I’ve read a lot of novels focused on K-pop in the last few weeks. Ten novels, alongside an accompanying Christmas themed novelette. Together they serve as a kind of sub-genre, even as they stretch from young adult feel good stories to erotic novels designed primarily for titillation. For the purposes of this piece, I selected some based on their popularity and how often they are recommended as “K-pop novels,” for others I simply went by cover art that looked enticing. The novels covered are Comeback by Lyn Ashwood and Rachel Rose, Dae by Lisa Lee, Christmas TiME by Lisa Lee, Idol Thoughts by J.S. Lee, Onyx: Truth by J.S. Lee, Trick of the Spotlight: A K-Pop Drama by M.L. East, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, XOXO by Axie Oh, Shine by Jessica Jung, The Vampire’s Scholar by Megan Lish, and The Werewolf’s Musician by Megan Lish.
K-pop novels are not a monolith and these books span bookstore aisles. The Werewolf’s Musician, a story about a down-on-her-luck heiress helping to compose a new funereal K-pop album with a rapping werewolf, and XOXO, an earnest young adult coming of age tale about falling in love with what amounts to a modern Prince, are certainly different genres targeted at different audiences. But all claim to be K-pop. So what does being a K-pop novel mean?
Romance isn’t specific to the K-pop novel. The K-pop industry makes for a good basis for a dramatic romance novel. There’s the pressure and the secrecy. Korean idols “don’t date” and when they do, it is in secret. A very public example of this is in the secret marriage of Seo Taiji and actress E Ji-ah whose marriage only became visible to the public during their divorce proceedings. JYP Entertainment (whose acts include Stray Kids, Twice, GOT7, and Day6) has gone on record to say that trainees aren’t allowed to date for 3 years. The success of these measures are questionable — GOT7’s Jackson Wang has said publicly that the best way to learn Korean is through dating. There can be a lot of fallout when idols go public with their relationships, like EXO’s Baekhyun getting called a traitor during a live performance and then fans trying to have him expelled from EXO by petition.
But aside from secret romance, you can’t forget the massive money in the industry. The Korean music industry is a multi-billion dollar one, even leaving out the glitz and glamour of performance and fashion and inhumanly gorgeous people. There’s the deeply capitalist idea that if you work incredibly hard, you deserve to succeed, and that’s something that is frequently reinforced in K-pop novels. When you combine the subterfuge and drama of secret romance with the reward of luxury and fame, it’s the perfect setting for a fictional romance.
Every one of these books have a romance in secret – the two by J.S. Lee are “reverse harem” romance novels, which means the female lead is part of a relationship with multiple partners, so the women in question are actually in secret relationships with most of the band members. In The Vampire’s Scholar, which practically opens with a marriage between our male and female lead, her identity as his wife is kept secret several times at public events. Even in the cases where the female lead is an idol/idol trainee (Trick of the Spotlight, Shine) there’s still a clandestine romance with a male idol. In some cases, these relationships are tacitly approved by upper management (Trick of the Spotlight is probably the best example of this). But even if someone knows, they’re usually a secret from the public, from the other band members, and from the company management as well. Probably the most positive take on the secrecy and no-dating thing is from Axie Oh’s XOXO:
“It’s a great honor to be an idol. You’ve achieved a dream that so many people want as well. But that’s only the beginning. You have to work hard to release good music, maintain your image and brand, perform well, win awards, top charts, hold fan signings, go on variety shows, support your group members’ solo activities, have your own solo activities…” She stops, catching her breath. “When you add another person into the mix, some people think that takes away from all of that. Like you have a person who is more important than all those other things, a part of your life you’re not sharing, when, as an idol, you agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”
But ultimately this “secret relationship” is toxic. There is a surreality to it, a looming threat of discovery, ever-present in almost every one of these novels–and backed up in reality. Clandestine meetings. Dates where both parties are in disguise. Papers suddenly revealing the existence of the relationship and social media accounts being bombarded with hate.
These K-pop novels were also surprisingly heterosexual. I know that not all fanfiction translates to canon fiction, but a lot of the writers of these novels expressed, in their publicly available bios, that they were members of ARMY (BTS fans)–and most of the written content for BTS fandom is gay. For example, out of the 153,530 words on Archive of Our Own, only 7,336 feature a “reader character” (usually presumed female; these characters are part of second person narratives labeled like Kim Taehyung | V/Reader, etc.), 203 are tagged “heterosexuality,” and a mere 45 are tagged “heterosexual sex.” Fanfiction is often used as a vehicle for fans to explore the relationship between these band members, boys who live together and are not allowed to date, spend all of their time with each other, and who are under surveillance for most of their waking and sleeping lives (just look at the sheer quantity of BTS reality TV shows.) All of the novels covered in this article cover fictional bands so there might be something different to when you have to create band members from scratch, but these novels don’t even try, focusing on external love instead of inter-band dynamics. Most of the offerings for K-pop novels are instead about young women finding their way into relationships with male idols. Despite the fact that there’s no such thing as a heterosexual vampire, even The Vampire’s Scholar featured a heterosexual relationship between an American girl and a male (immortal) idol..
Most of the media I consume is queer and most of these books decidedly aren’t (the two romantic leads in I’ll Be the One are bisexual). These books overflow with toxic heteronormativity. Men punch walls when they’re mad – this happens in a few books, actually, but I noticed it first in Comeback. Acts of affection between men are treated as “gay” – in Dae, it’s outright explained that the group became more physically affectionate with each other because two of their members were in a closeted romance and “their–touchy-feely might seem–more than–friends, more than brothers.” The romances are frequently deeply problematic. Part of that comes in the form of tropes relying on famous person/fan dynamics, an inherently imbalanced relationship.
Trick of the Spotlight, attempts a more queer friendly romance, but ultimately gets complicated in the execution (strong trigger warnings for attempted suicide and gay outing). Kit Allister is a white girl from Ohio who is a superfan of the K-pop group Vortex, so much so that while struggling to make ends meet as a barista she records a cover of their hit song and it goes viral. She is recruited by their company to come all the way to Korea to become an idol. Yes, this is that kind of book. Where this gets complicated (and, spoilers for Trick of the Spotlight,) is that Kit was brought to Korea under false pretenses. It turns out that a little bit before she recorded her cover, the band’s leader Oh Saichi was having a crisis of sexuality with another member of the band, and the two of them got drunk and made out. Oh Saichi was ultimately rebuffed by his fellow performer, and in his agony attempted to kill himself. The only thing that brought him out of his funk was Kit’s cover, so in an attempt to bring back Saichi from his suicidal ideation, his company hired a completely unknown college dropout from Ohio (Kit) to make her an idol. Saichi and Kit have a relationship and the book goes out of its way to establish his bisexuality, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that the company effectively hired a woman from across the world to (without her knowledge) function as a beard for its most successful act. The book culminates in a fight that leaves Kit hospitalized (she falls through a table), Saichi and Kit split up, and Kit engaged to a different member of the band. Her relationship status is frequently treated as a tool, which makes her relationship with Saichi seem even more mercenary and illegitimate.
A well written romance can certainly include problematic elements. Compare to my current read, a gay Chinese webnovel A Clear and Muddy Loss of Love (JWQS), which has a deeply problematic romance between two women where one of the women is intent on destroying the other’s family and empire. But a writer using fiction to grapple with imbalance power dynamics in interesting ways is one thing, and a horribly depressed teenager meets her favorite K-pop idol as he angrily punches a concrete barrier and they fall in love is another, and unfortunately rarely do these two meet. I don’t think all of these writers recognize the problematic plot points in these works.
A lot of these books, for example, deal with disordered eating and fatphobia. This is mostly in the books tied to female idols, so Shine and I’ll Be the One, but it’s also present in Comeback. I’ll Be the One‘s primary character is a plus-sized Korean-American girl going through an idol reality television show, and dealing with fatphobia there. As a theme, Shine and Comeback seem entirely unaware of this. Shine, written by idol Jessica Jung (formerly from Girls Generation), is focused on weight and eating in an incredibly toxic fashion.
Shine probably deserves special mention as the only book on this list written by an actual K-pop idol, so deserves more attention for its insights into the industry—which are horrifying. The book is, in part, about the differences in the way that K-pop talent agencies handle men and women. one of the elements it brings up is weekly weigh-ins, to determine whether or not the female idols are keeping their weight down. This scene in particular, stands out: (strong trigger warnings for disordered eating, fatphobia)
tw: disordered eating
I was like “I couldn’t have stopped exactly on that terrible disordered eating scene” and then pulled up the book to discover that no I definitely did. pic.twitter.com/JHUqrBz3Bk
— concealed thread (@concealedthread) March 30, 2021
Mina is the principal antagonist for Shine. At one point she roofies the protagonist Rachel so that she will be late and ill for an important audition. She’s a terrible person. But in this case, the fat shaming is specifically used as a tool to belittle her, and to raise Rachel as someone worthy of praise. We’re about to get into hardcore eating disorder talk here but Rachel is, in the voice of the book, perceived as being better because she has the self-control to not gain a single pound in a week, something that is frankly not within her control. In this scene, she is held up as being better than Mina because Mina ate three slices of pizza. There’s a brief moment where she feels shame about gloating, but it’s passed over because Mina “deserves” this. She doesn’t, obviously, but it doesn’t seem clear that Jessica Jung understands this because this kind of language persists for the rest of the book. As the only idol among the authors, this scene and Jung not seeming to see it as abnormal or problematic, can provide a sort of sick insight into an industry built on beauty.
It’s not a surprise that all of these books treat the K-pop companies as the antagonist. They stand in the way of love, actively or passively, or (like in the case of Shine) they actively promote a culture of abusive behavior. While Shine’s principal antagonist is another female trainee, Mina is a personification of the company. Even in stories where the female lead is actively a part of management (in Idol Thoughts, the female lead is the daughter of the CEO of one such company) they are at odds with the company as a whole. Company actions are frequently seen as predatory and malicious.In The Werewolf’s Magician, one of the musicians explains the toxic relationship the bands have with their companies after the company attempts to re-sign them with a terrible contract:
We gave them everything. We slaved for days with little sleep. We were poked and prodded by makeup artists and hair stylists and clothing stylists. We were stalked and harassed, cyber bullied, and forced on stupid diets. And we endured it all without much complaint, but in the end when we were struggling, their reply was that contract.
These books, almost exclusively written by fans, identify K-pop studios as the great evil, the destroyer of creativity and the reason for the greater toxicity present in the lives of their stars. The book written by an actual industry insider is the one that is both the most negative, and the one that most clearly paints the corporate owners as malignant.
Despite these books having so little to do with each other – they vary wildly in terms of audience, genre, and quality – they have so much in common. Their differences were outweighed by the shared bounds of Korean pop music, honestly a thing that shouldn’t have made them so similar. Sure, nine different books about cowboys would have similarities in terms of leather and horses—but a lot of these novels shared themes outside of simply music. Do recurring themes of isolation and creative burnout just fit the genre, or do they express an undercurrent of the K-pop industry visible even to fans? Jason Lee, the male lead of Shine, just wants to express himself outside the bounds of his chosen style. Kit Allister (Trick of the Spotlight) feels that, once picked up by the K-pop train, she is crushed in a sea of artificiality, and that her voice was lost and that the songs she wanted to sing were lost as well. This is mirrored in actual K-pop artists is no coincidence (see documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, which has a section dedicated to one of Blackpink’s idols, Rosé, trying to record her own music that does not fit the Blackpink style). Most of the writers for K-pop novels don’t have connections to the industry, and are writing this as fans who have access to only the publicly available information. What they get from that is a sort of “fanon” (a shared impression of what is likely to be real, not based in actual canon/reality) of what it means to be a K-pop star. That impression, however near or far from the truth, translates its way down, telephone style, into all of these works.
There’s a shared universe to these novels, even if these bands will never perform together. All K-pop novel idols live in dorms; and while it is true that frequently idols will continue to live in dormitories for security and ease, they don’t always. Several of these novels, like Dae and Shine mention idol-only restaurants and bars, usually owned by current or former idols, where idols are safe to let their hair down. Several of these bands are either the biggest in the world, or they’ve recently fallen onto hard times because management doesn’t believe in them any longer. They are all functionally more like family than like coworkers.
Is any of this like how K-pop actually functions? Outside of Jessica Jung, none of these authors claim direct industry exposure, and a few of them appear to be like their main characters: white women from the American Midwest. The K-pop industry itself is transparent in a way that belies its opaque nature: you can watch one of BTS’s five reality shows, but you’re still ultimately being sold a commercial good. There’s an element of known artificiality to it, like professional wrestling, where the audience knows that there’s a performance adjacent to the performance they came to see. Kayfabe. The bandmates in Dae create a more touchy-feely persona to hide their queer members; Vortex in Trick of the Spotlight plays up a platonic friendship to seem queer to sell to their screaming fandom. The lines between reality and this artifice are frequently blurring.
A friend asked, in the lead up to writing this, what was the difference between an idol and a Prince? If you took out the idol from any of these books and replaced him with a Prince, would anything substantial change? The answer seems to be yes. There is something intrinsic, tied to their core, about them that is K-pop. These characters are not merely the most beautiful, desirable men around, held on a pedestal by consequence of birth. They are hard workers and dreamers — the ideal that fans have set for their K-pop idols. It’s not so hard to fall in love with them.
Do you actually want to read a K-pop novel? The book I’d most recommend from this deep-dive into K-pop novels is XOXO by Axie Oh, which I received as an advanced reader copy through HarperTeen, and is available July 13, 2021. I don’t write calls to purchase something or preorder it, I am doing so in this case because it is actually a pretty solid take on the genre with an ensemble cast of interesting characters. If you want well-written boy band dynamics with solid dialogue, characters written with actual care and distinction, and a drama that builds realistically, give it a try. You can pre-order XOXO by Axie Oh using our Bookshop affiliate code.
If there is a K-pop novel that you think I missed out on, feel free to bother me on Twitter about it.