No matter what, there will always be a level of prejudice, misjudgement, and trepidation towards non-mainstream mediums and unpopular entertainment art forms. They are oftentimes the product of erroneous information and cultural stereotypes; the lack of interest or plain disregard does not help either. With a medium such as light novels that’s still threading its way across a few markets throughout the globe, there are misconceptions aplenty.
Let’s get into the common misconceptions often made by either Japanese or Western audiences alike—and of course, let’s explain why they are wrong.
- A light novel is light in content
Duh. Arguably the most controversial of all misconceptions derived from its name itself. However, it’s vital to stress light novel is nothing but a marketing term devised by publishers and imprints in the beginning of 80’s as a way to find new audiences and explore diverse contents. More specifically, it came up on the online service provider NIFTY-Serve for the first time ever. Usually, it’s readers being deceived by the presentation and look of the books themselves. A light novel can be about anything just as any other book.
- There is no definition for a light novel
“Light novels = books aimed at young readers”
Its definition—mostly in Japanese—has been argued over and over, and there’s an established consensus about it. As mentioned on the earlier point, the term came up on the online service provider NIFTY-Serve for the first time ever, as it was coined by readers at the time to refer to releases by Cobalt and Sonorama Bunko. Publishers noticed the term, and the rest is history.
In hindsight, whether it is science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, or plain old literature, all have ambiguous definitions always subject to scrutiny and their respective context. Within that margin, light novels have a relatively distinct and recognizable definition, so there’s no need to make it seem ambiguous.
- Light novels are aimed only at middle/high-schoolers
Yes, certain imprints cater to a specific audience, but saying that their main target is young readers means narrowing down its scope way too much. Of course, this varies from imprint to imprint. Case in point being Dengeki, an imprint whose catalogue offers content for high-schoolers to young adults, getting all the way to readers in their 30’s and even 40’s. MF Books has a fan base around readers in their 20’s to people in their 40’s. And one of the most interesting is μNOVEL—an imprint subsidiary of Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper—with an average audience in between their 30’s to 50’s.
- Light novels are ideal to initiate yourself into reading
Aren’t you confusing it with children’s books/fiction altogether?
While there are readers in Japan who believe light novels are good for a transitional change—when children move from lighter, family-friendly stories onto more complex and nuanced narratives—, bear in mind no light novel is written with the purpose of making it easy to read or comprehend. The perception that young readers read less than older ones seems to prevail in some sectors of Japanese society, however, a study made by Agency for Cultural Affairs (page 10) in 2014 indicates the actual opposite. Of the people surveyed, around 60% of them don’t read a single book a month and are 70 years old or older. From the total sum, an impressive 47.5% of the readers don’t read a book at all. So this perception would indicate that young readers read more in general in recent times, regardless of the content of what they read—including light novels.
- The overall quality of light novels has declined in recent times
It’s noticeable that the “marketing battle” between imprints has intensified over the last two decades. It’s often said during the 80’s and 90’s an unknown author could release something and still sell. And because first print runs were usually hefty at the time, even if an author didn’t sell, there was a low risk of a series getting cancelled. There were really few people trying to become light novel authors, and compared to now, it was relatively simple to become one.
To put things a bit in perspective, I’ll use as an example the Dengeki Novel Contest usually held every year:
The first edition of the contest back in 1994 received a total of 656 applications (works), however, the twentieth iteration in 2013 amounted an impressive total of 6554, and the numbers have kept increasing (or slightly decreasing) ever since, but always maintaining four figures.
Recent numbers aren’t inherently related to quality, and it hasn’t become a matter of quantity over quality either. Simply put, more and more people have realized they have the opportunity to become light novels authors and go for it. The profession is no longer mythicized, but “quality” is still there as it was more than 20 years ago. It’s just become a bit more difficult to find it.
- Light novels are nothing but isekai
More than 200 diverse light novels are pumped out every month, so saying “X is nothing but…” just can’t happen. It’s not profitable either.
The fastest way to know the latest trends is to take a look at the Dengeki Novel Contest, and judging from last year’s iteration, there’s not really any noticeable isekai work. Even in more mainstream mediums such as anime, there’s been a decrease at adapting such works, and you can see it by looking at the past spring line-up: Eromanga Sensei, SukaSuka, Sagrada Reset, Saekano, Rokudenashi, Sword Oratoria, and not from the spring season, but Ryuuou no Oshigoto!‘s anime adaptation was just announced a few hours before this article’s publication.
If anything, the rise of isekai works reached its peak at Narou, not in the light novels market per se (publishers licensing isekai works from Narou, that’s a different can of worms).
- Light novels are just porn
The format in which light novels are usually presented—bunko (paperback), illustrations included, average page count that ranges from 250 to 300—hasn’t changed much over the last two decades. This applies to the way certain works are advertised, and while some of them may look “provocative,” this is nothing but a mere fraction of the market. To be fairly honest, novels and fiction overall aimed at “mature audiences” tend to be more erotic, oftentimes inconsequentially.
A peculiar instance dates back to the 60’s, when the precursor of the light novel-focused magazine Cobalt—named Shousetsu Junior at the time—used to feature a quirky section dedicated to pornographic content. Other series such as 魔獣戦士ルナ・ヴァルガー, MAZE爆熱時空, デビル17, かのこん, etc. were works notable for the erotic content they depicted, but in general, they’ve been harmless and isolated instances.
- Older works aren’t light novels
More than once I’ve read or heard this, especially in Japanese, and can’t help but raise an eyebrow when I do. The characteristics of what a light novel entails, mostly on a technical aspect, have existed all the way back since early XX century, even before WW II. At that time the very first stories for girls—which would later become Novels for Girls or 少女小説—were conceived, both a product of the era and a desire to rebel, on a cultural level, from a female section of Japanese society.
Nevertheless, the serialized format and brisk narrative nature which is now characteristic of light novels saw it’s very first origins back then. It wasn’t until the final 70’s/early 80’s that readers became aware of their nature and came up with the name, but the very essence of light novels has been around for over 60 years in different forms.
For the sake of making this point more clear and to leave no margin for doubt, here’s a helpful image:
P.S. Yes, novels for girls can be considered light novels as well.
3 thoughts on “On Common Misconceptions About Light Novels”
As always, fantastic post. I do have to wonder if more English companies will start to bring forth more variety in light novels. A lot of the ones that do well here and are the isekai kind and naturally more are licensed. That, and the sister trope ones. Personally, I’m not a fan of the latter and avoid that like the plague but to each their own. I hope more 少女小説— come out but it seems that will be a while. Have you heard of Cross Infinite World? They license those solely, and they’re all digital releases. I hope they’ll eventually be able to put their works out in print, but I know that it won’t be likely considering it’s for a female audience and those don’t sell well here.
Have you read anything by Kanae Minato? I loved her Confessions and recently picked up her newest novel when I was in Japan. Too advanced for me rn of course but I can’t wait to finally be able to one day read them ^^
Thanks! As usual, it’ll be a matter of “waiting” (don’t hold your breath) to see if any publisher is brave enough to venture into licensing anything that the West hasn’t seen or read about extensively, such as 少女小説, which is widely unknown or barely-touched-on even in some sectors of the Japanese readership. Diversification is a phenomenon inevitable in any medium whose business model thrives due to constant responses from an audience—such as films, books, and videogames—, and to keep thriving, these mediums must either expand and innovate, or decay. That’s what’s happened with light novels and its now seemingly endless list of subgenres/imprints over the past two decades, for better or for worse.
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Absolutely! Haha while I have my gripes with a LOT of things going on with YA novels and readers justifying their attacking author’s for not including things they want to see to validate them (when they’re are tons of books that already do that and are readily available) I do believe that asking for variety will help. Like you said, whether or better or worse is something we have to inevitably deal with.