History of Korean Modern Fiction XIV:The Pillar and Post-Modernism

KTLIT LogoPreviously:
I) Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa
II) Sijo & Kasa
III) Classical Fiction
IV) Pansori
V) Introduction to Modern Literature
VI: Enlightenment
VII: Background to Colonial Lit
VIII: The History of Korean Modern Literature
IX: Themes & Approaches to Fiction

X: The Colonial Era
XI: War and Separation Era
XII: Han Miracle!
XIII: The Prehistory of Postmodernism

“Modern” Post-Modernism.
As to a truly post-modern era, however, it seems fair to date the start of post-modernism in two ways, as a style of writing, and then later as a style of writing allied to postmodern themes. While Yi-Sang, Pak Tae-won, Ch’oe Yun and to a lesser extend Cho Se-hui were certainly experimenting with groundbreaking styles, there work was still firmly placed in the “reality-based” fiction of the Korean national drama. To some extent this focus remained as the early explorers of post-modernism hewed to stories about the Korean experience.

Those concerned with theory (which we look down upon in these parts, buster!) often attempt to pinpoint historical dates in their attempts to date the onset of postmodernity. In Korea these dates might include the 1987 collapse of the military regime occurring in parallel with the weakening of leftism in general, particularly internationally in the face of the collapse of the international representatives of leftism, Russia and its ‘little brother’ Eastern European states. At this point, after three generations of military and democratic struggle, a struggle represented in Korean literature such as With Her Oil Lamp on That Night, Among the Columns, and even the semi-post-modern, There A Petal Silently Falls (Ch’oe Yun) and Our Twisted Hero (Yi Mun-yol), Korean literary theory (always a powerful force) was ready to move on.

In addition, formal censorship had ended and for the first time, perhaps ever, writers were generally free (there were plenty of exceptions to this freedom at the time, but the idea was out in play, and people played like the idea was real) to choose any subject, even ones that had previously been publically impossible, and to apply to these subjects, and style, techniques and themes. With political pluralism, more or less, literary pluralism came along. The narrative, the single and unified narrative of centuries, the struggle for survival of the country had been shattered into myriad narratives of sectionality. Writers no longer attempted to speak for Korea as a whole, or for their versions of what that whole should be. The Confucian obsession with proper structures and ethical life were contravened by explorations of life as it existed on the ground. Post modernism is, of course, largely carried by younger authors, and one of the substantial shifts in focus was from the external to the internal. While all previous generations of Korean writers focused on the national agenda, even in telling the stories of individuals of families, the new authors  focused primarily on the  private realm. Whereas narrators and characters in previous works had often been sketchy, the new characters had complicated thoughts, competing agendas within themselves, and were often reflecting or reacting towards a new, capitalist and non-communal, lifestyle. Also, at this time (and in the previous era) the number of female writers exploded, and they necessarily brought new themes, styles, and concerns to the literary table. The net result of this was a nearly complete alteration of the status of Korean fiction and alteration which, according to Hwang Jongyon features “diversification, feminization, decentralization, and carnivalization.”(6)

Of course most of the ‘old’ themes continued to be worked out, both formally in the works of many writers, and as influences in the works of those who strove for more avant-garde, international, etc. works.

And, in fact, it seems fair to divide the “post-modern” into two eras, that of the 1990s and that of the 2000s, with the first decade working as a bridge between more traditional concerns and the intensely internal concerns of the second decade.

Lee Kwang-ho, after noting that the authors of the 90s were still strongly influenced by the still-political writers of the 80s a decade which he describes well as:

A final spasm of military dictatorship, the Gwangju Democratization Movement, the political progress of the working class, and the realization of institutionalized democracy in the 1987 Democratic Struggle – wrote the literature of the political avant-garde.

But when those traditional “inks” began to go dry, new ones arose to replace them, including the creation of a pop and cultural industry spawned from democratization and increasing economic success and the paradoxical destruction of community and increase in alienation with it brought.

Increased internationalization of Korea really kicked in at about the turn of the 21st century. The IMF crisis, while a charming example of the Korean ability to respond as a nation, an “uri nara” moment, also introduced Korea, with a shock, to the idea that it was part of an international world that could not longer be avoided. At the same time, travel restrictions in Korea were lifted, so Koreans were freer to visit the rest of the world and, as a result of this, Korean parents expressing the traditional Korean desire to educate their children, increasingly began sending those children overseas. Finally, once the IMF crisis was overcome, Korea found itself to be something it had never really been in the past, a rich nation. And this gave it both the time and money to explore the outside world, and with this opportunity, it became clear that many Koreans had this inclination. All these influences, somewhat external to literature as a field, had their effects.

By 2000, Lee notes an entirely new thing entering the field of literature, which he calls “hybrid.” The hybrid text is not innately historical in nature, may link or mash up various diverse cultural influences. By doing so, it changes the focus of literature from the role of the citizen in the struggles and aims of the dominant culture(s) to the space of the citizen in a new world in which dominant culture is partially replaced by a slew of external, counter-, or new cultures, which create niches in and retreats from the dominant culture.

Younger writers began to become more popular, both at home and abroad.  As I write this, I have just been to an LTI Korea seminar at the 2013 Seoul Book Fair which suggests that, both at home and abroad, attention is increasingly turning to younger authors, and with that, to younger themes, many of which are firmly placed in post modernism.

Everything, all at once, had come together to produce a sea-change in Korean literature, and as the 1990’s progressed, and the 2000s unfolded, some Korean authors embraced this sea-change with a vengeance.

NEXT: Authors gone Wild!