What exactly is “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction”?

Please Look After Mom 2By Jae-Ha Kim
March 2, 2014

I was playing around on Facebook the other day when I noticed that it wanted me to “LIKE” Kyung-sook Shin’s Facebook page. Normally, I ignore all of FB’s suggestions. But I had interviewed her for my column a while back, so I headed over to check it out.

Shin wrote the bestselling book “Please Look After Mom.” The novel attracted so much attention in the author’s native Korea that it was translated and released in a couple dozen countries, including the United States.

Not everyone liked her book, which is understandable. But what was surprising was that NPR published a review that reeked of ethnocentrism.

This is how Maureen Corrigan began her critique:

Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt! How else to explain why “Please Look After Mom” … has already sold over one-million copies in her native South Korea?

What a stupid analogy.

How would she have explained America’s love affair with “The Bridges of Madison County”?  Does that mean Americans are drawn to poorly written books about married women having affairs with pensive photographers?

Certainly not. Clearly, some books resonate with readers for whatever reason. And we can all agree that a bestseller isn’t necessarily equivalent to quality work.

However, Corrigan’s review of Shin’s book was bizarrely mean-spirited and ignorant, dismissing the Mom in question as a “country bumpkin.” And while she exhibited little to no understanding of Korea or Koreans — and there’s no shame in that since it is a foreign culture to her — Corrigan had no problem mocking that society because it’s different from what she knows:

But the weird fascination of “Please Look After Mom” is its message — completely alien to our own therapeutic culture — that if one’s mother is miserable, it is indeed, the fault of her husband and her ungrateful children. As an American reader — indoctrinated in resolute messages about “boundaries” and “taking responsibility” — I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve for the breast-beating children.

Shin writes about something Corrigan can’t wrap her head around, but that doesn’t make it weird. I didn’t think it was necessary to state the obvious, but here we go. Earth to Corrigan: The world does not revolve around you. 

Though the novel wasn’t written with an American audience in mind, its subject matter of family ties and responsibilities isn’t isolated solely to Korea (though you wouldn’t know it from her review).

Corrigan’s kicker is unusual as well, and not in a good way. Instead of saying, “Nah, don’t buy this book,” she suggests readers purchase a memoir — one that has nothing to do with what she was paid to review:

Having just read Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir, “Just Kids,” for the second time, I’d urge you to pick her empowering female adventure tale about getting lost in the city instead. Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.


Since she read Smith’s book twice, Corrigan should’ve been aware that given the punk rock icon’s stance on racism and feminism, she probably wouldn’t want to be aligned with a reviewer who mocks another woman’s book as “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.”

What does that even mean, anyhow?

So, let’s circle back to Corrigan’s initial query as to how anyone could like this book. I’m guessing it wasn’t stupidity — but rather arrogance — that prevented her from considering the possibility that there was something Koreans related to that made the book so popular in the author’s homeland. Surely, many remembered what their families went through to adapt in a nation that went from third world poor to a rich country with cutting-edge technology in half a century.

And finally, becoming a parent means that you’ve come to the realization that there is someone you love more than yourself, regardless of how they feel about you.

One of the biggest flaws with Corrigan’s review is that she can’t possibly imagine a world in which this might be true.


Corrigan’s review was published three years ago and elicited predominantly negative comments on NPR’s website.

So, why am I writing about this now? Partly because I didn’t have time to address this when it came out. But mostly because that Facebook prompt reminded me about this controversy.

Thus far, Corrigan hasn’t addressed the issue or apologized for her poor choice of words.

A NPR rep did release a sorry/not sorry statement that was almost worse than Corrigan’s review: “I must admit I was surprised at the reaction. It didn’t occur to me that this phrase would be deeply offensive to some listeners, and I’m certain that was not the intention…. To repeat, no offense was intended.”

Ah yes. Well, there you have it.


© 2014 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved

Comments (5)

  1. Jenn G says:

    Wow . What a moron. Speechless .

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      I have no problem with the fact that she didn’t like the book. Hey, different strokes, right? But in her review, she said she was waiting for irony and comic relief. Why she would be waiting for comic relief in a novel that clearly wasn’t a comedy is beyond me. To me, it seemed the entire review was as showcase for her “wit,” and she failed.

  2. concorexhappiness2x says:

    Definitely a huge flaw! Really enjoy your posts now I want to read this book

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      It’s worth a read. I’d love to hear your take on it. It’s a little heartwrenching, though. 🙁 And thank you for enjoying my posts. ♥♥♥♥♥♥

  3. jaeun2 says:

    i just read your post. ugh. how distasteful of npr and corrigan. and how disappointing. i’m glad you wrote about it even though it happened three years ago. i didn’t know until now. i’m also interested in reading this book.. putting it on my reading list.

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