With the translation of Un-su KIM’s novel The Plotters, we have seen a growing interest in Korean thrillers outside Korea (see this article by the Guardian). But what about Korean crime novels in Korea? The Guardian mentions that it is still difficult for Korean authors to find their place in their own country, but things might be changing.
Looking for Korean genre fiction…
In 2008, the Korean detective novel celebrated its 100th anniversary. The first novel that can be defined as “detective novel” (추리소설) was published in 1908 (쌍옥정 by LEE Hae-jo 이해조). Since then, Korean detective novels have grown and known a period of prosperity during the 70s and the 80s. Since the middle of the nineties, however, translations of detective novels and thrillers have become more and more popular, and Korean crime fiction has disappeared from the best-selling shelves.
Until only recently, it was difficult to find Korean detective novels in the big bookstores of the country like the Kyobo bookstore chain. On the table “detective novels” where best and steady sellers are piled up, you could only find translations, mostly from Japanese and English. Japanese detective and mystery novels are particularly popular among Korean readers. On the table for “Korean literature”, most of the books piled up were literary fiction. While detective novels are still massively represented by translations in Korean bookstores, things begin to change, and more and more efforts are made to put the spotlight on Korean authors.
Several publishers are launching a collection of Korean detective novels and thrillers. 책과나무 has published 3 titles in its series “한국추리문학선” (Selection of Korean detective literature) in 2018 and 2019, and Human & Books has launched the “H&B 스릴러-미스터리 컬렉션” (H&B’s collection of thriller and mystery) in 2019, and plans three publications in this collection before the end of the year.
With the publication of the English translation of Un-su Kim’s novel The Plotters, the Korean version has been republished with a new cover and an advertising wraparound band. It has also found its place on the bookstores’ tables for promotional display.
Why do Korean detective novels lack popularity?
There are several reasons why Korean detective literature is not as developed as in other countries like the United States or Japan. According to 박광규, chief editor of the magazine 미스터리, there are two main reasons: the lack of detective novels for children and young readers, and the lack of critics. (source)
But he also mentions another more fundamental reason: the way detective novels are seen in Korea. Genre fiction is seen with suspicion, it is not “serious” literature. Reading detective novels are even seen as a harmful activity for the young readers’ studies.
Indeed, Korean detective novels are struggling to be recognised as a genre. In his novel 교동회관 밀실 살인사건, YUN Ja-yeong (윤자영) introduces his protagonist as such:
우리나가에서는 아직 추리소설이 영미와 일본에서처럼 한 장르로서 당당하게 인정받지 못하고 있는 가운데 한국 추리소설이 위상을 높이기 위해서 15년 넘게 많은 노력을 쏟아온 당승표였다. (p.8)
In Korea, authors are under pressure to write literary fiction, and it is difficult to be recognised as an author of genre fiction. YU Guang-su (유광수), author of 싱글몰트 사나이, said in an interview with Munhwa ilbo:
추리소설이 발달한 일본은 이미 순수문학과 대중문학의 경계 논쟁을 지나왔다. 순수문학을 써야 한다는 부담감에 있어 한국 작가와는 느낌이 전혀 다르다 (…) 한국은 추리소설의 자질이 없는 게 아니라 그동안 그럴 수 있는 분위기가 아니었다. 문학의 범주가 한층 넓어져야 한다 . (source)
There are Korean authors who write great detective novels, but the literary scene in Korea still has to widen its definition. If Korean publishing world embraces genre fiction the same way it does for literary fiction, we will certainly see a new wave of exciting Korean crime novels invade the Korean scene and maybe, the rest of the world.