What is a Light Novel? Part 2 – The non-Japanese View

Previously, we looked at how some Japanese try to define what a light novel is. Now, this time we’re going to look at how some non-Japanese have tried to define this style of book. I’m purposely not including my own definition because that will be covered in the third part of this series.

Ascendance of a Bookworm (Light Novel) - TV Tropes

Let’s start where most people do – Wikipedia!

light novel (ライトノベル, raito noberu) is a style of Japanese young adult novel primarily targeting high school and middle school students. The term “light novel” is a wasei-eigo, or a Japanese term formed from words in the English language. Light novels are often called ranobe (ラノベ) or, in English, LN. The average length of a light novel is about 50,000 words, close to the minimum expected for a Western novel, and they are usually published in bunkobon size (A6, 10.5 cm × 14.8 cm), often with dense publishing schedules.

Light novels are commonly illustrated in a manga art style, and are often adapted into manga and anime. While most light novels are published only as books, some have their chapters first serialized in anthology magazines before being collected, similar to how manga is published.

Wikipedia entry for Light Novels

What’s interesting about this definition is that it’s mostly a format definition with a little bit of reference to the target audience. It sidesteps the issue of content and just talks about how the light novels are presented and who they’re written for. Since the goal with Wikipedia is to be as factual as possible, this is probably a reasonable way for them to go. But it does mean this definition is a bit dry.

Let’s look at another, similar but more comprehensive definition…

In Japan, a light novel is a novella-type story printed in conjunction with illustrations. …Typically around 100 pages, Light novels are quick, easy reads with short paragraphs and a vocabulary easily grasped by teenagers and young adults. … So, A light novel (or Ranobe) is a style of Japanese novel typically not more than 40–50,000 words long, usually published in small-format paperback size. …
The typical distinguishing traits of light novels are that they are short (usually around 300 pages per volume) and contain manga-style illustrations. However, many regular novels have manga-style illustrations, while some light novels don’t have illustrations at all. Also, some light novels are absolute doorstoppers in size and density. When it comes to light novels, you’ll find exceptions to every rule. In other words, light novels are defined less by a distinct literary style or genre and more by their branding and marketing.

Fahim Ahmed, Introducing Light Novels

Fahim’s definition is similar to the Wikipedia definition, but does contain a few important facts and extra pieces of note. First, it mentions the short paragraphs and easy vocabulary of light novels, which is even more important in Japanese because of the use of kanji (Chinese characters) and avoiding difficult ones would make reading a faster experience. Also, the short paragraphs element is again something most of the Japanese definitions I found didn’t include, but is a well known light novel feature.

Next, he mentions the key idea that they may be considered more of a branding and marketing exercise than anything else. This fits in the with idea of light novels being targeted towards a specific audience, or often a specific audience within a specific audience. (Light novels fans of specific subgenres.)

In any case, this definition does a pretty good job of expanding on the Wikipedia definition; however, it is still a little light (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the actual content and to some degree the nature of target audience that these books are for. It’s mostly still a format definition, when it comes down to it.

So, what about a more reader-centered definition?

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash (Light Novel) Vol. 12 | Ao Jyumonji | Macmillan

A young writer who goes by the name Kazesenken whom I talked on Discord with recently had an interesting take that included the audience more in his definition…

“I’ve always thought of LNs as “pulp fiction” targeted to young adults that focus on entertaining as the primary objective, using artwork as a prop to draw the attention of prospective readers.”

Kazesenken

I think this one is worth breaking down to see what it tells us.

The Dangers of Formulas, Pulp Fiction and the Pressures of Self-Publishing  | XJ Selman

To start, thinking of them as “pulp fiction” is probably accurate, if you interpret pulp fiction as fiction presented with “eye-catching covers and dramatic, fast-paced, and simple stories,” as dictionary.com puts it. Kazesenken in himself said his interpretation was that “pulp fiction at its core was considered as stories that got your heart pumping, but literally written on the cheapest medium possible.” And, there’s no doubt the goal of a good light novel is to emotionally stimulate the reader as a form of entertainment.

I like this point because unlike many of the definitions I found, this one reminds us that entertaining the reader is the key goal, especially through giving them an emotional experience. And, he’s also right that the art is mostly there as a prop to make the books seem like easier and attractive reads – a little bit of marketing razzle-dazzle can go a long way, especially with young audiences.

There are a few issues with his definition, though. First, “pulp fiction” is a term that people still argue over the meaning of today, seventy years after its heyday. (And light novels are definitely not written on cheap paper, at least most of the time.) Second, it doesn’t mention the type of artwork, or the exact content of the book. If someone wrote a YA thriller that included a visually impressive cover and some interior artwork drawn like American comic book characters, it would fit his definition, but few would call it a light novel by modern standards. (Although it’s true that some proto-light novels in the 80s and 90s didn’t use modern anime style art, like Yoshitaka Amano’s art for Vampire Hunter D.)

Vampire Hunter D SC (2005-2020 Dark Horse/DMP Novel Series) comic books

What I notice about most definitions of light novels, however, is that they seem to try to avoid a lot of details which are probably important to think about- specifically that they’re really about the audience’s tastes. In this sense, I think Justus R. Stone might have one of the audience oriented perspectives on the subject I’ve seen…

Light novels are books for fans of other media like anime, manga and gaming which are written in a light, entertaining and accessible format, and which uses anime style covers and interior images.

Justus R. Stone, host of the light novel podcast and writer,
paraphrased from a podcast interview

Justus continues on to say…

My emphasis is mainly on the intended audience. There’s a reason otaku references, RPG mechanics, etc. are all persistent components of light novels. And that’s because they are a shared vocabulary between the authors and the fans. It’s how you can have a slice of life school life title and an isekai title both be light novels. Because in both cases they will probably involve school-aged kids who are into anime or gaming. They might even both use terms like “leveling up” or “stats” to describe characters and their growth. Ultimately, light novel is more a description of the intended reader than I think it is especially indicative of a specific style or genre.

All that said, I would still agree that it is written in an accessible style and uses anime/manga-style artwork. And again, I think that artwork serves as double duty to connect to the intended audience. I mean, even most JRPGs use anime/manga style art.

From a recent Discord exchange between myself and Justus where I asked if he still feels this way.

As you can read, Justus comes at this from a almost completely audience-centric perspective, seeing them as a product specifically crafted to appeal to a very specific audience, and everything else about light novels coming from trying to appeal to that audience. Instead of looking at them from the publisher perspective like most do, he takes the total opposite approach and it really opens up some different perspectives on light novels.

The only major issue I have about Justus’s definition is that he’s describing what the typical male light novel reader is like. But, light novels are also read by female readers, and the books those young women are reading are often very different from the ones the male readers enjoy. Female-targeted light novels aren’t filled with otaku-type hobby references and sometimes don’t even use anime-style art.

Also, I can’t help but wonder if he’s a little too audience centric and he’s missing some other angles about of what light novels are, but we’ll talk about that in the next installment tomorrow where I attempt to break down the parts of what a light novel is (and then make things even more complicated)!

Stay tuned!

Rob

P.S. Some might wonder why I didn’t include my own definition from my book on writing light novels in the mix above. There are two answers to that. One is that my original definition in the book is basically a format definition similar to Fahim’s with extra notes on different features afterward. The second is that we’re leading up to my new and more comprehensive definition at the end of this series of posts.