Not too long ago, I discovered light novels. While still not my usual fare, and the range of quality can be extremely broad, I found some of them to be a lot of fun, appealing to my pulpy tastes, sometimes geeky, and certainly a nice bit of variety sprinkled into my reading. I often chose some of the books based on their anime adaptations–wanting to get more information, or “read ahead” in a story where the next season might not be released for two or three years.
I consider myself kind of a newcomer to light novels (or LNs), but I was a fan of the anime series Record of Lodoss War waaaay back when it was relatively new (at least new here in the U.S.). It was effectively one of the originators of the modern light novel (and web novel) from the late 1980s. Record of Lodoss War began as transcripts / retellings of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, serialized in a Japanese magazine. As its popularity grew, these adventures were rewritten as short novels, and as manga (comics), and developed into anime… as well as being turned into RPG supplements and licensed for games and other merchandise.
The term “light novel” was coined in the late 1970s, adopting the English words to describe these short, pulpy, fast-paced books. The smart thing here on the marketing side was NOT to label it according to its target market demographic (which was primarily young adult males), which would have limited its appeal outside that group and limited the types of books written. Luckily, we have light novels written today that appeal across a somewhat broader spectrum, including those oriented toward a more adult audience and female readers. Still, a large percentage of light novels are written for teenaged males. I’d call this a good thing, as Japan hasn’t experienced quite the drop in male readers after age 12 that we have in the U.S.
Anyway, more marketing geniuses went to work in Japan, and realized that LNs were a good entry point to test out a new Intellectual Property (IP) and see how much they could exploit it. With some quality illustrations, they could see how well the prose sold. If it sells well, they could turn it into manga. If the manga does well, they can start expanding it to merchandising, anime, and even live-action films.
The publishers have even discovered that they can reduce even more risk by starting with a known Web Novel property. These web novels (WNs) are serialized stories on certain websites, updated frequently and often going for hundreds of chapters. The publishers have found they can acquire the rights to these stories, have the author rewrite them, and have enough material to generate several books. Many of the LNs from Asia have the flavor of a web novel as a result–written with high action and shorter cycles of action to appeal to a weekly audience, even though they’ve taken a new structure. These stories are also written with manga adaptations in mind, and given lengthy, oddly descriptive titles to gain attention in an ever-expanding sea of similar stories.
So you have some light novel series with titles like:
That Time I Was Reincarnated as a Slime
Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai
Full-Clearing Another World Under a Goddess With Zero Followers
Failure Frame: I Became the Strongest and Annihilated Everything with Low-Level Spells
Min-Maxing My TRPG Build in Another World
Banished from the Hero’s Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside
Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit, Multi-Target Attacks?
Made in Japan?
While the style as we know it originated in Japan, light novels have been coming out of Korea and China as well. Due to the rising popularity to Western audiences, we’re seeing several Light-Novel-style series appearing in the U.S. and Europe as well. While some of the translators are quite good, it’s nice to read LNs written by native English speakers as well.
Light Novel Features
The upper bounds of length have changed as well, and many LNs would be reasonably full-length novels by modern counts. I haven’t seen anything yet that would put the typical, sprawling epic fantasy novel to shame, but six-digit word counts are not that uncommon. Still, LNs will often come in a little on the shorter side of a “typical” genre novel.
LNs typically have a pretty rapid pace, although this varies by author. This isn’t to say they are action-oriented. Like anime and manga, these stories may be simple slice-of-life narratives, romantic comedies, or may simply feature a non-action-oriented main character. You can almost think of them as prose-based manga / comics, borrowing tropes and flow from the more visual media. Even if they are more full-length, the fast pace makes them feel like fast reads.
Readers expect a light novel to contain some illustrations, usually in the manga style. Light novels will typically have some slick, full-color illustrations of the characters and perhaps key scenes tucked into the front and back of the book. Some will also have black-and-white (or, more rarely, color) illustrations scattered occasionally within the text. Overall, I’d say the limited illustrations are a key feature of light novels.
The Rising of … the Light Novel
Light Novels have increased in popularity in the west since around 2010 or so. Why? That’s a matter of some speculation. Maybe it was marketing. It could have something to do with how accessible and quick they were to read. Maybe it was the failure of mainstream western publishers to address the needs of a significant portion of their audience. Perhaps it corresponds to the rising popularity in the west of Japanese and Korean anime, manga, and TV shows, or the answer includes a rising interest in eastern culture.
I can only speak for my own experiences, as I mentioned in the first paragraph. They are (generally) short and entertaining. I can’t call them a guilty pleasure, because I feel no guilt reading them. While perhaps not always the best writing from a wordsmithing perspective, a lot of them have been through the refiner’s fire of web-novels and have hard-earned storytelling chops. While not for everyone, even fans of fast-paced genre fiction, they can be worth checking out.