Is the NPR Review of Please Look After Mom Racist?

Dear Korean,

Have you seen this review of Kyung-sook Shin's
Please Look After Mom? Besides the offensive comment at the bottom about "kimchee-scented Kleenex," it took me a little while to articulate why this review was so triggering for me. I understand that Corrigan doesn't seem to like books that are marketed toward a mass audience and/or books that seem to be written for the sole purpose of making readers cry. And she's entitled to her preferences, although I do think they're rather culturally elitist. However I think her criticisms come from a place of little to no understanding of Korean history or culture -- I mean, this book has han practically emanating from the pages with little odor lines -- which prevents her from seeing what she condescendingly calls a "Korean soap opera" in its full context. She also seems to attribute much of the novel's perceived faults to Korean literature as a whole.

But I would love to see what you think, and if you believe I've over-analyzed this.


First of all, the Korean encourages everyone to first read the review written by Maureen Corrigan. Outrage is one of the most powerful forces available to the humankind, and also one of the most misused. If something appears to deserve our outrage, the least we should do is to have the full set of facts. Also, one big caveat before we start: The Korean did not read Please Look After Mom. As he is not much of a novel reader, he does not intend to. But he is aware of the approximate outlines of the story enough to discuss Corrigan's review of PLAM. So off we go.

Seems like there are two relevant questions coming out of Corrigan's review: (1) Is Corrigan's use of the phrase "kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction" racist? and; (2) What, if anything, is wrong with Corrigan's review? The Korean will address each in turn.


First, the notorious last line of Corrigan's review that set Korean American blogosphere ablaze -- what exactly is offensive about "kimchee-scented," if it is at all offensive? Recall that this is not the first time this blog dealt with this type of situation. This situation is reminiscent of the outrage over a Super Bowl commercial featuring Pandas speaking in ungrammatical sentences with vague Chinese accent. And the Korean thought the charges of racism there was unwarranted:
Pandas are from China. There is no dispute about this. So why is it so weird to have Panda speaking Chinese accent? And if a cartoon Panda speaks in Chinese accent, why must we demand it to speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences? 
So, the same logic right? Koreans don't just eat kimchi; they flaunt the fact that they do. In that case, what is wrong with calling a novel from Korea "kimchee[sic]-scented"? Nothing wrong, right?

But no -- not the same logic at all. To understand the difference, consider this hypothetical: is it offensive to call South Asians "dot heads"? Most people would intuitively say it is, but the reason is somewhat difficult to articulate. There is no dispute that South Asians often put on bindi, a dot-like decoration on their foreheads. And there is nothing to be embarrassed about wearing a bindi -- it is customary to wear a bindi, and the decoration is often quite beautiful. Then why is "dot head" offensive?

Here is why: we are not offended by words, but by intentions behind the words. What is offensive is not the words "dot" and "head." What is offensive is the ugly intent to ridicule by the users of those words. Regardless of the dictionary definition of the words "dot" and "head," the use of the words "dot head" indicates a certain mindset about the utterer of those words. That mindset is where the offense lies. For the same reason, calling an African American "black" is hardly offensive, but calling an African American "darkie" is pretty offensive. Again, it does not matter that the words "black" and "darkie" have approximately the same meaning. What matters is the mindset that makes one choose the word "darkie" over "black."

It should go without saying that the use of the words "dot head" and "darkie" are also racist. It is no defense to say that "dot head" and "darkie" are plain statements of fact, because it is not those facts that are offensive. What is offensive is the willingness to ridicule by pointing out the difference that is unique to a race. Such willingness necessarily implies a sense of racial superiority. Using a racial characteristic as a put-down of another necessarily means one's relative elevation of status by virtue of one's race. That is the dictionary definition of racism.

More after the jump.

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Having said all this, the question again: Is Maureen Corrigan's use of the term "kimchee [sic]-scented" racist?

Yes. It is obvious from the review that Corrigan is no fan of PLAM. Further, as discussed further below, the reason why Corrigan disliked PLAM is intertwined with the fact that the novel is of Korean origin. The message of PLAM, according to Corrigan, is "completely alien to our own therapeutic culture" and incomprehensible to her, "an American reader indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'". By asking "why wallow in cross-cultural self-pity, ladies?" Corrigan is saying: "It is bad enough that women indulge in this kind of tear-jerker novels. Why do we have to seek out those novels from Korea?" And she delivers her coup d'grace at the end to drive the point home, that this novel cannot be taken seriously.

Did Corrigan want to put down and belittle PLAM? Absolutely. Did she use a racial characteristic to carry out that intention? Definitely. Then there is only one conclusion: that's racist.


Second, what is wrong with Corrigan's review, if at all?

Corrigan's beef with PLAM is plainly stated in her review: she dislikes a novel that involves motherly guilt trip, which elicits strong emotional response, often accompanied by tears. There is nothing wrong with having that kind of preference. Competent criticism requires a strongly developed sense of taste. But make no mistake about it -- Corrigan's review is lazy, ignorant and arrogant.

Corrigan's review is lazy because she is demanding that PLAM cater to her own particular taste without informing the readers whose tastes to which PLAM is designed to cater. Again, there is nothing wrong with disliking a novel that does not deal with woman's empowerment. But PLAM's purpose was clearly not to speak of woman's empowerment. Its purpose was to explore mother's relationship with her husband and children, in a deeply emotional manner. And given its wild success in Korea as well as in the U.S. (the English version of the novel is in its fifth print,) apparently PLAM is achieving that purpose rather well.

Then why isn't Corrigan speaking about that purpose? In what area can a critic get away with something like this?  Does a movie critic, even with a penchant for philosophy-heavy movies, ever complain that there is no deep philosophical reflection in Napoleon Dynamite? Would a restaurant critic ever mark down Del Posto because Mario Battali's restaurant does not serve smoked tea duck, no matter how much the critic likes smoked tea duck? Will we ever see a gadget critic who write a scathing review of a toaster because it does not send emails like the critic wanted to?

You are not doing your job as a literary critic if, at the end of the day, all you can say about the novel is: "The novel did not suit my taste, and I don't understand people who do not share my taste." (Corrigan is plain about the fact that she does not understand people who do not share her taste. She wrote: "I'm mystified as to why this guilt-laden morality tale has become such a sensation in Korea and why a literary house like Knopf would embrace it.") Through a book review, people are trying to get information about the book, not your preferences. To be sure, the critic can -- and must -- have her own preferences of literature. She can even work in her preference in a review. But she cannot let her preference utterly dominate the review, and wonder why people do not share her preference. In her review, Corrigan is being a lazy critic because she does not bother to explore beyond her own preference. Instead of doing her job, Corrigan chose to be ignorant.

The same characteristic also makes Corrigan's review arrogant. Questioner T suggests that maybe if Corrigan was more fully aware of the culture context in which the novel is set, she would have understood the impetus of the novel better. The Korean is not sure about that. Corrigan is undoubtedly familiar with Western culture, but still looks down upon the "immortal weepies of the western canon." Her preferences are set, and she will shoot down anything that does not fit them with snark -- and racist snark, when she deems appropriate.

Again, it is fine for Corrigan to have strong preferences. But demanding that everyone share her preference? That is arrogant. Particularly obnoxious is the way in which Corrigan talks down to women who like "manipulative sob sister melodrama" that is beneath a dignified publishing house like Knopf. Of all the range of emotions available through art, apparently a sense of pride through empowerment is acceptable, while a sense of deep reflection that brings tears to one's eyes is not ok. This is obnoxious elitism in its purest form.

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