Yi Mun-yol resides at the Buak Academy in Icheon, Gyeonggi-do Province, where the surroundings offer mesmerizing scenery with the changing colors of the autumn foliage. The interview was conducted in the author’s study and can be summarized into three themes: Yi Mun-yol’s views on the role of the novel; discussion about The In-between Periphery, his epic novel which was published in the middle of this year; and his personal thoughts on the globalization of Korean literature.
Views On the Novel
Hae Yisoo: You made your debut as a writer in 1977 and have been writing for 37 years. Has there been a change in your view of what the role of the novel should be?
Yi Mun-yol: When I was a reader, a novel was like a haven where I could escape from reality. After I became a novelist, I began to think about what role my novels should serve. To elaborate, I thought about a writer’s sense of mission or redemption. In those days, I had vowed not to write about the present-day issues. For example, I wasn’t going to be obsessed with certain values and thought it better not to get involved in the political debate. But, as time passed, I couldn’t simply avoid the problems of reality. After experiencing so much, this is what I believe. In short, that too much is worse than too little. I don’t think it’s a good literary philosophy to dedicate one’s novels to some cause.
Hae: Your works, which have won literary and popular acclaim, have been published in textbooks, staged, and adapted for cinema. What do you think is the most important aspect of writing that hasn’t changed since you began writing?
Yi: In the past, I did have an idea but I’m not sure anymore. Although my works have not necessarily been failures nor have I written an insignificant number of books, nonetheless, as time passes, they have begun to lose their vitality and popular appeal and began to tilt toward one side. In terms of relevance and popularity, I need to demarcate my works into two periods, before and after 2000.
First of all, before 2000, what I considered most important about my writing was not to forget that I myself was a reader. As a youth enamored with literature, I always had high expectations of the novels I read. Thus, I tried to affirm my identity through them and also learn about history and culture while enjoying reading. During this period, I didn’t forget what I, as a reader, wanted from literature and strove to instill that in my works.
But from 2000 on, the direction of my purpose shifted to: “What is it that the readers need?” I came up with subject matter and themes that I thought the readers of today need and should read about. And yet, because I decided it unilaterally, and such an intention was in operation, there consequently began to be a distance between the readers and myself.
Hae: When would you say you were happier?
Yi: It’s an altogether different issue to feel regret over it or think I did the wrong thing. Even if I were to go back to that period, I might have made the same decision. However, I was happier in the former days, but because of that, it led to the latter period.
Hae: The literary market has become greatly reduced in size compared to the past. What do you think is necessary to bring back readers?
Yi: Whether or not that’s possible, I can’t even guess. At a lecture I gave recently, I was asked why I don’t engage in SNS. I replied that I’m not sure that I’d be good at that mode of communication, not to mention that I don’t think too highly of it. There are two characteristics of SNS. One, it is a form of instant reply, where a questioner is allowed the necessary time and effort to formulate an argument that one can agree with, whereas no such time and space are granted to the person asked to make an instant reply to counter-argue. Because there is not enough time permitted to verify the legitimacy of a question or enough space to provide a counter argument, it’s easy to be caught in the snare of the questioner’s predetermined rhetorical web.
Hae: Are you pointing out how SNS, purportedly a form of mutual communication, is more akin to a one-sided debate?