much to write about, but it means that there’s a lot of dark work floating about.  Another consequence of the country’s history is that the job of a writer has rarely been a safe one, and Kwon and Fulton often introduce authors, only to casually comment on their subsequent incarceration, disappearance or death…

At this point, it’s probably best if I add another warning.  While my preference is to doggedly work through a book from start to finish, that’s probably not the best approach with What is Korean Literature?, a book best read in short doses at your leisure.  It can be rather overwhelming as we go from one writer to the next, rushing through eras (and I have to say that the house choice of the dreaded McCune-Reischauer method of transliteration – anyone recognise Pae Sua? – doesn’t make the job any easier).  Also, there’s simply not enough space to give everything its due.  My last review, for example, looked at a 200-page book examining lineage novels in the late Choseon era, yet that genre received just a few fleeting mentions here.

More a book for a student than for the casual reader, What is Korean Literature? wouldn’t be my recommendation to anyone new to the country’s writing, but for those more invested in Korean literature, it would certainly make a useful reference book.  It’s definitely persuaded me to try more, and made me painfully aware that what’s been translated into English so far is just the tip of the iceberg.  With that in mind, I’ll finish with a plea to all the Korean-English translators out there – more, please 😉


5 thoughts on “‘What is Korean Literature?’ by Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton (Review)

  1. “I’ll finish with a plea to all the Korean-English translators out there – more, please” I think that should read: “I’ll finish with a plea to all the publishers out there – more, please” because it’s far more difficult to find an interested publisher than to translate a modern novel, let alone a 19th century yangban’s anthology. I have a current backlog of 6 recent novels without interested publishers, and I work with an agent!


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