The Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011: Day One – Yu Jong-ho, Yi In-seong, Ch’oe Yun, Lee Seung-u

Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011

It's International!

A very interesting first session of the Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011, though also a somewhat grueling one as the first half of the session rang 2.5 hours and the moderator grudgingly gave us an 8-minute break, before the next 2 hours. The title of session was The Globalizing World and the Human Community and it featured a pretty good panel who were all in one way or another grappling with the secularization/commodification of literature in the globalized modern world.

The foreign presenters were interesting, but did not discuss Korean literature per se. Therefore, I’m going to focus on the four Korean panelists

First came Korean critic Yu Jong-ho a former Chair Professor at Yonsei University and member of the National Academy of Arts. Professor Yu was certainly the most amusing of the speakers, as he made a “modest proposal,” titled From Brave New World – a modest proposal. He made several points, all accompanied by laughs.  First he noted that one aspect of globalization was that Pascal’s “one own chamber,” that is a place in which one may sit undisturbed, was no longer possible as the electronic manifestations which made globalization possible and then became products of globalization, intrude wherever we go. From this he moved to the notion of  “electronic democracy” and how it has created, among other manifestations, a proliferation of Internet publications. Yu argues that this is manifestly not a good thing.

He discussed Korean serials during the occupation and war and noted that even with the existence of serials Korea had more authentic (non serial) novels at the time. Yu argued that Authentic Novels, even then were different because serials and online novels had to attract readers day by day. So in the 50s and 60s there was more value on the AN.  The value of long novels increased, short novelists were not even called novelists. Because newspaper novels were focused on entertainment, their quality was low, in fact quality might not even have been a major concern.

Yu argued that is similar to the internet today, that the internet novels of today are the equivalent of the serials of year and that we cannot expect much from them. Further, and to laughter, Yu noted that it was possible that today’s netizens were not as cultured as newspaper readers of the past.

Yu cited the poet Auden and the fact that when he died, his personal dictionary was virtually beyond use as it had been pawed through nearly to the point of extinction. Yu contrasted this love of words, and use of time, with the modern work of “electronic democracy.” Yu then argued for the need to focus on words and form of literature, noting that when a novel solely focuses on plot, it quickly approaches the level of the serial or the I-novel.

Yu noted that the half-educated are dangerous, and much is written by them and for them. The problem we face today is many writers do not try to refine their words, they refuse to be Auden. Yu argued that we must study language and the style of language.

Yu Jong-ho, Ch'oe Yun and Yi In-seong

Yu Jong-ho cracks up Ch'oe Yun and Yi In-seong

In one of his multiple amusing asides, Yu also interjected that people used to have less sex and talk about it less, saying that,  “sex is what you do when you have nothing to do.” The point here, was that literature now exists in a world in which the electronic tools of globalization are not the only distractions we face.^^

 

Then, in a much longer passage than in his paper, Yu used the work of Haruki Murakami as an example of the “modern problem.” Yu claimed that Harukami would not even recommend his own work to his son (maybe that’s true?). Yu noted that Harukami might get the Nobel Prize. “What is a Nobel Prize, ” Yu asked, answering that it is a political thing and also sardonically noted that he might feel silly when and if Murakami gets a Nobel Prize and that the audience might come back and “tell me I should kill myself when that happens.”

Continuing to joke he noted that Murakami’s IQ84 is for people with IQs below 84 and that even if college students didn’t want to hear this, they needed to, because poor education in Korea was one of the major threats to its literature.

Yu also noted the existence of a professor who left his job wanting to become a fulltime translator for MH and then wrote a book called Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. Yu joked that he assume the music referred to in the title was not classical music, but pop music, and that he (Yu) didn’t listen to pop music (though he admitted creating pop music was better than not creating).

Yu noted that 82% of high school students go to University, which we refer to as “high” education. He argued that the number should be less than 15% if we were really to properly refer to it as high education. Yu argued that the people enthusiastic about MH are actually students who have received “higher” education, which has now been reduce to mass education.

Then came the modest proposal, Yu’s suggestion that we stop producing new works of literature and return to the classics. Writers would be subsidized, after all, many countries do this for farmers. We would give them subsidies for 10 years while they study more to provide better literature later.

Finally, after this rather amusing and wide-ranging talk about the state of modern literature with respect to globalization, Yu mentioned Swift, claimed his proposal was a joke (but notably did not make this claim about his arguments) and requested all questions be saved for other authors. This might also have something to do with the fact that he was ill, and rather tough to brave out the nearly 5 hours he had to sit before us.

Yu In-seong

Yu In-seong enjoying himself

Next up was novelist Yu In-seong, a professor in the French Department at Hankuk University in Seoul. His first novel was Seasons of Exile and he has published several novels since. His presentation was titled The Paradox of Cursed Literature: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in the Age of Globalization. The moderator noted that Yi was among the most avant-garde of Korean novels and also the most widely translated into French.  Yi too was a bit pessimistic about the state of literature in the age of globalization and proposed that an even longer hiatus would be necessary.   Yi noted some technical things, notably the time that it takes to do adequate translations, and argued that this alone was an impediment to globalization of literature. In contradistinction to this, Yi noted that some authors had currently and intentionally attempted to write native-language that was simple enough to overstep this problem and he argued that this created issues.

 

Here, as in Yu’s argument, the question of what is “authentic” raises its ugly head. While Yi is quick to say he does not dismiss the importance or impact of pop culture, he is not sure what it means that it is destroying existing value systems and flattening the binaries (e.g. high culture versus low) that society has long defended.

Using Sleeping Beauty as his metaphor, he argued that the innocent princess of literature has been put to sleep by the wicked Movie Fairy (the agent of globalization/technoligization) and now must wait for the arrival of a Handsome Prince which he posited as Philosophy.

This lead to a funny moment when the chair said that philosophy probably needed a Handsome Prince of its own.

Yu finally argued that literature, in fact, needed for the time to leave culture entirely, to become “indie” or to go underground and that by doing this it can essentially hide out until such a time that literature can in fact, globalize itself.

Third was the inestimable Ch’oe Yun, the author of There a Petal Silently Falls and The Last of Hanako and who spoke with a bit more optimism than the other authors. She noted that whatever you thought globalization was, there is currently no escaping it. But she also noted and increasing “trans-boundary stream,” her way of saying that globalization is increasingly a two way street.

Having made this recognition, she attempted to answer three questions.

1) Does the globalization of literature belong to the same category as the globalization of other fields? Is global mutual dependence in the literary field progressing exactly as that of all other areas

2) The speed of globalization seems to be different for each field. Traditional literature faces a sense of crisis as globalization is unfolding. In such circumstances, which areas of literature will be positively influenced by globalization and how can literature cope with eh negative effects of globalization.

3) What role is literature playing in the globalization of the entire world? Or, can and should it play a role in the years to come.

Yun’s responses are interesting, because they don’t particularly focus on Korean literature, instead they seem to answer for all literature(s).

Ch'oe Yun

Ch'oe Yun

First, Yun argues (as did Dev) that there will always be language as a bulwark against complete globalization, that “it seems meaningless to harbor an illusion or a concern about a single global language.” 113 And that literature will survive because of this because literature in a particular language creates a total structure of existence. This, paradoxically, can lead to what other presenters noted, the creating of a new class of writer who is consciously attempting to write in a pre-translation lingua franca that will subvert the possibility of “authentic” literature. She also notes that the very process of translation can neuter the authenticity, sometimes purposefully and with the intent of commodification, of literature.

 

But Yun makes the interesting point that literature has always had a self-control device in this matter, that literature forms bubbles that regularly explode and disappear (think all the “great” writers of the past who have passed into history) and that works either survive and become canon, or are canon and survive (a decent article can be made either way).

Yun also argues that the way to protect literature, any literature, is to re-align beauty and truth to literature.

Yun also makes a temporal argument that suggests that literature is excessively temporal and goes against the nature of globalization, which is hybrid and fast moving. Yun doesn’t explicitly say it, but I think there is some hope in this distinction, because it is possible that as globalization speeds up, there may well be a demand for islands in that stream.

Yun also makes an argument about ‘fusion’ that is similar to her attempt to re-link beauty, truth, and literature. She suggests that matter and spirit, body and soul can be reunified and that this will be particularly useful in a time in which globalization’s focus on the material has created a generation in which the body is paramount and spirituality is degraded.

Yun came to no hard conclusions, but she did, as all great speakers do, ask questions that might lead to answers.

The final speaker was Lee Seung-u a professor of Creative Writing at Chosun University and author of The Reverse Side of Life, who the moderator called “one of the most serious novelists we have today,” who,  “seeks how we can save the souls of the human race and he also digs deep into the human existence.”  He is also widely popular in France, which seemed to be the basis on which this panel was created.^^

The title of Lee’s piece was Must We Always Aim for a Worldwide Audience. Lee was a bit testy that the moderator hadn’t mentioned how well his books sell in Korea. He noted that he shared many of the same thoughts that had been presented previously. And also wished he had gone earlier.  His testiness was a good companion to his paper, which was a bit of a jeremiad.

Lee’s point was accurate, that “writers must pursue their own personal literature” but he argued it exactly wrong and also didn’t see the ultimate conclusion of that argument, that it precisely allows some writers to pursue a literature that involves profit, and profit, you see, comes from sales.^^  Because he is interested in goring oxes, he swings at a lot of things, hitting some and missing others.

Lee begins by misunderstanding some what proponents of increased publication of Korean fiction see as the basic problem. Lee says,

such demands are based on a premise that Korean literature fails to appeal to an international readership and, whether this is due to its nature or level of sophistication, it does not encompass content worthy of being consumed by readers of all nations.

But in fact the underlying complaint is not about level of sophistication at all, but rather about what is comprehensible (which, to be fair to Lee, does impinge upon questions of nature), and all who worry about Korean literature innately feel it to be worthy.

Also, counterfactually, he argues that allowing local people to grow accustomed to Korean food is more efficient in the long run than creating fusion Korean food catering to the taste of locals (131).  This just gets the success of Korean food in the US, at least, entirely backwards.

When Lee hits, though, he hits it on the head. He does make a completely correct point in rejecting the notion that a Nobel Prize would bring about the globalization of Korean literature.

He is also correct when he notes:

We are witnesses to the market’s attempt at a reciprocating alchemy: molding popular works into literary pieces and transforming serious works into commodities. 134

And finally,  when he wandered off his paper he made the very clever observation that when a literary work is presented to another country it should NOT be presented as a representative work of the country.

The Room

The audience was not so international

But if you are going to make the argument than Korean authors should not consider the global market at all then you are giving up on globalizing Korean literature any farther than it has already been globalized. That’s fine if it’s what you’re after, but it doesn’t seem to be the goal of the bulk of Korea or its writers. If this is your approach? Don’t worry about globalization at all and tend your own garden.

 

Something interesting that Lee’s presentation brought to my mind is that the failure of high culture is really the failure of the University, that leads to the problems Lee is concerned about. The market has always sold what sold (with the clever change that Lee noted above), but the University has traditionally defended the canon.

That defense seems to have faded away.

Another exciting (likely shorter) report tomorrow..

 

4 thoughts on “The Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011: Day One – Yu Jong-ho, Yi In-seong, Ch’oe Yun, Lee Seung-u

  1. Charles,

    Useful I suppose, if US readers pay attention to specific ethnicity of Asian-American writers, but I’m skeptical.

    I suppose Amy Tan would be my example. Everyone knows she’s Chin-Am, but no one cares about Chinese modern literature (which may have more to do with whatever that is, than anything else).

    Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyung-sook are the current “Big Korean” Hopes at this point…

    This is clearly freaking out domestic Korean literateurs (which I’ve likely spelled wrong) for the whole conference I was just at claimed it was about “globalization” but actually focused on who “owns” the literature..

    Funny days..

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