Literary lolita shares her joys, travailsAs a writer, one of my responsibilities is to protect the language, the Korean language, since I write in Korean. So I have mixed feelings about Guiyeoni, or Lee Yun-se. Guiyeoni is an 18-year-old novelist; she has written several online novels that have been commercial hits. But her writing style differs from typical literary expression. She uses a number of emoticons, for example, :-9, :-$, :*), |-O, along with oegye-eo, which is a broken form of Korean, or slang.
Her experimentation with the language has raised some hard questions, but a small firestorm broke out last month when Guiyeoni was accepted to Sungkyunkwan University through a special screening. Other students have bypassed regular admissions procedures to be accepted to university on the strength of a singular talent. But Guiyeoni’s celebrity has made her a lightning rod for these controversial programs, and the scorn that many people hold for her art has added to the discord.
Last Sunday, Guiyeoni and her father, Lee Seong-un, 46, showed up at a cafe at a department store in Suwon to give her a chance to speak her mind. Before their appearance, I read Guiyeoni’s “Geunomeun Meositseotda” (“That Guy Was Cute”), and I have to confess that I felt uncomfortable at first. The broken language, drawn from online chat rooms, and the droves of emoticons were distracting. I was offended by the swear words, and the slang went beyond literary license. As I turned the pages, however, I came to think that such a teenage coming-of-age novel can be a good reference for parents with young children.
Asked about the people who question the way she was admitted to university, Guiyeoni said, “That is easier for me to take, compared with the first time I saw the anti-Guiyeoni club online in April. When my ‘That Guy Was Cute’ came out offline, those people attacked me. I cried a lot. I also made an appeal, saying, I don’t ask for your approval, but I do ask that you do not drive me into this corner, branding me a bad person. Don’t cut me down before I bloom.”
Continuing her defense, she said: “Considering those tough days, this university controversy was a lot easier to deal with. I actually understand those who complain that I was accepted at Sungkyunkwan only because of my novels. In fact, isn’t an educational system flawed if you cannot go to college if you have not done well in high school?”
I asked, why did she want to go to college in the first place?
Her response: “I was just too busy writing during my high school days. I did not want to miss both studying and writing, thus, I decided to devote myself to one thing. But, after graduation, I found myself alone, with my friends all going off to college. I starting thinking that I just cannot go on writing online novels only. I have to belong somewhere and learn more and then write something better based on experience. That was my plan.”
Since last December, “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do,” “That Guy Was Cute” and “Seduction of a Wolf,” Guiyeoni’s three novels published offline, have sold more than 900,000 copies. Her most recent novel, “To My Boyfriend,” is scheduled to be published around the middle of this month. “That Guy” is to be translated into Japanese and Chinese and made into a movie, as are “Seduction of a Wolf” and “To My Boyfriend.”
Guiyeoni’s tremendous success has a lot to do with the popularity of the Internet. But many other writers have published on the Internet with lackluster results. What separates her from the failures?
“I think my stories are well-read, because I write honestly about my peer group. The male protagonist in ‘To My Boyfriend,’ I guess, attracted readers, because he’s the ideal type of boy that teenage girls dream about. Those scenes in my books that describe kisses and sleeping or not sleeping together are all based on true stories.”
But is using swear words and slang without filtering appropriate?
“When I started writing for the online bulletin board, I did it for fun. I just wanted to express my feelings the way they really are. That was why I did not hesitate to use those words. I think I could not do that now. After this controversy about language, however, I did my share of reflection. That is why I had self-control when I wrote ‘To My Boyfriend,’ using no slang and fewer emoticons. But somehow I think that getting rid of emoticons is not a good idea when it comes to online novels.”
Asked how she polished her writing style, Guiyeoni said: “I have liked writing more than playing with friends since I was in elementary school. In my early teenage days, I wrote about things like love and separation, which I did not experience, and shared them with my friends.”
And, of course, she likes to read. “I liked ‘Norwegian Wood,’ by Haruki Murakami and ‘Toji,’ (‘The Earth’) by Park Kyung-ni. These days, I am reading books like ‘The Thorn Birds,’ by Colleen McCullough and ‘A Life of a Woman,’ by Guy de Maupassant.”
Guiyeoni said she feels she cannot write any more online novels, at least for the four years she spends in college. “I want to learn more, to gain courage and to be less on people’s mouths. Then, boom, I want to let loose my writing. Frankly, from my senior year in high school when I was writing ‘Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do,’ I hesitated a lot before letting out on the keyboard what I really feel. I wanted to write stories that were not low-grade yet honest. I am not in high school anymore, and I feel that I have run out of experiences to write about. From now on, I will try to become more knowledgeable.”
But that does not mean Guiyeoni is ready to write mainstream serious literature. “It’s just too difficult. You have to think too much after reading pure literature. The authors in this country, I guess, are just too rich in ideas; they are just in too deep in those ideas. That is why their writing is difficult and hard to understand.”
The controversy that surrounds her life would be a bit much for a mature adult to handle; for this girl, the pressure has, no doubt, taken its toll. During the interview she was very cautious, belying the stereotype of a straightforward sassy teen. If she says she cannot write pure literature because it is “too difficult,” that could be a good piece of advice to the Korean literary world. To teenagers, pure literature can be “slang.”
Although Guiyeoni has had great success as a writer, literature was not her childhood dream. She thought she would be a musician of Korean traditional music or run a clinic for dogs, which she loves. “I’m absolutely joining a traditional Korean music club in college. In 10 years, maybe I will be a housewife, freelancing film scripts and novels.”
Then who is her Prince Charming? “I go for guys who are respectable and popular with other guys. But when it comes to marriage, well, I want a man who is devoted to me and knows how to chip in to do household chores. I heard that men who are popular with other men are actually no good for women.”
What did she do with the money she earned from her books? Guiyeoni says her father is in charge when it comes to money. Her father says that he donated money to Guiyeoni’s alma mater, Jecheon Girls High School. Guiyeoni has also put up 10 million won ($8,400) for an Internet novel competition at www.iyagibada.com. More than 2,000 people have signed up. Guiyeoni is to choose a winner in February.
About being a college student, Guiyeoni said she has both high expectations and anxiety. “Honestly, I feel more uneasy than happy. When you are a teenager, you are forgiven for what you do. But now, I have to be responsible for what I say and do. I am an adult.”
I have to admit that I heard of Guiyeoni from my teenage son only early this year when he badgered me to buy one of her books for him. I have another question: How did she gain sway over so many of her peers?
As might be expected, Web is at center of storm
The controversy over the admission of the Internet novelist, Guiyeoni, to university started on the Web. Since Nov. 19, when Sungkyunkwan University announced that Guiyeoni was accepted, the school's online bulletin board has been showered with hundreds of postings challenging the decision. Most of the messages said Guiyeoni, who “uses slang and emoticons, destroying the Korean language,” should not be accepted to the university, where hangeul, the Korean alphabet was created during Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
An anti-Guiyeoni online club, whose Web site is http://cafe.daum.net/antigy, launched a petition on the Internet, against Guiyeoni's college try.
Jeong Jin-su, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University, sides with Guiyeoni; he posted two essays on the Internet, supporting the school's decision to accept the star novelist. Mr. Jeong argues that the literary character of Guiyeoni's novels was not considered in the screening.
Lee Woo-hyouk, another Internet novelist, whose book “Toemarok” got a boost online, confronted Mr. Jeong. On his Web site, www.hyouk.co.kr, Mr. Lee says, “It was not quite the right thing to do for a university to officially acknowledge novels with language that includes destructive elements.”
Guiyeoni did not sit back, watching the people discuss her life. She posted the following on her fan Web site, http://cafe.daum.net/rnlduslsla. “Whatever structure my novels take and whatever way the emoticons are used, my works are precious writings, with a lot of effort.”
by Noh Jae-hyun