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[Kim Myong-sik] An uncomfortable look at a best-selling novel

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Published : 2014-02-19 19:37
Updated : 2014-02-19 19:37

I have decided not to read “Jungle Malli,” the best-selling three-volume novel by Cho Chong-nae. The reason: too much advertising. When a publishing house spends billions of won in advertising a book, you certainly have little to expect from it. 

Soon after the novel was published in July last year, it clinched the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list in the poetry-fiction-drama category and has continued to hold the spot, a rare feat in the local publishing market. It even won a brief competition against Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.”

Almost once a week since its publication, a full-page advertisement on “Master Writer Cho Chong-nae’s epic on China” has appeared in the Korean-language daily that I subscribe to. And the ad now carries the impressive announcement that the novel has “sold million copies.” I assumed that the number must include the combined sales of Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Haenaem Publishing House has not only run an advertisement in the printed media. “Jungle” ads appeared in commercials during a local TV network’s prime time news and during morning radio programs targeting urban commuters. Never in Korea’s publishing history has a single work of fiction been advertised so extensively.

The colorful ads contain quotations from about 10 top Korean intellectuals who hailed the great literary value of Cho’s latest novel. Some also recognized it as useful educational material for anyone who plans to do business in China or engage in any other activities there. The advertiser seemed to be pressing Korean consumers, “Will you still not open your wallet and grab this extraordinary book?”

So I did pick up the new novel from a pile of copies at the Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun and scanned a few pages. In the section I read, a few Japanese businessmen are visiting a brothel in Beijing, conducting “line-ups” of service women to choose partners for the night’s drinking binge and further pleasures. I closed the book as I was gripped by the same disappointment that I felt three years ago when I read Cho’s earlier novel “Heosuabi-eui chum (A Scarecrow’s Dance).”

“Scarecrow” is a social indictment of a Korean chaebol engaged in all sorts of organizational evils which eventually destroy the personalities of some elite individuals who became a part of the wicked machine. The writer’s zeal to expose the malaise of contemporary Korea was laudable but the novel offered little beyond what we read in weeklies sold at subway kiosks or episodes we hear from friends at pubs.

I do not intend to discuss the literary orientation of the writer Cho, who earned fame with his epic novels “Taebaek Range,” “Han-gang” and “Arirang,” which ranked him alongside such big names as Hwang Suk-yung and Lee Mun-yeol. While Hwang and Lee earned substantial incomes with their translations of the Chinese epic “Samgukji (The Story of the Three Warring States)” one after the other, Cho continued to focus on social absurdities but remained relatively unproductive in the 2000s.

Over the past decade, Cho traveled to China eight times. Based on his firsthand research, Cho wrote “Jungle Malli (Thousands of Kilometers of Jungle),” likening China to a jungle where businessmen from all over the world are doing anything to make money, adapting to or clashing with social conventions, systems and customs of the rapidly transforming country. (I read some reviews of the novel, which mostly agree that the book may be useful as a manual for a business trip to China. One questioned, “Is this a novel?”)

Whatever the classification of this book, the seemingly successful attempt by the publisher to conquer the literary market with a massive advertising campaign that blunts the consumers’ power of judgment made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I do not know how much Haenaem spent on royalties and payments for the ad space in newspapers and on TV; I only assume that revenues from the sale of 1 million volumes have covered the cost.

Yet, the important question is whether this is a fair game. Many agree that the local publishing market is really a jungle where the strong, those with capital, prey on the weak, whose well-written, well-edited books end up in first editions of a few thousand volumes, without even a few inches or seconds of ad space in the media. Unfortunately in the publishing market word of mouth is slow and therefore less effective in spreading public assessment of a new commodity.

The movie world is as tough a jungle as publishing. We know that the bigger companies with large nationwide cinema chains control the market, generously sharing screens for the films they have invested in and spending prodigiously on media promotion. However, movies are a social thing; people usually enjoy films in the company of others and review them in casual groups. Thus, consensus is quickly established as to whether a new product is worth the money or not. Here, a well-made independent film has a chance of “daebak,” or great success, while a star-studded blockbuster could close with disastrous box-office records.

Books are a little different. You read them alone and have fewer chances to share your opinion with others. The Internet and social networking services can have a significant role in measuring the literary value of new publications. Unbiased reviews by right-minded bloggers are helpful for discouraging some publishers with deep pockets from attempting to create overnight best sellers by scattering ad money from helicopters.

In tourist areas, we see many restaurants with billboards announcing that they were featured on KBS, MBC or SBS programs introducing places serving exceptionally tasty food. In the hot spring town of Osaek near Mount Seoraksan, I spotted a restaurant which proudly declared that it was “never shown on a TV program,” implying that it still offers tasty food. I entered the place and was not disappointed.

This could be a lesson for our publishers and those who might have envied the weekly full-page ads for “Jungle Malli” over the past months.

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik, former managing editor of The Korea Times, wrote editorials for The Korea Herald until 2012. He can be reached at kmyongsik@hanmail.net. ― Ed.

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