Does publishing overlook Korea?

Our weekend, despite being jam-packed, was oddly relaxing. There was dinner at a new sushi restaurant in the neighborhood (The verdict: so-so. Shiso leaves don’t really go with hamachi, and dying fish roe to match the colors of various sushi roll contents, while pretty, doesn’t necessarily make for good flavor). We took in a baseball game…It was a warm, clear night with great views of Oakland from AT&T Park. Alas, the Giants lost, again. I wrote some, and spent some time at a coffee shop trying to organize chapters. There were visits to the gym. After an impromptu grocery store stop, we grilled teriyaki flank steaks for Sunday night’s dinner (complete with with delicately crispy hash browns and crunchy-sweet sugar snap peas. Yum. We actually read the Sunday newspaper.

And there was packing. All of the books, as well as many other bits of our living room, are now boxed away, in weighty boxes I do not want to lift. I miss my books already.

OK, I take it back, all of my books are packed except for the ones I keep on my desk to help with the thesis. Four of these are models of sorts, books I look to when I get stuck on my own book and therefore they will remain unpacked until the last minute:

Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman
Untangling My Chopsticks, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (yes, the occasional judge on Iron Chef America)
Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin (So jealous of this book! A fascinating personal narrative and tons of information so deftly woven together. And she’s a published poet, too. )
Beyond the Sky and the Earth, by Jamie Zeppa

The others are Korea guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Moon) and Culture Shock! Korea.

While I was packing my books away I started to consider the books I own that relate to Japan vs. the books I own that relate to Korea, and I started thinking about how different those piles of books are. I was a Japanese Studies major in college, so it’s not surprising that I have more books about Japan. But what’s strange is that there just seem to be so many more books out there about Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese food, women, festivals, etc., etc., etc. than there are about Korea.

A search on Amazon for books about Korea pulls up the usual suspects, travel guidebooks,  then a book about  how to get a job teaching in Korea, then a pile of histories of the Korean War and North Korea. North Korea seems to be the key ingredient for getting a book on Korea  published. There’s little out there (that’s accessible, anyway) on Korean culture, food, daily life, etc. There is only one modern travel narrative, a dated book (1987) by Simon Winchester that was recently re-released (I suspect more on the strength of his other nonfiction works than because of its topic). I have no way of proving it, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say there are even more novels written with Japan as a backdrop than Korea. Why is this?

What’s also strange is that looking back on my college courses, I managed to come away with a decent grasp of Chinese history, literature, even a little bit of women’s studies as it related to that country. I was, in fact, required to take a course in Chinese history for my major in Japanese Studies. I was not required to learn a thing about Korea. And I didn’t, except when the country popped up in the course of studying Japanese history. This despite hundreds of years of contact between the two countries, and hundreds of years of cultural exchange, peaceful or not.

Recently I picked up The Koreans: Who They Are, What they Want, Where Their Future Lies, by Michael Breen, which is a sort of journalistic look at the country’s post-war development. I found it lacking in personality. I think of China Wakes, for example, by New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn. That book is now at least a decade old, but it is still a fascinating read because the stories about China as a whole are revealed in personal conversations with its people. The Koreans is in large part filled with generalities.

Am I missing something? Are there better books out there about Korea’s people and culture?  Or is Korea just overlooked by English language publishers?


3 thoughts on “Does publishing overlook Korea?

  1. You are VERY correct in your observations, at least from my experience. I’ve been trying to find more Korean literature in translation, and I just can’t find many–and what does exist is victim to subpar translation. This is in stark contrast to Japanese literature.

    It goes for travel guides, too. I bitched about this awhile back on my blog.

    I am not sure why this is…but I can’t fathom that it’s because “Korea is not interesting” or “Korean literature is not that good.”

  2. I can’t figure it out either. Theoretically, this should mean that there’s more room — even a demand — for people like us with an interest in or connection to Korea to get books published on these subjects! It’s a nice theory, anyway.

  3. Have you read any of Linda Sue Park’s books? They’re written for children, but I’ve learned a lot about Korean history from theme. I especially liked When My Name was Keoko, which is about the occupation of Korea by Japan.

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