[Delve] How to interpret the growing demand for genre literature?

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • bySo Young-Hyun

In this section, members of our editorial board answer questions about Korean literature culled from an open survey from our readers. Touching upon recent trends, historical antecedents, and literary devices, we hope you enjoy examining some deeper aspects of thoughts readers have had about Korean literature.—Ed.



How do you interpret the recent trend where demand for genre literature such as mystery, thrillers, fantasy, SF, and so forth, has been growing significantly? Has the character of the readership changed from the generation before? Has their palette of interests changed?


There is certainly growing interest in so-called “genre literature” like mystery, thrillers, and fantasy, and is especially noticeable in SF. This “genre reboot,” if you will, of SF is different because while interest is expanding in writers who employ SF and fantasy-based imagination in their writing, such as Kim Junghyuk, Yun I-hyeong, Gu Byeong-mo, and Chung Serang, it is also shifting to SF-exclusive writers like Kim Choyeop and Kim Bo-young.

In light of this phenomenon, one could speak of innovation taking shape in the field of Korean literature, where the hierarchy between “literary fiction” and “genre literature” has been so rigid. But to take this trend of SF becoming more popular as an unprecedented emergence is a groundless claim coming from the prejudice that SF has held little to no territory before. “Genre literature” steadily expanded both its creative and commercial territory throughout the ’90s when cyberspace became popularized and creative licenses became democratized. Instead of saying that “genre literature” had no territory, it would be more accurate to analyze that the boundaries between literary territories used to be much more defined, and more importantly, that there was an intentional critical indifference toward ¡°genre literature¡± for a long time.

Interest in genre literature is not new, nor is it uncommon to find imaginative elements of SF in Korean literature. The notion that genre literature is foreign comes from the distorted bias that literature needs only one definition, a way of being that is exclusive and singular. Literature has evolved to democratize reading and writing. It has adapted its ways of manifestation to changes of the time. As it moved on from the era of poetry to the era of novel, literature has clearly made itself more democratic, divorcing itself from elitism. We have yet to see what kind of literature will emerge post-novel, as it answers to further literary democratization.

The rising popularity of genre literature is often discussed along with writers who represent the genre, but the debuts of hot writers cannot be the only explanation for the phenomenon. Rather, changes in literary trends reflect fundamental changes in the interest of readers. Surveying the history of literature reveals that there has been a shift from author-focused literature to reader-focused literature. The reader, formerly overlooked, emerges in a privileged position. To narrow the focus even more, since the reboot of feminism and the renewed literary interest in gender issues, the female reader springs to the foreground ever more clearly. This too would be better understood as a more specified outfitting of the already existing readership, rather than an emergence of a completely new one.

In this context, popularity for SF as well as popularity for fantasy and thrillers that rippled from it, begs not the question of “Why SF, fantasy, and thrillers,” but the question of “Why SF, fantasy, and thrillers here and now.” This is the only way we can draw accurate connection between the growing demand for SF, the kind of storytelling that predicts and anticipates the future, and the urgency for imaginative narratives that go beyond classist, sexist, racist discrimination and hatred that pervade the here and now. Korean literature now, through genre literatures cross-stitched with concern for feminist issues, suggests new ways of interpreting reality and dreams of possible changes in the present.


Translated by Dasom Yang


So Young-hyun
Literary Critic, KLN Editorial Board Member