‘Literary leader’ steers novels back to romanceGong Ji-young stopped to look at a magazine cover on a newsstand in a Seoul subway station. She had to smile ― the magazine, which profiled “leaders of our age” for its feature story, had a photograph of Gong under a headline that read, “The author who saved the literary market.”
Gong, a novelist, no longer represents the mindset of the “386 generation,” an old term for Koreans in their 30s who went to college in the 80s and were born in the 60s. Indeed, she’s no longer labeled a “feminist” author either, but is simple a “leader.”
This spring, Korean literature was hit by the “Gong Ji-young wave.” It’s less a wave, though, and more a breeze that is waking the industry from a long sleep.
“Best Moments of Our Lives,” which Ms. Gong published in April 2005, is still on the nation’s bestseller list, last month shooting over 300,000 copies sold. “Things That Come After Love,” a book she wrote in collaboration with the Japanese author Hitonari Tsuji, has so far sold more than 200,000 copies.
Ms. Gong, however, says little about her success, preferring to give an indirect reason for her books’ soaring popularity. “People tell me that I write with passion and energy. Perhaps that’s because the wounds of the author aren’t so different from the wounds of our age.”
She maintains a low profile, probably because she does not want to be branded as a “best-selling author,” and also because many in the domestic publishing industry think popular authors have few literary qualities.
One literary one critic said Ms. Gong “sold feminism like hotdogs.”
But she brushed off criticism of her works when she published “Things That Come After Love” last year. That attitude was also evident in her previous book, “Best Moments of Our Lives.”
Both novels are wholesome love stories about young men and women.
She said Korean literature does not meet the needs of younger Koreans ― offering stories of love, for example, which they find in Japanese novels.
She has also been criticized for her rough prose. Ms. Gong, however, defends her writing style.
She stresses that the narrative is the most important part.
“I write like a storm,” she said. “I find that the lump of the story is more important than every little phrase in the book. I sometimes finish short stories as long as 20 A-4 pages in a day.”
A common criticism of her novels is that she deliberately chooses sensationalistic topics in order to draw attention. It’s a reasonable criticism, given that many of her novels have dealt with controversial issues.
Ms. Gong, however, sees herself as a faithful reporter.
For “Best Moments of Our Lives,” the story of a suicidal woman who falls in love with a condemned prisoner, she spent a year and a half interviewing prisoners. She also exchanged more than 1,200 e-mail messages with Mr. Tsuji before they began writing, although the topics were not always directly related to the book ― they exchanged information on their blood types, heights, weights and even family budgets.
She recently published “I was Alone Like a Raindrop” ― the first literary essays she wrote in 10 years. Ms. Gong said she originally wanted to become a poet, which could explain why she sticks to sweeter and softer phrases than many other authors.
The essays, though, drew the attention of readers for reasons other than its prose: It was the first time the author had talked about her personal life.
The essays were comprised of quotes from other poems laced with Ms. Gong’s own words. Readers could easily learn about the author’s past by reading between the lines.
For example, in the chapter in which she quoted David Herbert Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale,” she wrote, “He, who had left me, left this world last year... I hear he’s dying. But I’m still haunted by the days he grabbed my hair, insulted me and left me. I am amazed at myself for it, more amazed than the fact that he is dying. But that was also part of the truth.”
She wrote that after her second husband died of cancer last year.
“I am not ashamed of it anymore,” she said. “The fact that I’ve been married and divorced three times, the fact that I am raising three kids on my own, all of whom have different last names. I was born to be happy, not to be divorced. I realized only recently that my life was more important than my failed marriages.”
Ms. Gong released her first novel in 1988. In 1997, her book “A Good Woman,” which is now considered a landmark work of Korean feminist literature, was printed. She has tried to escape being labeled, however, preferring to be undescribable.
Later this year, she will publish a novel based on her children ― a story of a happy family without a father.
by Sohn Min-ho