The Good, Or Bad, Book

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I wrote this book because I wanted to tell the story of how I came to love living in Korea, and also out of a desire to preserve that country, as if in a jar of amber, as I found it in 2009, in the same way Herman Melville chose to write a novel rather than an encyclopedia about New England whaling in the middle of the nineteenth century. He did consider the latter option, and I have thought of pounding out a kind of Dictionary of Received Ideas (an assembly of cliches) for Korean Culture.

Because no work of art is ever finished—only given up—I can only say that I more-or-less finished this book several weeks ago, and have been waiting all this time to hear back from someone I know working for a famous agent, who has just informed me that the story isn’t cohesive or focused enough, that there are too many details, and that she had trouble connecting emotionally with the text. Ah, me. That is exactly what I was going for, and in this sense I have succeeded admirably in failing to write a sentimental book with ton of dialogue and an easy, Hollywood plot; to see how much Nabokov cared about plots, you can look at the first two sentences of Laughter In The Dark, which I will probably rip off one day despite never having read that book, or some of the whining about plots toward the end of his book on Gogol, or the entirety of Pale Fire, or even his memoir: Speak, Memory.

I can look at Flaubert and Borges and Joyce and Melville to justify this failure. Are these writers remembered for their stories, or their styles and details, their brilliance? The plots from all of Shakespeare’s plays were shamelessly copied from other sources. With Tolstoy it is different: even his most insignificant puppets breathe with a fully human life the moment your eyes stray over them, but in one of his breakout works, Sevastopol Stories, I think the details made him more famous than the plot. I try to imitate him regardless, but I think I have failed. Ridley Scott has a habit of making beautiful films with terrible stories and fine actors spouting endless drivel; Steven Spielberg is the one exception, as he is an artist who creates great stories and fills them with gorgeous emotions and images.

Here I try to prop myself up, but it is quite possible that this reviewer is correct, that the text is drowning in unnecessary detail, that I was too distant and dispassionate from the subject matter, that the people in the book are not alive, and that the plot goes nowhere.

One of two things, at any rate, is happening here: either I have failed to produce something good, or my tastes are different from everyone else, because this criticism about the story in my book has come from more than one respectable person. As I prepare myself to submit the fair copy to amazon and to the iBookstore, my heart pounding (seriously, I swear, pounding in my chest!), I brace myself for the failure I know to be coming: the paltry earnings, the lukewarm reviews (if any come at all), and the inevitable criticisms about too much detail, not enough plot or dialogue or character, too many racisms and generalizations, factual errors, boring digressions that go nowhere, and many more complaints that I cannot anticipate. People in Korea already know everything inside the book; people outside of Korea are not interested. Many of these criticisms are and will be completely valid. Few people, if any, will finish this text; none will recommend it, and although this is the first of three, each will quickly vanish into nothingness—but at least I will have taken the plunge, and published something, a dream I’ve had for many years!

My wife consoled me last night as I was getting over the disappointment, and declared that I was too advanced for my time. Maybe. Or, maybe not. I might just be a bad writer. She likes my writing but she hasn’t read the book; James Joyce had the same problem with Nora Barnacle.

Sometimes I’m afraid the pressure—arggh, too much pressure!—will turn me into the guy who made the Kony video:

He slept two hours in the first four days, producing a swirl of bizarre Twitter updates. He sent a link to “I Met the Walrus,” a short animated interview with John Lennon, urging followers to “start training your mind.” He sent a picture of his tattoo, TIMSHEL, a biblical word about man’s choice between good and evil. At one point he uploaded and commented on a digital photo of a text message from his mother. At another he compared his life to the mind-bending movieInception, “a dream inside a dream.”

On the eighth day of his strange, 21st-century vortex, he sent a final tweet—a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”—and walked back into the real world. He took off his clothes and went to the corner of a busy intersection near his home in San Diego, where he repeatedly slapped the concrete with both palms and ranted about the devil. This too became a viral video.

The book will be out in less than a week. Anyone who is interested in reviewing the book and publishing something—whether positive or negative—on your respective blogs or zines or whatever, please post a comment here with a (possibly) spam-proof email address (writing at instead of @ and dot com instead of .com, for example) and I’ll get you a free copy to read immediately.


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