Korean Society and Novels Since 1987

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byLee Kwang-ho

The June revolution of 1987 marked the end of long military rule in Korea. Korea began to strive towards democracy and diversify culturally. Socialism had failed and the dominance of capitalism around the globe became undeniable. Under such circumstances, literature paradoxically attacked philosophies that saw literature as a vehicle of social change. Literature began to lose its focus after decades of raging against an autocratic government. As the idea of a market economy expanded to include culture and information products, lifestyles also underwent changes. These changes turned the Korean cultural market into a self-regulating entity that pioneered its own market. In this process, literature was subsumed into the cultural market.

A literature of political imagination, which dominated the previous era, was relatively weakened, diminishing literature’s political and educational responsibility that had been the hallmark of Korean contemporary literature. In a world where there was nothing left to expose or be enraged about, literature had to re-examine its place in the world. The realm of a personal life thus far veiled behind group ideology emerged in the unfamiliar environment of an information-based society and routines of capitalism. New themes of personal worlds and the problems of living a cultural life emerged in the 1990s. Colorful themes such as a re-examination of the inner world, feminism and sexuality, exploring life in the city, relationships to popular culture, the digital environment, and cyberspace appeared for the first time. This signifies more than just an expansion of themes and topics but a diversification of literary awareness. A revolt broke out against literature’s responsibility to be an objective depiction of reality.

Raised with more exposure to mass media than the previous generation, authors who appeared after the 1990s brought in new perspectives. Shin Kyung-sook, Youn Dae-Nyeong, and Song Sokze received critical attention in the mid-90s; and then came writers with an even clearer generational distinction, Baek Min-seok, Bae Suah, Kim Young-ha, Park Seong-won, Kim Yeonsu, and Kim Kyung-uk. Shin Kyung-sook’s The Blind Calf (1993) for example, and Youn Dae-Nyeong’s Argot Fishing Dispatch (1995) fleshed out the oppressed aesthetic of introversion in Korean literature. Along those lines, Bae Suah’s Backroads with Green Apples (1995) and Baek Min-seok’s Hey, We Are Going on a Picnic (1995) presented new possibilities, and Song Sokze’s The Last 4½ Seconds of My Life (1996) and Kim Young-ha’s Pager (1997) opened up a more clearly defined, new aesthetic space. Kim Yeonsu and Kim Kyung-uk are good examples of writers that connect literature from the 1990s to the 2000s. Kim Yeonsu actively engaged in intertextual writing through an imagination rooted in the humanities and explored the political subconscious of his generation. Kim Yeonsu’s works explored a new historical imagination in novels such as Song of the Night (2008), and he reconstructed the personal memories of a generation without privileges. Kim Kyung-uk pulled existence out of the crevasse formed by the political discontinuity between the 80s and 90s and presented us with characters that manifest themselves through cinematic texts. He explored the ontology of the individual within the new media in texts such as Who Killed Kurt Cobain? (2003).

Using Eun Heekyung’s escape from romanticism in Talking to Strangers (1996) as a starting point, women writers of the new millennium such as Cheon Woonyoung, Yoon Sung-hee, Jung Yi Hyun, and Kim Ae-ran opened up new aesthetic spaces that the previous generation of women writers hadn’t explored. Park Seong-won, Jeon Sungtae, Kim Junghyuk, Park Min-gyu, Lee Kiho, Kim Tae-yong, Pyun Hye-young, Park Hyoungsu, Han Yujoo, and Hwang Jeong-eun created a more diversified narrative space for the 2000s.

“Hybridized writing” is not one that is based on the identity born of a shared historical experience, but an intertextual writing that involves contact with a myriad of cultural texts. We see such examples in the imagining of popular culture and adoption of low brow logic in young writers. To a generation that does not form ties based on historical experience, contact with various cultural texts has become important for their literary imagination. What we see in these works is not simply a resistance against a literature of realism, but an attempt to explore different ways of constructing reality.

Young writers who started writing in the 2000s are relatively free to solidify their identities as writers without the constraints of political guilt and debt to political reality. What characterizes this generation is the narrative imagination that ignores all rules and the gravities of reality set in realism. Their narrative adventure is more daring and fundamental than the changes in the 90s when literature was still restricted by reality. The important aesthetic space of the 90s such as the “inner world” and “the ordinary” is no longer enticing to the writers of the new millennium such as Kim Tae-yong, Han Yujoo, and Jo Ha-hyeong, writers who continue to create narrative spaces that transcend space and the ordinary, bringing the narrative potential of the novel to a whole new level. If Korean literature after 1987 strove for implementation of democracy and cultural diversification, it is now undergoing the most radical and diverse literary adventure since modernization.