Popular Culture Connects with Literature: Kim Young-ha, Park Min-gyu, Kim Kyung-uk, Kim Junghyuk

Leaving behind the political of their predecessors, writers since the 1990s seek inspiration in the media-saturated, consumer-oriented masses of individuality.


1. Seek Within Popular Culture and Deliberate Through Literature

Novels provide us with a multi-dimensional rendering of society’s cultural landscapes and desires. The language of the novel harnesses and gives form to desires drifting in reality; characters in novels and their conversations, sex, jobs, and lifestyles reflect the desires and deficiencies of their contemporaries. One great change that took place in Korean novels after 1987 was that personal desire was brought to the foreground. Contemporary novels began when the one-dimensional specimen of a fictional character evolved into an entity with individuality.

Along those lines, it is notable that in Korean novels after 1987, a major part of personal desire is inspired by outside stimuli. One could argue that traditional novels such as Honggildongjeon are spawned by social circumstances of discriminating against second wives’ children, but the desire of novels after 1987 come in greater variety and class including objects represented by brand names.

The desire of novels from 1990 and beyond preserves character types and their lifestyles. They turn on the computer the moment they wake up in the morning, listen to music on the Internet, and prefer the anonymity of 24-hour convenience stores. They are more comfortable around manmade structures than nature, and prefer the no-hassle relationships they form online than ones offline. The interesting thing is that a great part of this manmade world consists of a cultural form called popular culture. Their memories are shared with songs of popular singers, the names of fashionable clothing brands, and commercial film productions. Popular culture provides a well from which to draw one’s literary sensibility.

The important question is whether to use popular culture as a prop, or reevaluate and adopt it as a serious source of literary sensibility. Adopting it would first require self-reflection because adoption is a means of showing active support or rejection. Some writers who have adopted popular culture into their works include Kim Young-ha, Kim Kyung-uk, Park Min-gyu, and Kim Junghyuk. All four writers use popular culture as a crucial ingredient but the reason or context for this usage varies. While Kim Young-ha recruits popular culture to protest against the hegemonic ideology of a stratified society, Kim Junghyuk chooses aspects of popular culture fit for those with non-mainstream tastes. For Park Min-gyu, on the other hand, the use of popular culture is meant to bring in marginalized subcultures rather than the major items and issues of the day, which sets itself apart from popular culture as a generation marker in Kim Kyung-uk’s stories. The variety of uses thus divides popular culture and puts them in different dimensions, and in the process popular culture formerly thought of as a habit or a custom is re-examined. As such, the critical examination of popular culture produces literature.


2. Kim Young-ha: Popular Culture as Anti-Ideology

1. What Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator?
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 290p, ISBN 9788954610117

2. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 134p, ISBN 9788954611770

Popular culture shows us the polar opposite of sobriety in Kim Young-ha’s novels. For instance, the children in the story “Emergency Exit” have received no education in traditional culture widely considered common sense. They are more accustomed to making spontaneous decisions we consider vulgar. The popular culture Kim Young-ha is interested in can be found in places that have nothing to do with lofty cultural elitism.

The backdrops of these stories are spaces popular but at the same time isolated like someone alone with a computer. As the ironic title, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, reveals, the rules of the world as we know it do not apply in Kim’s world. Kim does not attempt to hide his desire to simply snuff the values and rules of the world. His indulging in anti-normative desires becomes a reality through the Internet. His characters are anonymous creatures in a parasitic relationship with the Internet rather than social individuals, with their otaku sensibilities satisfying desires through online play forbidden offline in real life. They work as online suicide helpers or form secret societies that go on trips to get hit by lightning, and live in the confines of a room with a computer in order to illegally copy and sell software. They enjoy strictly nonsensical, private lives far removed from pesky rules. Relationships, love, and sex are all possible with a computer and a little bit of imagination.

In other words, what Kim Young-ha’s characters eat, wear, and drive represent their identity....