In Tune with the Times: Novelist Gong Ji-young

  • onOctober 18, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byShin Junebong

The popularity of Gong Ji-young in Korean society goes beyond imagination. More than simply a novelist, she is a socio-cultural icon whose every move is regarded with interest by the public. Her novels and essay collections become bestsellers without fail. In addition, there is very little separation between the author’s life and her works. As a result, the interest of the readers often leads to their support of the dramatic life of the author. Reporter Shin Junebong seeks to reveal what it means to Gong herself that “the distance between the author’s life and her works is close,” and what are her keys to success.


On April 23, the interviewer and the interviewee met at Gong’s home. She had a meeting with readers, to be held at a large bookstore in Korea, ahead of her that day. I asked her how her book was doing in terms of sales. The classics of literature that go down through generations were bestsellers in their time, and the sales of a work is an important factor in estimating the caliber of a writer.

Gong made her literary debut with the short story “Breaking Dawn,” which deals with her participation in the labor movement in 1988. Since then, she has published about 20 volumes of work, ranging from short stories and novels to essays. “In 2008, the total volumes of all my works sold were about 8 million. I’ve stopped counting since then,” Gong said. According to the author, the work with the highest sales record was My Sister, Bongsoon, a novel, which sold 1.6 million copies. Another novel, Our Happy Hours, sold 950,000 copies, and the novels Alone Like a Rhinoceros HornMackerelThe Good Girl, and the essay collection, I Will Support You No Matter What Kind of Life You Choose, each sold about 700,000 copies. The short story collections, Respect for Human BeingsTears of Existence, and The Field of Stars, each sold about 200,000 copies. The Crucible, published in 2009, has sold 250,000 copies in just 11 months.

The numbers are relevant, for Gong is not a writer of popular literature who writes with a book’s commercial potential in mind. Gong, resorting to a Korean expression, is a writer of “pure literature.” I make no assertion that a work of art must be the bearer of truth, as Heidegger states, but I do believe that it must at least expose the truth, or be able to do so. It’s fascinating that novels and essay collections that seek seriousness, not frivolity, sell by the hundreds of thousands.

It can be said that by seeking out sensitive social issues that the era requires or the public readership has an interest in, Gong has become successful in terms of both critical evaluation and sales. At least, the dominant assessment is that Gong cannot be excluded when speaking of the Korean literary scene of the 1990s. Her most representative work is Alone Like a Rhinoceros Horn, published in 1993. The novel deals—through the stories of three women in their 30s who were friends in college, and who opt for divorce or suicide after periods of serious domestic discord and violence—with the oppressive and unequal patriarchal institution of family in Korean society. The work is deemed to have played a vital role in establishing feminist discourse as one of the major trends of Korean literature in the 90s. Published hand in hand in 1994, Mackerel, the novel, and Respect for Human Beings, a short story collection, contributed to the coinage of the new term, “reminiscence literature.” The two novels were labeled “reminiscence literature” for their reminiscence of the 80s, in which hope and passion were still alive in the student movement generation, to the 90s, in which the prospect of revolution disappeared due to the collapse of the socialist Eastern European bloc.


Reportor Shin Junebong and novelist Gong Ji-young


The early 1990s, in which Gong published such novels, was a time in which the Korean literary world was touched by the wind of the so-called “introspective aestheticism.” As a reaction to the literature of the 80s, which some would say was overly ideological, “the solitary writing reaching out into the interiority of an individual, lonely freedom, and the manifestation of autistic fantasies” was a refreshing breeze for Korean readers. Compared to this trend, Gong’s attempt in trying to find the cause of the external breakdown or internal division of an individual in a social context, whether it be the aftermath of the democratization movement or the patriarchal family order, was clearly distinct. In retrospect, the early 90s was a time which required an evaluation of the accomplishments and failures of the 80s, even in the area of novels, when the 80s, a time heated with the longing for revolution, could no longer continue. Where had the intensity of the 80s gone? And how was the 90s, without a breakthrough, to be lived? People wanted answers to such questions. “Respect for Human Beings,” the title piece of the short story collection by the same name, depicts in detail, through the thoughts of the narrator, those bewildered by the two questions. To the narrator, the 90s is not a time of discussing what’s right or wrong, but rather, what one likes or dislikes.  It was also an era in which lonely, sleepless people found comfort in the questionable new philosophy which stated that being alive in the universe was worthwhile in itself, and so life was worth living. In a way, Gong provided a way for those who didn’t know where to turn, stuck in the gap between the 80s and 90s, to put an end to the 80s and finally accept the 90s. In other words, she’d hit the nail on the head. The focused interest on feminism, stirred up by Alone Like a Rhinoceros Horn, can also be understood in the same context. The procedural democracy of the late 80s andearly 90s, which enabled to an extent the transfer of political power, had put a dent to the existing order which had stood unshaken in the society, culture, and economy of Korea. The feminism of Alone Like a Rhinoceros Horn swiftly infiltrated the spot in which the order of patriarchal authoritarianism was being shaken.

Let’s turn now to the questions at the beginning. First, there was the question about the key to her popularity. An experiential truth learned in the 80s of Korea was that when works of art, including novels, are reduced to a political message, the works themselves can be empty. A work of art that’s nothing but a slogan, a rough and thin framework, is meaningless. Even under the assumption that social and utilitarian values still appeal to the people of Korea, who obtained democracy by fighting against political powers in the 80s and 90s, and expressed their political stance on a large scale through the candle-lit demonstrations of 2008, those values do not guarantee the popularity of a novel. Touching upon sensitive and volatile social issues might increase a work’s potential for popularity, but will not secure it.

A special feature on Gong, published in 2006 in Writer’s World, discussed the keys to Gong’s success. Im Yeong-bong, a critic, pointed out how speedy her novels are, like a TV show, with short chapters; how full of dialogue they are; and how they are without complex figures of speech or descriptions that interrupt the flow of the story. Choi Jaebong, a literary journalist, talked about Gong’s remarkable beauty and dramatic personal life; the clear distinction between good and evil, and the deftness through which dramatic scenes are arranged; and the colloquial form of speech. In the interview with Choi Jaebong, Gong said, “I try to write so that readers won’t get bored, because ever since I was young, I’ve disliked works that aren’t very readable,” and “I don’t try to embellish my sentences or twist them around. Great sentences arise from situations.”

During our interview, Gong said, “I’ve always liked Hemingway and Herman Hesse, and when I was young, I thought if I became a writer, I would write short sentences like they did,” emphasizing the easiness of her writing style. She also said that she writes with the readers in mind, and in such a way that her words can be understood by all. 

By Shin Junebong
(reporter for the Joongang Ilbo)

1. Our Happy Hours (2009, published in Italy)
2. My Sister, Bongsoon (2006, published in Bulgaria)


3. One Very Light Feather (2009, Hankyoreh Publishing Company)
4. It’s Good, It’s All Good (2008, Alma Publishing Corp.)
5. I’ll Support You No Matter What Kind of Life You Choose (2008, Openhouse)


6. My Sister, Bongsoon (2010, Openhouse)
7. Our Happy Hours (2010, Openhouse)
8. My Happy House (2008, Prunsoop Publishing Co., Ltd.)
9. Mackerel (2006, Prunsoop Publishing Co., Ltd.)
10. The Crucible (2009, Changbi Publishers, Inc.)
11. The Field of Stars (2004, Changbi Publishers, Inc.)