Korean Literature Now in `Dialectical' Transition amid New Social Reality

Article excerpt

Korean literature has undergone rapid changes amid the political and social upheavals during the last few decades.

In the 1980s, when political issues were a main theme of Korean literary works, they often featured the labor class and students suffering from the dictatorship. Some of the progressive writers were detained, with their works subject to censorship.

But with the democratization in the 1990s, the social or political engagement stopped serving as one of literary causes, with writers turning their eyes from politics and society to themselves and their private lives.

In the 2000s, the ``introversion'' still remains a dominant feature in literary works.

According to Choi Won-shik, a literary critic and managing director of Changbi, a representative literary magazine which advocated literature of social engagement, Korean literature is now seeking to explore new ways, or a dialectic point of contact between the ``privatized'' literature and society.

``There is a new move to map out ways to encounter society,'' Choi said, ``among prominent writers such as Hwang Ji-woo and Hwang Suk-young,'' in particular.

``We used to know Hwang Ji-woo as the one who distanced himself from social engagement. But the poet published a play, 'Oworui Sinbu' (Bride in May), which sheds new light on the pro-democracy struggle in Kwangju in May 1980. Given that the play is a literary genre that meets the audience face to face, it might be his effort to maximize the communication with society.


In a different move among the writers of social engagement, Choi cited the novelist Hwang Suk-young, one of the representative critics of the political establishment, who is now opting to detach himself from social and political affairs.

Hwang's recent 'Oraedoen Chongwon' (An Old Garden), which is a sort of psychological novel told in the first person, is proof that he began to see society in an introspective manner.

For the younger generation of writers who mostly made their literary debuts in the 1990s, however, literature still remains focused on their personal domains. Some critics express concern that this outlook ``trivializes literature.''

The ``petty'' aspect of their works, however, is an inevitable result of the demise of grand ideologies in the post-Cold War era, according to Choi.

``Their works represent the self-centered and trivialized urban life of present-day Korea, now devoid of ideological tension,'' he explained.

Another feature representing the changes in the social reality is the young writers' imitation of Murakami Haruki's hard-boiled style to describe their dry and fragmented lives, Choi pointed out, adding that such a style appeals to younger readers. …