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Reviews, Review Journals, and the New Review Culture

 

2021.12.06

 

More than 80,000 books are published each year. It means that about 200 books are released in the market every day. Some become bestsellers, and some vanish from the shelves in a few days. People that are "sincere" about reading books lose their way in the piles of new books, trying to figure out which book is good to read. Some people wait for the book column in a newspaper, some listen to book introductions on TV or radio, and some nod their head to the fancy wordplay of book-tubers on YouTube. However, as there is no appropriate or trustable guide, many readers feel as if they are trapped in Daedalus' Maze. Besides, there are voices arguing that there's actually no book to read, for there's no water to drink in a flood.

 

Recently in Korea, a small seed of hope has sprung up, that the new review culture will arrive, centered around a number of review journals.

 

Cool Reviews Become News: Seoul Review of Books

 

Books come to life with their own intrinsic value. Finding that value is up to the readers with sharp eyes, but readers lost in countless books need a small helping hand. Here, one of the helping hands is "review." The public has become familiar with reviews. The number of lectures and books on writing has increased gradually compared to not so long ago, and now there are review-writing classes and books, too. As books are for the readers, reviews written by keen readers are valuable as well. Reviews for readers, by readers, and for readers play a significant role in developing the book ecosystem.
However, for that to happen, the review-writing culture of "professionals" needs to spread beyond the level of those written by readers. Various types of reviews, such as those that help books about learning to communicate with the world, those that awaken classical books asleep in the old world, and those that read the flows in our society through common self-help books, are an important part in the book ecosystem, making it flourish. The problem is that no review plays this role in the best possible way.
Until recently, Korea did not have a decent review journal. Several newspapers declared that they would create a healthy reviewing culture by sparing a part of their newspaper for books, but they fell to merely introducing new titles, and some even opened the space for advertisement, on the pretext of introducing new books. Today, the book sections of newspapers are at their smallest size. Programs about books cannot be found on TV, and radio programs that would continue covering books closed one after another. How about book-tubes? As you may well know, apart from channels that are run by book-lovers, some book-tubers are doubted for making undisclosed advertisements of books.
It was then that a review journal was born. Starting with its premiere issue last year, Seoul Review of Books has published its 3rd issue in September. Created by 13 editors working in various sectors such as philosophy, history, literature, politics, and natural science, Seoul Review of Books was resolved to "devote everything they have to set up a trustworthy intellectual tradition and a new review culture in the Korean society," as can be seen on their preparatory issue. Thus, Seoul Review of Books, from its name already, pursues the path New York Review of Books (launched in 1963) and London Review of Books (launched in 1979) have been walking.

 

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Vol. 1-3, Seoul Review of Books

 

 

In fact, the New York Review of Books was a hot potato since its charter issue. The 100,000 copies sold out, and it was praised by The New Yorker, "Truly the best premiere issue among all others in history," and by Esquire, "The best literary magazine written in English." Magazine London Review of Books, more famous for its eco-bags in Korea, is also a seasoned magazine. It has been beloved by European intellectuals, touching various topics from literature, history, philosophy, art, politics, science, and technology.
Seoul Review of Books hoped to walk in the footsteps of the two magazines, as they "played a role of turning the books they covered into the milestone of intellectual history through reviews with an in-depth analysis and sophisticated texts." The magazine has been meeting readers in a new outfit, changing its title and design from its second issue. Yet, it seems that Seoul Review of Books still has a long way to go. It said it dreamed of "a world where awesome reviews become news as much as books," but no such thing has happened yet.

 

A Review Journal Crossing the Boundaries: Gyocha

 

It seems like it was only a few days ago that we talked about the end of magazines, but now, the magazine market is almost like the "contentions of a hundred schools of thought," to exaggerate. While the golden age of independent magazines has come, another review journal was born. It is Gyocha, issued by publisher Itta last October. It seems that Gyocha decided to stick with one genre – academic books. The table of contents in its first issue makes it clear. Let alone classics such as Discourse on Inequality written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and For the Mourning of Mourning (Greenbee Books) by Jin Tae-Won, research professor at Sungkonghoe University, the journal covered books that were not even translated yet, such as Le monde des salons. Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Antoine Lilti, Fayard, 2005), Gender, Health, and Healing, 1250-1550 (Sara Ritchey, Sharon Strocchia ed., De Gruyter, 2020), and Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Bruno Latour, Oxford University Press, 2005).
In the preface of the premiere issue titled "From one crossroads to another," Park Dong-Su, a planning committee member, said, "Gyocha pursues to be a communal space where unfamiliar books come and go." He added, "It aims to stir curiosity about books that have crossed the boundaries and fields, present the coincidental experience of meeting charming books you didn't know, and provide another possibility of knowledge through in-depth reviews about classics that you have only heard of their titles."

 

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Premiere issue of Gyocha

 

 

The will to focus on academic books can be clearly shown in the premiere issue of Gyocha. The topic of its first issue was "Society of knowledge, knowledge of society," which unravels profound ideas "about knowledge, society, and the relationship between knowledge and society." It's different from its length compared to the reviews of new books which are about 10 manuscript papers long. Most reviews in the first issue of Gyocha range from as little as 80 manuscript pages to as much as 120 pages long. Longer reviews do not guarantee their quality, but they certainly distinguish themselves from other reviews, which can only include brief summaries and short comments.
The writers are interesting, too. If the members of the planning committee and writers of the Seoul Review of Books were mainly renowned figures, major writers of Gyocha are relatively young doctoral researchers in their 30s and 40s. Of course, not all young are the same. Still, they may feel a little less burdened to criticize a book by "crossing the boundaries from an individual's story to intellectual contemplation, from contemporary atmosphere to serious academic issues.” "If we show the course of an individual digesting a book, rather than an impressionistic criticism, readers who eagerly read books will be able to show similar reactions," said Kim Hyeon-Woo, president of Itta, in an interview with Hankook Ilbo. And for that, having young researchers as writers might not be a right and beautiful thing, but it is still a timely decision.
Of course, Gyocha has clear limitations. It releases a new issue every half a year. Even though it concentrates on academic books, it might be difficult to meet readers' needs with two issues a year, no matter how much academic books have fallen. To become a magazine that helps "one to walk from one crossroads to another," it seems that some measures, if not special, should be taken.

 

For the New Review Culture to Arrive

 

The launch of the Seoul Review of Books and Gyocha is indeed welcoming. However, it is too early to expect these magazines to take Korea's review culture to the next level. It's not about them lacking quality. It's just that the publishing market is undergoing an unprecedented slump – some say that it's the first time after the big bang, and it's for no one to know how much review journals that question the value and meaning of books can advance in the market. The fact that the past movements in the publishing and media industries to launch a review journal have all come to fail is stark proof of it.
Also, as books have even become volatile on Social Media today, nobody knows how far and how the heaviness of a review journal will reach among readers. However, we should not let go of the little hope waiting for a new review culture to arrive led by review journals. If reviews and review journals can play their given roles, they will be able to give new life to the dignity of books, the direction of society, and a brighter future for humanity.

 

 


Written by Jang Dong-Seok (Head of Department of Cultural Projects at Bookcity Culture Foundation, Publication Critic)

 

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Jang Dong-Seok (Head of Department of Cultural Projects at Bookcity Culture Foundation, Publication Critic)

#Review#Review Journal#Seoul Review of Books#Gyocha
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