[Viewpoint]Court’s novel ruling was justifiedWhen writer Lee Mun-ku, who died a couple of years ago, was in his youth, he used to work as a manual laborer on construction sites. He toiled on the building of an old riverside road that connected Noryangjin and Dongjak-dong in southern Seoul. He even participated in digging up the remains of about 3,000 people buried in a graveyard in Seoul’s Yonhui-dong to rebury them in another place, so the Seoul Foreign School could be built on the site. If he did not lead a life full of such hardships, he could not have written the masterpiece novel, “In This Dusty World,” which describes the desperate lives of manual workers who gathered together to exhume human remains and rebury them in other places.
In the novels, “The Son’s Winter Season” and “Fishermen Do Not Pluck Reeds,” written by Kim Ju-young, the younger brothers of the protagonist drown. In reality, Mr. Kim’s younger brother drowned at a young age while swimming. The writer’s personal experience is inseparable from the world described in the his work. Therefore, demanding that a writer erase the memories of his personal experiences or stop writing about them is the same as delivering a death sentence to him as a writer.
Although Mr. Kim’s novel, “The Son’s Winter Season,” shines light on the wounds developed during his family’s painful history, the description of his younger brother, who drowned, is different from reality.
In the novel, the brothers’ dispositions are different from each other and they conflict due to their rivalry over their mother’s love. In reality, however, the brothers were in harmony with each other. In this sense, “The Son’s Winter Season” is clearly a creative work by the writer. If someone read “The Sword in the Heaven” or “Winter Bird,” and confused the novel with reality, the writer’s father might be thought to be a butcher or a cowboy. But his father was a civil servant; one of his neighbors was a butcher.
A writer has no choice but to write about what he or she has experienced. If a writer doesn’t have experiences, he must get them, at least indirectly. That is the writer’s fate.
Literary critics also like to consider the correlations between the experience of the writer and the literary work. If readers try to compare the writer’s experiences or private life with the writer’s work too much, the readers may become just voyeurs.
Even in literary circles, the question of whether the content of a certain literary work is realistic enough is often a controversial issue for writers.
The poetical works of a female poet published two years ago created a stir among writers right after it was published. The names of several dignitaries were mentioned as a model for the animal depicted in her poems. As the rumors spread, the poetry book sold a large number of copies. The groundless rumors spread almost endlessly as a topic during drinking parties and other such gatherings.
But they eventually died down with the passage of the time. Rumor had it that one novel portrayed the actual details of a writer’s extramarital love affair.
After reading a novel that depicted the miseries of violence at home, people sympathized with the writer under the assumption that the writer was the victim of such violence. But it should stop there. Works of literature are essentially fiction.
In all things in this world, there are limits and bounds. The Supreme Court of Japan ruled that “Fish Swimming in the Stone,” the first novel written by the young female Korean-Japanese novelist Yoo Mi-ri, should be banned from publication in 2002.
It was the first court ruling in Japan that banned publication of a novel on the grounds that the contents violated a person’s privacy.
A Korean woman who is described in detail in the book sued the writer for libel and won the case. The woman was born with a deformity on her face. Ms. Yoo described her deformity as it was and wrote the names of the university she attended and the overseas city where she pursued further studies, the way she was brought up and her father’s occupation as if they were reality.
In Japanese literary circles, there was strong opposition to the court’s ruling. But the writer had to publish the novel after rewriting it by changing the description of the woman.
The JoongAng Ilbo published a serial novel “Home, Sweet Home,” written by Gong Ji-young. The literary description of the life of a woman who has married and divorced three times and brought up three children with three different surnames is excellent. It is certainly not a typical family story, but rather a novel with social significance.
The Seoul Central District Court turned down an attempt to stop publication and distribution of the novel filed by one of her former husbands on the grounds that a part of the novel “could intrude on his personal and privacy rights.” It was an unprecedented legal action taken against an unfinished literary work. The court ruled that “the publication of a book can be stopped when the readers of a novel can identify the person who is a model for the character in the book and the privacy of the person is seriously damaged.”
The Japanese court had basically the same understanding on the issue of the violation of personal rights and privacy regarding a literary work. But there were big differences in the degree of similarity of the descriptions of the person and the situation and possible privacy violations between the two cases.
As a result, the courts of Korea and Japan decided differently. As the legal case affects more than just Ms. Gong, it is fortunate that the court threw out the attempt to ban the publication of a literary work.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun