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Korea Blog: The First Comprehensive Introduction to “K-Lit” Past and Present, Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton’s “What Is Korean Literature?”

Where to start with Korean literature? That question can frustrate Western enthusiasts of modern Korean popular culture — music, television, film — who want to go deeper. When I began seriously watching Korean movies, I realized many of them were adaptations of novels or stories, but soon learned that reading those novels and stories myself wouldn’t be easy. Less Korean literature had been translated than I’d expected, and much of it was hardly distributed outside academia. Most of the Korean books I did find in English seemed obsessively focused on the various traumas of 20th-century history. Their awkward prose wasn’t helped by romanized Korean words whose apostrophes and unfamiliar diacritical marks made them look stranger than the actual Korean alphabet.

Blame for that last goes to the McCune-Reischauer romanization system, in use since the late 1930s. It was co-creator Edwin O. Reischauer, an Asia scholar and the United States Ambassador to Japan under John F. Kennedy, who called the Korean alphabet hangul “perhaps the most scientific system of writing in general use in any language,” a claim still repeated (usually out of context) in Korea today. Hangul is, at any rate, a logical and easy-to-learn system of writing, as I found out when I began self-studying the Korean language soon after my first encounters with Korean literature — having resigned myself to the idea that if I wanted to enjoy Korean books, I’d probably have to do it in Korean.

McCune-Reischauer was falling out of favor even then, challenged by a revised system introduced around the turn of the millennium by the National Academy of the Korean Language. Yet some prominent translators have held fast to it, including Bruce Fulton, who with his wife Ju-Chan Fulton has brought into English the work of many of the notable Korean writers of the past half-century. (Their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss have previously been featured here.) The experience placed him well to work in another Korean-Western partnership: in collaboration with Seoul National University literature professor Youngmin Kwon, he’s written the introductory text What Is Korean Literature?, newly published by UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.