Baek Minseok, You Are Right Now and You Were Wrong Then
Interview with Analrealists.
July 8, 2015 6:00 PM – July 9 4:40 AM
Translated by Mattho Mandersloot & Suhyun J. Ahn
4. “One critic who’s brought up well is worth ten novelists.”
Jeong Jidon: I read your novel with Han Ki in the past, and we thought it was a real story. But why did you use two letters in the initials? Like “wt.”
Baek Minseok: Because the letter would feel lonely if it’s alone.
Jeong Jidon: I don’t think that’s the reason.
Keum Jungyun: And they’re written in lowercase.
Hong Sanghee: Seriously, why did you do that?
Baek Minseok: I just wanted to try something nobody does.
Jeong Jidon: That means you have an eye for it.
Baek Minseok: It’s good to try something nobody does. If you do something special, there will be someone welcoming you even after 10 years of hiatus. Some people made their debut by critiquing my novel—there are several—and I feel good that they’re holding an important position in our literary world. I thought they’d be damned, but they became more famous than I am.
Baek Minseok: Is there any who debuted with a critique of your work?
Bak Solmay: This year’s winner of Moonji New Writers Award.
Baek Minseok: Raise them well. One critic who’s brought up well is worth ten novelists.
Yi SangWoo: I should tweet this.
Baek Minweok: Don’t. I’m gonna die.
Hong Sanghee: You didn’t say directly that you raised them.
Baek Minseok: How would I and who would I raise? I stopped writing as I watched them making a debut.
Jeong Jidon: Let’s put it this way. “Peeps who debuted by critiquing my work are now the powers in our literary world.”
Hong Sanghee: But you are the power too.
Baek Minseok: How? Do I look so?
Jeong Jidon: People who have power never realizes that they have power.
Baek Minseok: Am I a power? I think online bookstore merchandisers are the ones holding power.
All in unison: That’s right.
Baek Minseok: Without an online bookstore merchandiser, you can’t sell books.
Jeong Jidon: The power to circulate.
Keum Jungyun: In any case, all merchandisers do have power. Though it’s coming from different context.
Hong Sanghee: This is bringing tears, even to my eyes.
Kim Jun-eon: That’s the only channel we have.
Hong Sanghee: They can’t make books sell more, but they can bury them.
Baek Minseok: I’m not a power. I do everything as I’m told. I do everything that makes money.
Bak Solmay: That’s it. That attitude.
Baek Minseok: Learn from me. This attitude.
Bak Solmay: It’s really hard to be like you.
Baek Minseok: If only you were starving.
Bak Solmay: Maybe it’s because my mom cooks for me.
Keum Jungyun: Your email address was “hungryyears.”
Baek Minseok: I have a different one now.
Keum Jungyun: And what’s the meaning of your Twitter handle, “awesome_ass?”
Baek Minseok: It means that I’m fabulous. My ass, that is.
Keum Jungyun: Oh, so you meant a real fucking ass. That sounds somewhat like hip-hop. Do you like idol groups today?
Baek Minseok: Hello Venus. Watching Hello Venus is fun.
Jeong Jidon: Didn’t you listen to death metal when you were in your thirties?
Baek Minseok: I listened to everything back then.
Baek Minseok: Hello Venus. AOA. I like Seolhyun from AOA. She’s pretty.
Jeong Jidon: I had so much respect for you… Are you really going to do this to me?
Baek Minseok: Hello Venus will make a comeback. On July 22nd.
Hong Sanghee: I heard you listen to vinyl. Except for Hello Venus, I guess?
Baek Minseok: I download Hello Venus from TV shows like Music Bank. I gave Bak Solmay a recording of music. The one I got from a vinyl record. All of the sound sources are from vinyl. Because Solmay’s got the power at where I teach.
Bak Solmay: What power? I do things alone!
Keum Jungyun: That’s why you have power. You do everything by yourself.
Baek Minseok: I treat people with power well. (…) I don’t usually meet other writers. There’s nothing to do even if you meet them.
Bak Solmay: You can make veggie curry and talk about the weather.
Yi SangWoo: Is there any Korean writer you thought of reading before you made a comeback? Also before you quit writing.
Baek Minseok: Jung Young-moon? When Jung Young-moon made a debut, I went to Jung Gwari and asked him to try his novel because it’s good. Since then, I said Jung Young-moon…his novels are on par with Borchert’s. I told people I like Jung Young-mun while drinking because we didn’t have Twitter back then.
Keum Jungyun: What did you talk about when you met him last year?
Baek Minseok: Dunno. I forgot.
Jeong Jidon: Do you want me to call him?
Baek Minseok: Don’t… I’m trying not to talk about the past because I don’t want to look like a stick-in-the-mud. I was drinking with others once and someone there talked about his past. And he sounded such a fuddy-duddy. So I shouldn’t talk about the past. I’ll become a social outcast.
Bak Solmay: Jun-eon, you look sleepy.
Kim Jun-eon: You must be sleepy, Solmay.
Jeong Jidon: In the past two years, including this year, artists who are really young made lots of alternative spaces other than Common Center and Audio Visual Pavilion.
Bak Solmay: They also started Post Territory Ujeongguk some time ago.
Jeong Jidon: Right. But we don’t have any of those in the field of literature. It makes me wonder how young writers are tamed and how they want to give in.
Yi SangWoo: It’s because they’re poor, I think.
Bak Solmay: I think so too.
Jeong Jidon: We don’t have that because literature isn’t hip.
Hong Sanghee: Things are made only when they make money.
Baek Minseok: They’re simply not trying hard enough. Try to get sponsored for a magazine. Who’s best at marketing?
Bak Solmay: Jeong Jidon.
Baek Minseok: Market it, seriously.
Jeong Jidon: I really hate that.
Baek Minseok: If you ask big conglomerates to sponsor you, they’d do it right away.
Yi SangWoo: I should ask Han Ki.
Keum Jungyun: They’re throwing a wrap-up party at Exit 8.
Jeong Jidon: Yes, go there and tell them, “We will do what you want. Give me money.”
Keum Jungyun: I went to Bar TILT last Friday for business with Jeong Jidon and Hwang Inchan. Joo Youngjun, the owner, trembled when he saw Jeong Jidon and said, “Why didn’t you tell me that you were coming with Jeong Jidon? I would’ve brought his book if you had.” So Hwang Inchan said next to him, “I’m Hwang Inchan,” and he said, “I don’t read poems…” Did I exaggerate?
Jeong Jidon: No, but don’t try to perform it.
Bak Solmay: When I was there last time, he said he likes other writers better, so…
All in unison: (laugh)
Bak Solmay: How are your classes?
Baek Minseok: I’m kind of hesitant to say this, but students all go “Ah…” when the class is over.
Bak Solmay: Because they feel sleepy?
Baek Minseok: Because they’re shocked.
Bak Solmay: Why?
Baek Minseok: Last year, I did a lecture for parents at a library. And you know a human mouth is equivalent to genitalia, so I told them that people who have a problem with a sexual craving solve it by eating, through the mouth. Then, a chubby person slipped out of the lecture and never came back. My lectures are mostly like that.
- Oh Han Ki’s Questions
- Are you really Baek Minseok?
- Do you know that I read your book in college and was moved by it?
- Do you keep a journal?
- Do you see illusions? I sometimes do.
- What makes you fearful?
Yi SangWoo: Oh Han Ki likes you.
Keum Jungyun: Are you really Baek Minseok?
Baek Minseok: (nods)
Keum Jungyun: Do you know that I read your book in college and was moved by it?
Baek Minseok: How would I?
Keum Jungyun: Do you keep a journal?
Baek Minseok: No.
Keum Jungyun: Do you see illusions? I sometimes do.
Baek Minseok: No.
Yi SangWoo: Even in the past?
Baek Minseok: Even in the past.
Keum Jungyun: What makes you fearful?
Baek Minseok: Ah, what makes me the most fearful is the power dynamic in the literary world.
Jeong Jidon: Really?
Baek Minseok: Yes. It really makes me apprehensive. I’m worried that people like Cheon Myeong-gwan, Son Aram, and Yi Eungjoon will disappear from the market.
Bak Solmay: Yi Eungjoon is publishing a book through Moonji Publishing Company.
Baek Minseok: Is that so? But still, he will disappear. I’m just worried about them.
Yi SangWoo: How about before you quit writing?
Baek Minseok: The future.
Yi SangWoo: Your novels these days don’t show any fear though your old novels do. I think that’s why Han Ki asked this question.
Baek Minseok: Aren’t you afraid of the future? I am.
Yi SangWoo: You retweeted a quote from Cheon Myeong-gwan’s Axt, so I wonder what you think about the quote.
Keum Jungyun: I know you didn’t like critics in the past, but please provide your general opinion on the publication power or things happening these days within the literary world.
Baek Minseok: Are you recording?
Yi SangWoo: Are you uncomfortable with it?
Baek Minseok: No, I’m okay. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin says that the downfall of a genre that had once been in its heyday—like visual art—coincides with the downfall of criticism. And I agree. If literary criticism goes down, fiction goes down together. I think the same thing can be said about Korean literature. Basically, criticism and creation are not counteractive. They are complementary, going side by side. In other words, the relationship between criticism and creation is like that of a face and gums. If you don’t have gums, then your teeth ache and the shape of your face collapses entirely. So even though people speak ill of critics of today—even though I don’t like critics myself—I really wish criticism would thrive. Critics approach films, literature, or visual arts in depth with theories. If the boundary of criticism is surrendered to the public, however, these approaches can be dominated by emotion. And any genre can collapse this way. I came to think about this when I watched an interview with Bong Joon-ho last year. The interviewer asked what has changed the most in the Korean film industry in the past year, and he answered, “It’s heartbreaking to say, but film criticism has collapsed.” And what took over after it collapsed? The impressionist criticism of the public. That’s what we witness every moment on web portals, on Twitter, and on ticket booking websites. The winner of Korea Artist Prize is chosen by the public, and Axt also said in the media that they do not solicit manuscripts from critics. Cheon Myeong-gwan also talked about the power system in the literary world, but regardless of that, if the public or non-experts take over, the entire field might be dominated by emotional or impressionist criticism. And I’m afraid this will start the collapse of literature as a whole. I think we should promote literary criticism if we want to revive poems and novels. This is not the time for the critics to give up their spaces and disappear. It’s time for the critics who can produce uncompromising and professional criticism to stand their ground. Of course, they carry lots of problems, so I’ve rebuked them a lot, too. Nonetheless, to save poems and novels, we should embrace criticism. That’s what I think. Walter Benjamin said something similar in the 1930s, and I agree with him.
Keum Jungyun: But you can’t intentionally make criticism more popular.
Baek Minseok: Still, we shouldn’t squash it as we do now. We shouldn’t crush it and find a way to make it better. Give them a chance to improve themselves, and don’t take away their space to publish at the very least. If you don’t give them a chance to publish, how would they get better? I’m not criticizing Axt. We need a magazine like Axt, too.
Jeong Jidon: It’s good to criticize the power systems in the literary world, and it’s also good to criticize publishing companies. But what gets me mad is where the discourse is flowing toward: Writers should write what the public likes. I don’t think that’s the solution to this problem, and it’s totally unrelated to the power dynamic in the literary world. I think we ended up in this havoc because critics are afraid of the public. Don’t you think we ended up in the current state because the public chose Shin Kyung-sook and the critics played with it? It’s good to get critics popular, but I don’t know if they’d be able to go against public opinion and sharply criticize the writers.
Baek Minseok: That also is a complementary relationship. Shin Kyung-sook became a bestseller because the readers and critics made a move in the same direction at the same time. It can’t happen just with one or the other. This is about visual art, but there are artists who are loved by the public and artists who get ahead of the game. And both are considered important in the visual art world. Wouldn’t it be the same for literature? There are writers who write for the public, but we also need writers who are trying to get ahead of them. They’re both precious. At the same time, we need people who approach literature in a professional and serious manner like critics. When that falls into non-professional’s hands, the downfall of literature starts.
Jeong Jidon: Today, Jang Kang-myung said in The Kyunghyang Shinmun that Korean literature is collapsing because there’s no novel that’s based on a strong narrative. The reason he won prizes and got attention from the public was that his novel had a strong narrative. Isn’t this a total misunderstanding of the matter? Because all the publishing companies, from the 90s to now, have unabashedly given awards only to those that focus on building narratives. They’re dying to publish a big hit, and then they (Jang Kang-myung and the media) are misleading the readers. It’s so fucked up.
Baek Minseok: I haven’t read the interview, so I don’t know what’s going on exactly. But I think he said that because he was originally a reporter and thus doesn’t know the reality of the Korean literary scene.
Yi SangWoo: And Cheon Myeong-gwan’s saying that novels with impressive styles are sweeping all the prizes, which is total nonsense. Shin Kyeong-sook didn’t sweep prizes for her style.
Baek Minseok: Yeah, I don’t think that’s true, either. Since when did literary prizes here care about that?
Jeong Jidon: Some time ago, you said in an interview that the only function that’s left to a novel is reasoning, and all others have transferred to films and music. But there are still people who think fiction has a function in our society or have entertainment value. What do you think about them?
Baek Minseok: At this point, novels have almost no inherent strength attracting the public. They can appeal to emotion, but a bit less so since the Shin Kyung-sook scandal. So don’t quit your job. Fiction is defunct. There’s nowhere you can make money if you quit a job. Some of you haven’t published a book, but if you do, you will see the world differently. You grow conscious of the public. And you can’t help but think of how many books you’ve sold.
Yi SangWoo: But I thought you ended up not caring about it. You’ve published books since you were very young. Did you think about numbers then? You were so audacious back then.
Baek Minseok: I did. At least these days, many people find fault in literary circles and ask them to remand themselves. That’s huge progress. When I was young, that rarely happened, so I was threatened over the phone when I took part in an anti-Chosun Ilbo movement. That’s happened more than once. But I felt most hurt when I received a threatening phone calls from the writers who I felt fairly close to.
Bak Solmay: What kind of phone call were they?
Baek Minseok: I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s leave the past in the past.
Jeong Jidon: The Errand Boy at the Manor was published through Munhakdongne, and I heard you included people who made you feel sick as characters.
Baek Minseok: That’s a rumor spread by some novelist. I think he was trying to dis me, but it’s not true. I found that the literary world got relatively democratic when I returned after ten years. So you’re living in a better time. Things got better so that you can raise your voice now.
Yi SangWoo: What a crazy time to live in.
Keum Jungyun: In the past, you openly said you hate older writers and critics. But now that you’ve come back after ten years, you’ve become one of the older writers. I imagine you’d feel a gap between times. What’s that like?
Baek Minseok: That’s right. I left the literally scene as an emerging writer and came back as an old fossil. And I think it’s unfortunate. One of the things middle-aged people must do for young people is try their best to hand down a better future. Frankly, I’m worried in that sense. For Cheon Myeong-gwan, Son Aram, and other younger writers like them—those who criticized the power structures in the literary world. The ones who have power say that they can clear away their problems and ask people to believe them. But in reality, it’s more likely that these folks who point out the problems will be cleared away. This could be wrong now because I’m referring to my experience of the past. But I’m still worried. That they might be cleared away. That they might be thrown out. That’s why I continue to retweet threads that criticize literary circles and speak out in interviews. To tell them that there are older writers who support you. Even though I doubt it will mean a lot to them. Even though I dobut they’d know me. But I still want to be their emotional prop even if it’s a tiny bit.
Jeong Jidon: You always say you were little known as a writer, but to people who like literature from the late 2000s and early 2010s, you’re revered like a god.
Baek Minseok: I didn’t know that.
Yi SangWoo: Well, it doesn’t strike me odd that you couldn’t feel the fame. Internet wasn’t as widespread as it is now.
Baek Minseok: Let’s not talk about the past now. I don’t remember it.
Yi SangWoo: I heard half of the people in Changbi Publishing Company don’t think Shin Kyung-sook had plagiarized.
Baek Minseok: Wasn’t it plagiarism? If that wasn’t plagiarism, what is? More than plagiarism, I was astounded by how Shin Kyung-sook and Shin Hyung-chul explained the incident. Even in the midst of that horrid moment, they wrote elegantly. All the while the dignity of the writer is in jeopardy, Shin Kyung-sook said, “I fell to the terrain of the literature, so I will push myself up from the terrain,” and Shin Hyung-chul said, “You can’t call the same thing ‘different.’” And I was amazed by that. Their mental strength to put forth elegant lines amid that mayhem.
Keum Jungyun: So let me bring up your opinion about literature needing criticism to stay afloat. Now, I think it’s impossible for the literary world to cleanse itself because it’s intertwined with an industrial structure of the publishing companies, personal preference of the public, and proficiency of the critics. These are the collusive ties in the industry as a structure. But what’s more critical is the fact critics do not read world literature, so they can’t clean the mess themselves. I agree that there needs to be literary criticism, but I don’t think good things will happen through critics’ self-realization.
Baek Minseok: To me, Changbi looks outmoded. Are they actually so?
Baek Minseok: How about Moonji? Are they not outmoded?
 Now that I’m thinking of it, I think it was a different bar, not Bar TILT (Bak Solmay).