Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beyond Good and Evil: Kdrama, Blogging, and Purpose

Fanfic got Shi Won into college, after all...

I recently finished reading the book Everything Bad Is Good for You by Stephen Johnson. In it, Johnson argues that our engagement with modern pop culture actually makes us smarter, more alert, and more capable when it comes to problem solving—all of which sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, but still holds some merit as far as I’m concerned. For proof, look no further than my obsession with Kdrama. Hour by hour, episode by episode, I’m leaning the Korean language practically by osmosis. I’m discovering a culture I never once thought about before, and I’m coming to understand more of the limitless ways that life can be lived on planet earth.

These are some pretty impressive developments, especially considering that television soap operas are their catalyst. I also have Kdrama to thank for one more thing: I haven’t written this much or this regularly for years. And when I did write, my words were in service of an employer rather than myself. The daily grind of being a grown-up made me forget about the English degree I earned once upon a time, and that I used to dream about writing books when I was a kid. I’d even lost sight of what a thrill it can be to have something to write and know I can write it well. This is an experience I suspect many civilians live their entire lives without having; there are only a few people who actually make their living writing, after all, and people who aren’t obsessed with the Internet don’t have much call for lengthy critical analyses of their favorite show or think-pieces about gender-bending in Asian dramas. (Poor things.)

(Of course, there is a flip side to that thrill: the times when writing a paragraph seems more difficult than building a space ship from items in my kitchen’s junk drawer and using it to travel to Mars. On those days I can write and erase a single sentence twenty or thirty times, with my mood becoming less and less pleasant every time I hit the delete key. But writing fails are the price all of us pay for writing successes. Without the first, the second couldn’t exist.)

Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s having my horizons broadened by Korean dramas. As I surf around in search of new sites to include on my list of Kdrama links, I’m always impressed by the variety and quality of writing there is out there. From the short to the long, from the funny to the serious, blog posts are as unique as fingerprints and just as varied. I’ve come across two discussions that touch on this lately: The first was an article on My Drama List that poked gentle fun at a number of different review styles, and the second was a longer piece offering blogging advice at Thundie’s Prattle.

It actually took months of blogging to settle on a review format that worked for me, and hopefully works for the people who read this site. My raw materials were my own preferences: When I read a review I don’t want to be told every little thing. A quick introduction to the facts is helpful, but there’s no need for a full cast list or an exhaustive outline of every single plot detail. (That’s what dramawikis and streaming sites are for.) What I’m really looking for is the writer’s own opinion of the show, and whatever new perspectives he or she has to offer about it. I don’t even mind writers who include spoilers: I almost never read a blog post about or review of a show I haven’t already seen. I usually decide what to watch based on the general ratings and comments at Dramafever or Dramacrazy, but anything more in-depth than that waits until I’m caught up with watching. This might make me weird, but I read reviews to enrich my understanding of the show, not as a preview of what I’ll see if I decide to watch it.

The review format I eventually settled on is a bit of a cheat. I repeat specific categories so I don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time I sit down to write, and also to sidestep actually crafting a single cohesive discussion of the show. Building bridges to get from one point to another is my least favorite part of writing, and thanks to my headings I never really have to do it. That work gets saved for the few shows I really love (or, theoretically, the few shows I really hate).

Because I’m a Hermione-style geek who feels the need to research everything ever, I also did a lot of reading of other people’s reviews when I was trying to formulate my own style. This was an opportunity to borrow what I liked and also helped me see what other people might find useful. (In retrospect, I hope my borrowing can be counted as taking inspiration and not plagiarizing.)

In my searching, I came across a few key types of blog posts that I really, really love reading.

The syllabus. When I was first exploring Kdrama, my ultimate source of guidance was the Dramabeans rating page. The show descriptions here are so short and to the point that you might actually think they’re easy to write—but I bet you’d be wrong. As millions of Twitter users know all to well, brevity is hard. But as Shakespeare knew first, it’s also the soul of wit. Take Javabeans’ rating of the 2007 drama Air City: “Hot boys. Cold plot.” That kind of dispassionate restraint is hard, but these four words tell us all we need to know about the show. Whether they’re accurate, I couldn’t actually say: I took them to heart and skipped that drama altogether.

The lab report. Some bloggers have literally turned reviewing into a science. Their reviews are full of graphs and complicated rating systems based on mathematical formulas that would make my old algebra teacher swoon with delight. Built around empirical backbones, these posts are straightforward and easy to navigate, and allow both writer and reader to focus on their particular points of interest. They also invite readers to compare dramas category by category and provide a standard format that can be expected from each new review. For particularly deft examples of this species, see any of the reviews at Daily KTJ Drama and Kdrama Guk (which seems to be inactive these days, sadly).

The doctoral dissertation. Lengthy, insightful, and prone to referencing Foucault, reviews falling into this category are rare for good reason: they take forever to write and conceive. They plumb every smile and plot twist for meaning and significance, and can open your eyes to unimagined nuances in the simplest of scenes. As far as I'm concerned, there’s no pleasure like reading a downright scholarly discussion of a great show, like the ones found on Idle Revelry, The Vault, Mihansa, and High Yellow.

Like everything else in life, being obsessed with Korean drama is a mixed bag. I would get more exercise if I’d never discovered Drama Fever, but I probably wouldn’t be doing as much writing. While this blogging business doesn’t use my quads, it does give the critical thought center of my brain quite the workout—which is what I value more, anyway. Ultimately, blogging is hard work. It requires thought and effort and time, but its rewards can be pretty amazing: There’s the pleasure of being another voice in the communal discussion of something you love, and the ability to meet likeminded people from around the world. 

And who knows? Maybe it also refines our thinking and makes us smarter, just as Everything Bad Is Good for You would have us believe.

*** *** ***

When I first started reading Kdrama blogs, it amazed me that so many people had so many different things to say about the very same episodes. To appreciate the variety (and as an excuse to think more about my favorite show of all time), I went through the sites included on my list of Kdrama links and searched for posts devoted to Coffee Prince

Here’s what I found.

• Crazy for Kdrama: Coffee Prince Review
• Dahee’s Plastic Castle: 호점 Review
• Dangermousie: Coffee Prince Ramblings
• Ginkgohill: Coffee Prince Review
• Korean Drama Ratings: Coffee Prince
• K-What?: Coffee Prince
• Oishiithoughts: Coffee Prince Review
• Outside Seoul: Drama Review: Coffee Prince


  1. I've been drama-blogging for almost exactly a year now and while I can't say every hour in front of a computer screen has been put to good use, I do think blogging has broadened my mind, improved my English vocabulary and made me actually think about the shows/movies I watch. Writing has also become something that I enjoy doing. Though, I do know I'm hardly at the same level as many other drama-bloggers around the web. It's hard to write in another language about shows that are in a third language, but I'm happy the way I'm doing. When it comes to veteran bloggers I am constantly surprised how insightful they are with their deep character analyses, connections to history and mythology, and explanations of cultural backgrounds. I swear, Dramabeans has made me a smarter person, and not just about Korean culture.
    My review format, I think, is a little bit on the confusing side and there have been times when I want to change it. But I always come to the conclusion that it's best to stick to my personal format, and improve it in time. I do have to agree that Dramabeans' short and poignant ratings are the best. They don't spoil anyhting and are perfect to check out before you're gonna watch something. I also love KDrama Guk's reviews and your unique format.
    And I'm with you on reading reviews after watching the show. I always do that, just so I didn't miss anything important or just to know how the drama was from another perspective. I usually avoid all spoilers so I never read reviews before, only perhaps to see the final rating.

    1. Wait...are you not a native speaker of English? I never, ever would have guessed based on the writing at your blog, which reads just as well as anything produced by someone who grew up speaking English. I like your reviews—you're one of the "lab report" writers who uses headings wisely. I especially enjoy the quotes you sometimes include. As a viewer I find it easy to miss things like that; I get so tied up in reading the subtitles that I don't really think about what they're saying as much as I should.

      Dramabeans University has definitely improved my brain, too ;) They manage to make it look easy, but every single recap they post is insightful and clever and often beautifully worded. The Vault is another site like that—the author's historical and cultural perspective is completely different from mine, so reading it helps open my eyes to aspects of dramas I would never consider on my own.

    2. I guess it's not glaringly obvious (thankfully) that English isn't my first language, but I do occasionally mention it every now and then. I do have trouble wording my thoughts sometimes, thinking whether it makes sense in English. And punctuation is one of the things I find myself often battling with. But since blogging doesn't exactly require that much preciseness I think I'm safe.
      Yeah, I really wanted to include quotes when I realized that there aren't that many drama quotes sites out there. Especially about the dramas I care about. At first I thought it would be too random to add them to my reviews, but then I thought "what the hell, it's my blog".
      I don't follow The Vault that much, but I do think there are some really informative posts there. My blog looks like a fangirls diary next to it.

    3. It's not even a little obvious, I assure you.

  2. Amanda I was thiiiis close to starting my own blog last week, but then I couldn't come up with a tagline so I gave up... I think I'm depressed. My whole life (when I'm at home or sitting around a computer) revolves around Korea, KDrama, KPop, or reading blogs about Korea, KDrama or Kpop.. And not being able to communicate that with most of the people in my real life is starting to bug me, almost to the point where I'm seriously thinking I need an intervention.. I just can't relate to normal people anymore! Help! What do I do?? Besides, watch another drama... which, I'm still way too happy to do.. Lol

    1. I've been telling you for ages: Just do it! Blogging is fun, whether you have a tagline or not. My theory is that writing about Kdrama is a way to exorcise your obsession: you can write about whatever you want until your fingers turn black and blue, which then spares the people in your actual life from having to listen to your thoughts on the finer points of long-form dramas or what ingredients make a successful Kdrama cross-dresser. (Or that's my theory. I'm not sure that a survey of my friends would support the hypothesis.)

      And blogging can teach you all sorts of valuable things about using the Internet that can actually be of professional use, as an added bonus. The HTML I picked up during my years of Web writing has been invaluable in my actual job. So really, you'd be doing yourself a favor by blogging ;)

    2. So, as you might can tell.. that took a ridiculous amount of time to persuade me...*ahem* Here's my blog.. Lol

    3. ::applauds::

      Kdrama blogging really is the most contagious thing this side of the common cold ;)

  3. You have no idea how funny it is to find myself in the "downright scholarly" category. I kept my analytical aspect in the closet for months and stuck to the lighter side, afraid my readers would run screaming if I got all serious about TV.

    When I finally threw caution to the wind and decided to free my inner essayist, those turned out to be my most popular posts. But I still write sassy ones too, because I'm in this for the fun of it. For me, the biggest challenge of blogging has not been finding formats, but releasing myself from them.

    When I first visited Outside Seoul (great name, BTW) I was struck by how hard-working you are. It takes another blogger to understand how much effort it takes to put together a blog like yours.

    I often ponder (as we all do) what it is about Kdrama that inspires such a passionate commitment of time and energy from so many people. It's familiar, yet mysterious, raising questions that we're then impelled to answer. We all have friends who think we're nuts, but we do it anyway, and aren't sorry. There's something happening here, and although it may not be exactly clear just what, I'm with you, Amanda - I think it's good for us.

    1. As far as I'm concerned, sassy and scholarly is the perfect mix when it comes to blogging. (And, in fact, most other things in life.) The standard lighthearted news pieces and drama recaps you find on most Kdrama sites is all well and good, but Big Thoughts are what make for the best reading. I guess I'm not the only person to think that, either, because I've also been surprised to find that my serious, essay-ish posts are more popular than the casual ones.

      There's a fine line between "hard-working" and "obsessive," and I think I crossed it about six months ago. For me Korean drama is the perfect storm: I always approach things in a crazy, all-or-nothing way, and between the shows themselves and the community that's build up around them, it's hardly ever necessary to come up for air. To my peril ;)

    2. Same for me, perfect storm I mean. Psychology, ethics, justice, community, hierarchy, culture vs. nature, the urban/agrarian dichotomy, gender dynamics - everything I've cared about through the years is daily fare in Korean drama. And somewhere behind it that I can't quite reach yet, the cultural mentality that creates and consumes these fantasies.

      If I ever make it to the other side of the language wall, will it surprise me and look a lot like home? I worry about that sometimes, though I don't know why. There is no down side. Either way I'll learn something I didn't, and couldn't know before.

      That word, obsession keeps cropping up. I don't like it, with its implications of compulsion and precarious mental health. Do we apply it to ourselves because we are women, who don't feel entitled to follow our inclinations wholeheartedly and think it good (unless we are serving others)?

      I'm not obsessed, I'm passionate! Sounds a lot better, 네? :)

    3. I'm all for reclaiming the word "obsession." It seems to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who happily live average, everyday lives, and the ones who let their passions guide them to unexpected places. If being obsessive allows me to be latter, then sign me up.

      In general, I'm just really glad I came into the Kdrama fold: it's opened my eyes to a new world, and my own.

  4. Oh, one more thing - thanks so much for posting the link to The Perfect Review. That had me chuckling for hours!

  5. Yay!! I have never been more happy to be home!! I missed the internet so much!!

    I have actually been thinking about this a lot lately. Especially now that I have changed jobs and am desperately trying to teach 6, 7, and 8th graders to learn to write and not sound like robots regurgitating forced information. Blogging has really challenged me, because like you, I had not written anything but case studies and other college research papers in years. I used to love to write, and at one time was fairly good at it. But as I first began my blog I could see how much my writing had deteriorated over the years. Now that I am really teaching writing, it has caused me to be much more careful in my word choice and quality of late, and I'm really trying to practice what I preach, which is quite a stretch for my brain. I run half marathons for fun, but blogging is like a marathon for my brain and can be just as challenging.

    I love reading your blog and the other blogs I follow, and definitely enjoy the variety, insight, and camaraderie they provide. Congrats Sara on your new blog, you will have great fun with it!!!

    1. Welcome back to the world of the Internet! I don't think you missed much exciting news, but the trailers for the new YEH show are killing me. It looks like just the sort of melodramatic claptrap I love...I can't wait to watch it =X

      I know what you mean about approaching writing more seriously because of work—I've been reading an advance copy of this really funny, insightful style guide that makes me want to be a better writer. But those damn commas and adverbs kill me every time...

  6. I also haven't written anything in years, though I used to like to write as a kid. Since starting my own blog, I've definitely noticed that sometimes I can barely string a sentence together. I'm still in the process of trying to figure out my own review style. At the moment, I'm just winging it and throwing my first thoughts and feelings out there.

  7. That sounds like a really cool book, I'm totally putting it on my (admittedly massive) reading list.

    Personally I find your reviewing style really helpful; your reviews are succinct, funny and clever- I love that you add immediate thoughts you had while you were watching, since most reviews can't really account for all those absurd and or wonderful moments that make up a drama. It's nice to get an idea of what it feels like to watch a show separate from an idea of it being 'good' or 'bad' or whatever. There have been a few shows I've tracked down as a result of your reviews, and I haven't been disappointed so far. I'm also impressed at how well you manage to stick to your blogging schedule, I wish I could be as consistent as you!

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