Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels_Third Wave Authors (1990s - Present)

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byJang Sungkyu

The Artist in Post-1990s Korean Literature

Up to the 1990s, the artist in Korean literature is most commonly portrayed as a tortured intellectual struggling to address the problems of the time. The history of this portrayal is closely related to the development of modern Korean literature. The modern Korean writer first emerged under Japanese occupation, wherein this singularly specific set of conditions led writing to become directly associated with resistance. Writers were not just creative artists but intellectuals in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers, concerned with the problems of Korean society under Japanese occupation as well as more philosophical matters. Of course, there are variations in different works, but from the viewpoint of literary history, the artist-as-intellectual is the most commonly repeated depiction of artists up to the 1990s.

The 1990s saw a radical departure from this, however. The democratic revolution of the 1980s ushered in a token democracy, and the ensuing breakneck speed of economic and technological development meant that Korea was already on its way to becoming a post-industrial society. These changes were felt in direct and indirect ways in Korean literature. Portrayals of writers, artists, and musicians with different values than the traditional intellectual began to crop up, and the 2000s saw the rise of “creatives” working in relatively new media such as film, performance art, or the video game industry.

At the forefront of this new portrayal of the artist in post-1990s Korean literature are Shin Kyung-sook, Han Kang, Kim Young-ha, and Im Young-tae. The artist as depicted by these writers breaks away from the Enlightenment mold of the past. Shin Kyung-sook’s protagonist in The Girl Who Wrote Lonliness (1995), an autobiographical work, is a writer. Shin’s protagonist, however, differs considerably from the Enlightenment intellectuals of yore. She moves to Seoul from the countryside to work in a factory, and shows markedly different tendencies than her night school teacher and her second-oldest brother, both tortured intellectuals. Her older brother, a democracy activist, and her night school teacher, who focuses on the social role of literature, fall within the category of the socially conscious intellectual. The narrator, however, ascribes meaning to the act of writing itself. To write is an act of self-expression for her, not a means to something else. In this sense, the protagonist of The Girl Who Wrote Lonliness embodies the rise of a new kind of artist in Korean literature whose self is reconstructed through his or her narrative identity.

Han Kang has published a number of works featuring artist protagonists over her career, from such earlier works as the novel Black Deer (2005) and the short story “Mongolian Mark” (2005) to the more recent Leave Now, the Wind Is Blowing (2010). In Black Deer, the protagonist prefers to paint murals inside of mines rather than participate in the institutionalized art world. The artist is driven to the edge in search of a raw beauty that is absent in institutionalized art. This motif is repeated in “Mongolian Mark.” The protagonist is a photographer who dreams of photographing his sister-in-law in the nude. In scenes that put aesthetic desire over and against everything forbidden in society, Han’s own aesthete personality takes center stage. Likewise, the artist protagonist of Leave Now, the Wind Is Blowing pursues hidden clues with the force of one determined to bring the truth to light. The creatives in Han Kang’s work thus demonstrate a strong desire to transcend the boundaries of conventional morality and art.

Kim Young-ha’s novel Why Arang? (2001) successfully brings together the author’s cultural sensibilities and literary skill. Loosely based on a traditional Korean myth, Kim cinematically recreates the process in which the Arang myth came about. Using metafictive devices to bring the characters of the original myth to life, the characters act as if they were playing themselves in a movie directed by the author. In this sense, the author borrows the language of film in this experimental reinterpretation of an ancient myth.

Im Young-tae’s novel Ninth House, Second Door (2010) also features a writer protagonist. This particular writer, however, happens to be a ghostwriter dedicated to reconstructing the lives of others, specializing in autobiography. Rather than consider this a failure of creative writing, however, the writer perceives this as an opportunity to empathize with the life of another. Ghostwriting is not seen as a mechanical act but a veritable labor of love, a strikingly memorable portrayal of an artist.

Artist characters from new and emerging media are also well represented in Korean literature today. Most notably they can be found in the works of Yun I-Hyeong, Lee Kiho, Kim Junghyuk, and Yun Ko-eun, the youngest wave of Korean writers. The protagonist of Yun I-Hyeong’s “DJ Loneliness” (2007) reads like a science fiction character, while “Rose Garden Writing Machine” (2011) goes one step further, introducing us to a writing machine. The author’s musings on writing in a post-industrial society take a whimsical turn in portraying these kinds of artists.

Lee Kiho’s protagonist in “Birney” (1999), his first published story, is a rapper. Borrowing heavily from the conventions of hip hop, itself a subgenre of pop music, Lee aims for maximum subversive effect through this form of subculture. The resulting experiment is a key example of an author attempting to break away from the conservative standards of mainstream culture.

Kim Junghyuk has a knack for unconventional, often geeky subjects. Stories such as “Offbeat D” (2008) and “The Glass Shield” (2008) use their subjects to great effect in reconstructing the reality of Korean youth today. “Offbeat D” features a cast of tone-deaf characters that form a popular musical group, while “The Glass Shield” depicts performance artists who consider their work as play. The author thus takes a lighthearted approach to the reality of Korea’s 880,000-Won Generation, the equivalent of Europe’s 1,000-Euro Generation, while seeking alternatives to the aggressively neoliberalist society we live in today.

Yun Ko-eun writes about the creative plight of young Korean writers in “Invader Graphic” (2010), a masterfully revealing story. The protagonist of this work is a writer who gets her writing done in shopping mall restrooms. This is not by choice, but because she is so poor she cannot afford to pay for things like Wi-Fi or toilet paper. Few writers have depicted the struggling artist in today’s rapidly changing environment in such a poignant yet irreverent light. These are the latest incarnations of the artist as portrayed in Korean fiction—a departure not only from the artist as Enlightenment thinker but from the aestheticist, pop cultural references of the 1990s as well. 


by Jang Sungkyu
Literary Critic and Lecturer
Seoul National University