I'm reading Michael Breen's The Koreans: Who They are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies (Thomas Dunne Books, 1998. Revised, 2004.)
The book is sold as "[a] splendid work of explication and analysis" for and about Korea and Koreans. If I were Korean, I'd hate these books.
Maybe it's an easy critique to make, but Breen's writing is one moment fair and the next paternalistic, patronizing. He's aware of this and the book, so far, has several sentences sprinkling his intent not to be that way. When a writer has to tell his readers what he's not intending to do, then he needs to reconsider focus, direction, or genre. To be fair, much important work in writing represents an author's failure to accomplish his or her intent.
I don't mind anecdote and memoir, nor do I mind the critical analysis that often accompanies firsthand accounts of other cultures. Breen's observations are not trite. They are complex and careful, though often digressive.
As a reader, I do mind when interesting and anecdotal travel writing poses as vital cultural discourse and attempts to sell an author's illustration and caricaturization of an entire culture to his readers as authoritative vis-a-vis the author's own culture's view of the world and the subjects in his work. Breen is offered expert status on Korea and Koreans because he's an expat journalist who has extensively covered Korean business and politics. I'll write more about this in the coming days, but I can't shake this: when a foreign business and politics journalist claims he knows about the everyday lives of everyday Koreans, he's completely full of shit and gravitas.
It's not that foreigners shouldn't write Chapters on Korea, as Breen does, entitled "Korean Heart". Do share with your Western readers what you've decided is so complex about Korean passions and intellect: how, even though you admit you can't understand it, you have something valuable to say about it. Nothing at all wrong with the attempt. What's improper is the uncritical acceptance and implementation of a mindless binary about Western and Eastern consciousness that itself is based upon a complex series of mutual misrepresentations and generalizations about several cultures. It's as if the binary opposition is in itself an excuse for painting not one but all cultures with broad brush strokes for the purpose of making some rather simple points about other people appear poignant and complex.
Sounds like I am really having a go at Breen, doesn't it? I don't know about that. I'm dissatisfied with the state of intellectual discourse in books about Korea. I think he's a talented writer. It's clear he cares about Korea. I suppose I don't know what to do with his book. I guess I find it intellectually lazy. I'm reviewing it right now and yanking passages to illustrate my points. So, more to come shortly.