Circle of critics cultivates a modernist tradition
Along with the government’s highly symbolic “New Village Movement” (Saemaul Undong) to modernize Korea in the 1960s and 70s, Moonji is another name that evokes the advent of modernity in Korean society.
The literary critics who have run Moonji over the years have been known for re-evaluating Korean literature from unique and independent viewpoints. The company, which was founded in 1975 by four literary critics, is now celebrating its 30th anniversary with the publication of a book chronicling the company’s eventful history. “Thirty Years of Moonji, 1975~2005” describes its rise as one of Korea’s leading literary houses.
The story begins in the summer of 1975. Two thirty-something men who hated walking spent three days wandering around the alleys of downtown Seoul until they found suitable office space. One of the men was Kim Joo-yeon, who had just returned from studying in Germany. The other was Kim Byeong-ik, a former journalist from the Dong-A Ilbo.
“Do we have to open the company?” Kim Byeong-ik recalls asking his friend before they found their office. “Honestly, I am not that interested.”
On December 2 that year, the company hung its signboard on the second floor of a building on 3rd street. They shared the space with Yeolhwadang, another publisher.
The idea for the venture came from Kim Hyun (1942~90), who also invited in Kim Chi-su, another literary critic, creating the legendary “four Kims” in the local literary world. The company started as a literary quarterly and a few years later began publishing individual volumes of poetry and fiction.
Unlike another prominent publisher, Changbi, which was founded in 1966 and opened a new chapter of cultural activism against the country’s dictatorship, Moonji’s first generation of critics focused on literary autonomy. In 1977, Moonji acquired the waning publisher “Iljogak” and began printing what became modern Korean classics.
Organizationally, however, Moonji was even more democratic than Changbi.
“If Changbi advocated a system run by a single editor, Moonji had a collective board,” says Kim Joo-yeon.
All decisions in the company are still made within the group.
Ironically, the system is often criticized for being too close-minded and sometimes branded “aristocratic,” as decisions are sometimes too late or may limit the prospects of new writers.
However, the editors say this public perception is inaccurate, and that their current system of a collective board is “the most democratic procedure.”
As times changed, so did the faces of its leading members.
The founding critics of Moonji were a generation who protested against South Korea’s dictatorships, while the generation in the 1980s experienced a phase of bitter political censorship. In 1980, the quarterly Moonji was forced to close under the Press Abolition and Amalgamation Act after publishing 40 issues. However, the company simply published another quarterly under a different name, “Literature of Our Generation.” Today the quarterly is named “Literature and Society.”
Moonji’s tradition lives on. The group of in-house critics, who used to meet every Thursday, now meets on Fridays.
The company, which was dubbed the “Republic of Poets,” continues to produce some of the most respected poets in Korea.
The launch of the company’s poetry collection began with Hwang Dong-gyu’s “I Want to Roll a Wheel When I See One” (1978), which takes a profound look at the despondent state of humanity.
Hwang’s poetry was followed by that of numerous other controversial Korean poets including Yu Ha, Hwang Ji-woo and Song Jae-hak.
Moonji’s books, which introduced new poetic sensibilities, garnered enthusiasm from both critics and the public alike. Its principles and literary autonomy continue to this day.
A CHRONOLOGY OF MOONJI
September 1970 The quarterly “Literature and Intelligence” was launched by four literary critics, Kim Byoung-Ik, Kim Chi-Soo, Kim Joo-yun and Kim Hyun.
December 1975 Moonji Publications founded.
February 1976 Published the first independent volume Jo Hae-il’s “Winter Lady.”
May 1977 Began publishing “Author Theories.”
July 1980 The quarterly was canceled by the government after 40 issues.
May 1982 Published “Literature of Our Generation.”
December 1993 Launched “Moonji Co.”
April 2000 Entered an agreement for e-book production.
July 2005 Published the 300th issue of Moonji’s Poetry Collection.
by Sohn Min-ho