Kim Yeonsu is a prolific writer, a recipient of many significant literary awards, with a number of faithful readers. His book, World’s End Girlfriend sold 40,000 copies within three months of its publication. JoongAng Ilbo reporter Shin Junebong, met with him.
Kim Yeonsu is at present overshadowed by big literary names such as Hwang Sok-yong, Yi Mun-yol, and Ko Un, but he certainly is at the top of the list for the subsequent generation of prominent writers in Korean literature. He was born in 1970, in Gimcheon, a medium-sized city located halfway between the capital city Seoul and Korea’s second largest city Busan. He was an English major in college and worked for a short time as a reporter for a woman’s magazine. He made his literary debut as a poet in 1993, and he published a novel the following year. He was initially a poet, but it is difficult to conclude what kind of influence this had on him. At any rate, in 2001, he began to garner recognition with a contentious full-length novel Goodbye, Mr. Yi Sang, for which he received the Dongsuh Literary Award. In fact, Kim went on to win all the major Korean literary prizes in the first decade of the 21st century. He received the Dongin Literary Award with his evidently autobiographical novel, When Still a Child, and the Daesan Literary Award in 2005 with I Am a Ghostwriter, which has come to characterize Kim’s writing style. In 2007, he was the recipient of Hwang Sun-won Literary Award for “The Comedian Who Went to the Moon,” and in 2009 he won the Yi Sang Literary Prize for his short story “Five Pleasures for Those Who Take Walks.”
In spite of his splendid literary accomplishments, it looked as though Kim could not overcome the common fate of an artist; that is to say, notwithstanding lavish critical praise, he was viewed as a writer whose books sold in relatively small numbers.
Then last year something major happened to him. World’s End Girlfriend, published in September, sold 40,000 copies within a short period of its publication. The number sold is significant, given the relatively short time period, but it also showed that Kim Yeonsu definitely had a steadfast readership. In light of the size of the literary market of Korea, it is not an easy feat for a work of fiction to sell 40 to 50,000 copies. As one literary critic pointed out, if a writer can make a living solely from the royalties, it means the writer is no longer pressed to write for literary magazines, and the like, under great time pressure, thereby draining his creative energy.
With these thoughts on my mind, I met with Kim Yeonsu last December around a time of heavy snowfall. He came to the interview near Seoul City Hall with an expression ready to fend off all authority and conventions, looking like a warrior for whom the pen is his weapon against the world.
It turned out that Kim Yeonsu himself was deeply moved by the success of his short story collection, World’s End Girlfriend. He said, “They say that Koreans don’t read works of literature anymore but that doesn’t seem to be the case.” I asked him if Korean literature was in for another heyday, like in the 1980s, after a long stagnation. He replied by saying he wasn’t sure, but finds it remarkable that serious literature sells so well in Korea as compared to other countries. In effect, this way of thinking differs somewhat from most writers’ views of the Korean literary market. Many writers, whose first editions barely sell two or three thousand copies, would say that the system of “the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer” has gotten worse. Moreover, Kim Yeonsu added that the reading patterns of Korean readers are changing.
He has many readers who are in their 30s, but unlike in the 1980s to 90s when people turned to books and through a vicarious reading experience tried to find an answer to important questions of life, they now read books like any other kind of cultural activity. To paraphrase the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one of the things that could happen when the commodity aspect of literary works comes to the force is that the reader’s taste is indication of the individual’s socioeconomic class, level of education, and cultural background.
So then the reader’s taste will become more diverse, and the most important thing will ultimately be how refined is the reader’s choice of books. Kim Yeonsu seemed to think that such a change is taking place in the Korean literary market. He said the standard of the Korean readers has gotten much higher than in the past; the 1.2 million copies sold of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom as well as his novels, both which are by no means easy reading, can be taken as evidence that readers comprehend the methodology and the historical tradition of Korean literature.
Kim Yeonsu believes he has a sophisticated class of readers. He said they have grown older and more mature, reading his books for over 10 years. One reader, whom he met at a book reading, told the writer that he started dating when the full-length novel Whoever You are, No Matter How Lonely came out in 2007, and broke up when Song of the Night was published a year later. For this particular reader, the writings of Kim Yeonsu will remain entwined with his private memories.
It is time to scrutinize Kim Yeonsu’s literature. What is it that keeps drawing readers to his books?
Kim said he felt he had no sense of identity as a writer until the time when Twenty, his anthology of stories, was published in 2000: “I just didn’t know what to write or how.” Working as a reporter for a woman’s magazine in 1997 was a catalyst. “I realized it’s not an easy life out there after experiencing the harsh reality of the workplace. It was then that I decided to write seriously.”
The working hours of Korean laborers are notorious in the world for being among the longest. The profession of a reporter is considered the epitome of the “3Ds” [dirty, dangerous, and difficult]. The onerous act of earning his daily bread is what compelled him to turn to writing novels. “I perused the entire dictionary inside out until I found the right word, and changed my sentences several hundred times until I found it to my liking, not to mention doing thorough research. I tried my utmost to write an impeccable novel.”
Reportor Shin Junebong and novelist Kim Yeonsu