(This post is from John Thornton of Seven Stories Press. Seven Stories has just published The Old Garden, by Korean author Hwang Sok-yong (which I discussed here). Hwang has engaged in some interesting online experiments in writing novels, and this is what Thornton discusses in this post.)
Seven Stories Press is currently serializing our English translation of The Old Garden, the 2000 novel by Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. There are a number of reasons why we’re doing this—not least of which is our personal belief in the book and in our translation of it, despite a certain prominent and negative early review, and our belief that by offering a sizeable chunk of the book for free on our website, people can make up their own minds about the story and discover for themselves the writer called by Kenzaburo Oe “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of the novel in East Asia.”
One reason that we’re beginning our push to blur the lines between print and electronic publishing with Hwang Sok-yong, however, has to do with Mr. Hwang’s reputation as a pioneer in popularizing online fiction in Korea. Mr. Hwang wrote his 2008 novel Hesperus as a serial on his personal blog at popular Korean portal site naver.com. The novel—a Catcher in the Rye-tinged coming of age story about a young man who slowly breaks free from the stultifying education system of Korea in the 1960s—was followed religiously by Internet-savvy young people throughout the country, many of whom left comments on the story as it was unfolding—to which Mr. Hwang responded each day before continuing the novel. It was a rare and appropriate opportunity for a writer and publisher to use the Internet as something more than a novel method of distribution or publicity. The book is about the experience of youth breaking free from conventional thinking, whatever the generation. The Internet allowed the generations to speak to one another, informing and broadening the content of the book. From Mr. Hwang’s piece at LIST:
Growing up in today’s society is very tough and it does not become much easier later when entering adult life. The competition for status and money is severe, and many have difficulties finding a job despite all the efforts to get a good education. By relating my own youth experience from the 1960s, my roaming life from adolescence to the early twenties, I want to tell young people not to be too disheartened by all this pressure. They should not be afraid to break the mold, to break out of this system and find their own way of life.
Would he do it again? Mr. Hwang says no, although he is interested in starting a collective literary blog for international writers. But the basic principle—using a book’s online presence as the basis for a conversation, rather than simple as a way to avoid shipping and printing costs when publishing—is a novel one, and one that only a few projects in the United States have really experimented with, notably Bob Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book and the Golden Notebook project.
Our serialization of The Old Garden isn’t a project on that scale—just an experiment with getting the word out about world-class writer that more people should know about and read. But what Mr. Hwang has done with Hesperus—and what we’re going to see more and more people doing in the weeks and months ahead—is important—the moment when the technology ceased to be a novelty, when it became important for its own sake.