In this section, we examine the lives of Korean writers and the nature of their works by sorting them into three generations: the first wave from the 1920s to the 1960s, the second wave from the 1970s to the 1980s, and the third wave from the 1990s to the present.
The Aesthetics and Modernity of Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels
Artist novels refer to fiction in which the artist’s journey forms the main part of the narrative. They may be considered a subgenre of the Bildungsroman or “intellectual” novel in their treatment of the artist’s inner conflict and growth as a character. Novels about writers, in particular, have always formed a core part of the artist novel genre in their autobiographical depiction of the artist’s world. The archetype of the genre in Western literature concerns the artist’s struggle between reality and the artistic ideal, depicting the growth of the artist thereof. Since modern times, artists have had to contend with feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and exclusion in the struggle between their artistic desires and the demands of everyday life. In the process of overcoming these obstacles, the protagonist comes to terms with how an artist may exist as a member of society, and thereby comes closer to the question of what art is in itself.
The Korean prototype of the artist novel can be traced back to a handful of short stories published in the early 1920s in literary magazines such as Creation, White Tide, and Wasteland. Stories about artists or aspiring artists revealed a budding tendency to favor aestheticism and escapism, while stories questioning the meaning of art itself also began to appear. As the 1920s were lean times for most Korean artists and writers, the humdrum reality and struggle of the intelligentsia was an oft-depicted subject. Most importantly, these early artist novels show writers questioning the role of art and the artist in the modern world, or pondering the terms and conditions of modernity in art.