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2009/10/21 09:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) Internet, economic downturn spawn 'ordinary authors'

By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- Until about two years ago, Kim Cheol-su was a self-acknowledged literary ignoramus who had never heard of Tolstoy or Albert Camus.

   "I thought they were Western painters," said the 29-year-old, who asked to be identified by a common Korean alias. "I never had time to read them when I was younger, and literature was the last thing that fueled my passion in my 20s."

   In December 2007, Kim escaped into a bookstore to avoid a sudden snowfall. There he picked up "The Stranger" by Camus and decided he wanted to write.

"I don't know what came over me, but from then on, I was reading like a mad person and began to write my own stories," said Kim, who now has tens of thousands of fans waiting for him to post the next episode of his fantasy novel on a local Web site for amateur creative writers. There he goes by the pen name "Adonis" and has already finished three novels.

   "I couldn't believe someone would actually want to read something I created. I was even more surprised last month when a publisher contacted me. I am to become a published author next year."

   Coupled with the expansion of the Internet, a growing number of people here have started to write stories on-line, some hoping to become professional authors while others write for fun.

   "We are living in an era in which the act of writing is no longer exclusive to professional writers," says literary critic Park Jin. "The same phenomenon applies to critics. The general public and journalists are now working as culture and literary critics, feeling confident enough to write their own thoughts and stories and share them with others."

   On a creative writing blog run by on-line bookseller Aladdin, four "ordinary writers" are included among the 10 most popular authors. The blog, which opened in July, has 857 steady writers and is visited by some 12,000 people every day.

Lim Jung-bin, ranking fourth under the pen name Chasae, is a high school junior. He has been writing since middle school, specializing in crime novels.

   "I wanted to write something that will make my teenage years proud," he says in his on-line bio.

   Off-line communities of would-be writers are also catching up with this on-line phenomenon.

   Illustrator Lee Gang-hoon, who published his first novel "Tokyo Pulp Fiction" this year, says he got the "courage" to write a book through a gathering of amateur authors he leads.

   "Surprisingly, many people were interested in writing," he said, adding the group now has 10 members. "Three other people, including a government official, have been contacted by publishing houses and are waiting to get their stories published. It's interesting how people want to write about so many different issues."

   Yoon Sung-ae, a housewife and student at a local creative writing class, said she began to write "out of impulse."

   "I had a fight with my husband and he stormed out of the house late at night. I could not sleep and felt an urge to write something," she said. "It was half autobiographical, I guess, but not really a story about myself."

   A week after posting the story on a local Web site, Yoon found out no one had read it. Embarrassed, she erased the story right away, but the experience led the timid housewife to sign up for a creative writing class set up by Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

   "I realized I had always needed a space to pour out my emotions. Having married young and given up my career, I had forgotten how to handle or express emotions," she said.

   The late Lee Chung-joon, one of Korea's most influential novelists, once said those who are "unsuccessful in real life" tend to concentrate on writing.

   Literary critic Park agrees.

   "Angry and frustrated about their social status, poverty, unemployment or other issues, people began to write about their feelings and soon realized they were better at it than they had thought," he says.

   One piece of evidence supporting that theory is that the number of manuscripts entered into local writing competitions surged in 1998 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

   "Not only did people need a place to pour out their anger, many people without jobs began to think becoming an author was a way of putting bread on the table," said Kim Hyung-kyung, a novelist and lecturer at the HanKyoreh Literature Center.

   Likewise, the Wall Street-sparked financial crisis, which has left many small- and mid-tier Korean firms bankrupt and people without jobs since last fall, has resulted in an increased number of people hoping to become published authors.

   "I have seen many ordinary people becoming published authors. That led me to think I could actually make some money from writing, which would definitely help out the household under the current circumstances," said Yoon, the housewife.

   In 1997, 328 manuscripts were entered at Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.'s new author contest. The number surged to 1,000 in 2007. There are 1,075 manuscripts competing for Kyunghyang Daily's short story contest this year, three times the number entered in 2008.

   Consequently, the number of contests and the amount of prize money are both increasing. This year, publisher Wisdom House, broadcaster SBS and movie distributor Show Box co-sponsored a "multi-literature award" with offering a cash award of 100 million won (US$86,000). The first prize went to Kim E-hwan's "A Sphere of Despair," selected among 48 entries.

   Six local literary contests currently offer money award ranging from 50 million-100 million won. Most of the winning books -- "Style," "My Wife Got Married" and "Misil" -- have become local bestsellers and were made into movies and TV dramas, proving their power as top moneymakers.

   "Some contests do not pick winners because the entries lack newness," said literary critic Kim Jin. "The number of writers is increasing, but many tend to be trendy, and that's a downside to the phenomenon."

   "One thing is for sure," he added. "For better or worse, we will be seeing much more unfamiliar names in the bookstores."