For this little project, I went through many definitions of what a light novel is, both from Japan and from the non-Japanese world. And I have to say, as I look at my survey of the definitions, I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
In short, for those who aren’t familiar with the story, an Indian king wants to teach his son a lesson, so he brings an elephant into the royal court and also brings in a group of blind men. Then as the young prince watches, the king instructs the blind men to each go to the elephant and then report back on what type of creature the elephant is.
The first blind man feels the elephant’s tail, and when he returns, he describes the elephant as a rope.
The second blind man feels the elephant’s leg, and he describes the elephant as a tree.
The third blind man feels the elephant’s body, and describes the elephant as being like a wall.
The fourth blind man feels the elephant’s trunk, and he describes the elephant as a snake.
When the blind men are done, the king turns to the young prince and points out that the blind men were all wrong because they just focused on one piece of the elephant instead of seeing the greater whole. They may have been right about their piece, but they missed a lot by not thinking about the subject from different angles.
Going back to light novels, this is not meant as an insult toward the people I have quoted here, and I think every single one of them was right about one or more pieces of the puzzle. Especially the Japanese blogger in the first part who broke the topic down into categories, and Justus in the second part, who added another clear category to the pile that the Japanese blogger touched on but didn’t go into much in their original article.
So, with that in mind, there seems to be five different separate ways people try to define light novels.
This is the most popular because it’s the most fact based and seems the simplest. They’re novella length works (by current English publishing standards) of 40,000-50,000 words that typically use anime-style artwork for enhancement and marketing purposes on the covers plus some interior art as well. Of course, this definition only works on the average, since there are light novels that don’t follow any of this. Also, light novels are often actually serialized works where that one volume is only a piece of the story and the volumes have to be read in a particular order because they’re really one larger book broken into pieces.
Another popular way. Again on average, they’re books written in a simple style for easy reading, with an emphasis on short paragraphs and dialog. They’re often written like anime/manga are, with a character focus, a huge number of anime/manga/gaming tropes, and youthful protagonists that the audience can relate to. Also, they tend to have certain popular types of storylines, often either romance or fantasy. These definitions are limited by the fact that anime and manga are mediums, and so they contain a huge variety of stories and styles. Also, what readers like changes with time, and so building a definition around content is limited to the present and past, but might not include future changes in the content of light novels.
This way of sorting light novels says simply that it’s a light novel if a publisher says it’s a light novel, or if it comes from a light novel imprint of a major publisher. This definition really does limit light novels to those published in Japan and by Japanese (an ongoing topic of debate among English fans) and cuts out other possibilities like small press or foreign books being considered “Original English Light Novels (OELNs).” Also, it has the situation that in theory, anyone could declare themselves a publisher and start publishing light novels (even in Japan) and those books are by default light novels, even if they don’t meet any other criteria listed.
This is the flipside of the Publisher argument, and says that a book is a light novel if it is created to appeal to a particular audience. Most light novels are written for young people in their teens and twenties with an emphasis on situations, circumstances and emotions which are important to those young people. Those young people are struggling with trying to find their place in society, navigating their futures, and love, and so light novels focus on those topics to both give them entertainment and escape. Also, (mostly male) light novel readers tend to be hobbyists who are into gaming, anime, and other social subcultures, so light novels are tailored to cater to those groups by often literally speaking their language.
This argument has a lot going for it, including that a lot of popular light novels started out as webnovels written by nerds, for nerds, but the very fact they started out at webnovels means these weren’t light novels from the start but became light novels when something about them was changed. They became light novels when a publisher chose, packaged, and formatted them in a new way they weren’t presented before. In other words, the audience argument doesn’t stand by itself either.
This way to define light novels is the least common, but actually may be one of the missing factors that cause most other definitions to fail. Why do light novels exist at all, and what is their purpose? Beyond the obvious (making money), light novels are also viewed as gateway books to other types of literature, and as a way to keep teen boys (who are notoriously poor readers) reading when they might move on to other hobbies. In addition, they can act as a way for older teens and young twenty-somethings to let off stress and escape into worlds of fantasy which still reflect their hopes, desires, and needs. It lets them feel they have a place somewhere in this world (or another one) where they will be accepted, and acts to comfort them and support them through a difficult time of life. Finally, it gives them something to bond over and connect with other fans and peers as they talk about their mutual love of light novels. As usual, this definition misses pieces from the other definitions, since Harry Potter meets all these criteria and is still not a light novel by most definitions.
So, the question becomes, can someone put together a definition of a light novel which takes the whole elephant into account and manages to touch on all of these points while keeping the definition simple enough to be useful?
Before I answer that, I’m going to make things even more complicated!
I think there’s a sixth way to look at light novels that’s connected with the above five but different from them as well – who wrote them.
Not the publisher, but the writer.
You see, because I wrote a book on the topic, the main reason most people ask me to help define a light novel is that they want to write one themselves. They want me to tell them the checklist of things their book needs to meet in order to be considered a light novel so they can convince others that it’s a light novel. (Going back to 2chan’s definition of a light novel being any book you can convince others is a light novel.)
So then, what is a light novel from a writer’s perspective?
This is a tricky thing, because really there are two groups of light novel writers. The first group are writers who write light novels – professional writers who out of personal interest or because they were hired by a publisher choose to write light novels. The second group are what I will call fandom writers, who are write light novels because that’s what they read and love, and are a part of the fandom which buy light novels. Into this second group I would put the webnovel writers who end up being picked up and having their books turned into light novels (like Kugane Maruyama of Overlord) and the fans who entered their books in contests (like Reki Kawahara of Sword Art Online fame).
Generally, when light novels first started, it seems like a lot of the writers who were writing them were professional writers who just happened to target their stories toward the growing otaku fandom. And, I think this was especially true when light novels started to take off in the 2000s and publishers saw opportunity in marketing books directly to otaku. However, with the rise of naro-kei (the Japanese term for webnovels, taken from the king of Japanese webnovel sites Shosetsuka ni Naro! – “Let’s Become a Novelist!”), a real shift began where the readers and writers of webnovels became more and more the same people.
Now, it seems light novels are really things produced by the fans for the fans, and the publishers are simply there to give the fandom what they want.
And I mention all of this because I’m going to be defining light novel writers here as people who are members of the fan community – or fandom writers. These seem to be majority of light novel writers (this is my general observation, since I don’t have access to actual numbers on the topic) and it makes sense due to how the publishing system has changed over time. Also, I’m referring to the people who have been picked up by publishers, not webfiction writers publishing their works online.
Anyhow, what are light novels then for the writer?
Again, beyond the obvious (money), to writers, light novels are a simple, more accessible way of writing books which focus on simple, popular topics that their peers like. They have a low barrier to get in because they use mostly dialog, so the writer doesn’t need to be a master of fancy prose and exposition, and the focus on characters and lack of setting detail lets them hide their limited real-world knowledge and experience.
On top of that, they are books written to express their creative desires while connecting with their peers and becoming part of a community. Through these books they show off their creative talents and bring attention to themselves while exploring their own personal and emotional needs and getting feedback from others. Also, they are a way to contribute to the communities they are a part of, often helping to bring awareness of their own little subcultures in the wider community. And finally, for some, they are a way to tell anime/manga/otaku type stories for people who can’t draw but still want to make “anime” but can’t do it another way.
Some people might consider this writer perspective to just be another take on “purpose,” but purpose is more about the existential and philosophical questions of light novels, while the writer perspective is about practical realities.
So, in any case, the writer may also define the light novel from a very different perspective than the other five categories would, and this brings something new to the table that I think is important to think about when trying to come up with a definition for light novels.
So then, with all that out of the way, what is Rob’s definition of a light novel?
Tune in tomorrow for the final part of this series to find out!