Every country comes up with its own unique spin on literature. Some of these forms seem to be purely artistic, mostly appreciated by academics. Others, though, are far more commercial.
One such art form is the light novel, which is incredibly popular in Japan and is gaining in popularity across the rest of the world. While not necessarily high literature, they are eagerly consumed by young readers.
Understanding the appeal of light novels requires understanding not just what these novels are, but taking a look at some of the most popular light novels and light novel adaptations.
What are Light Novels?
Light novels are a type of Japanese novel generally targeted at teens and young adults. They’re about the same length as a typical American novel, though published in a slightly larger format. Light novel stories are generally divided into volumes, but might also be serialized in magazines.
The defining characteristic of this novel style is the illustration. These novels have accompanying manga-style illustrations, which tend to be a major selling point for the books.
Light novels have been around since the mid-1970s, though they didn’t gain a major market foothold until the 1990s. The turn of the millennium saw a major explosion in the popularity of these novels.
Light novels play an important role in the Japanese publishing industry. While they were relatively slow to gain mainstream acceptance, they now represent a significant portion of the market. Literally thousands of these novels are published every year, with more coming all the time.
It’s easy to see light novels as playing the same role in publishing as the ultra-popular young adult novels in the US play. While most stay on the younger readers’ shelves, there are always breakthrough hits that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. These breakthroughs are often adapted into several other formats.
What is the difference between manga and light novels?
Manga and light novels tend to go together, especially when put on American bookshelves. While the two have some similarities, they’re actually quite different from one another.
In Western terms, a light novel would be considered a novel with illustration. The major selling point is the text, and it is written in a manner similar to a typical novel.
Manga, however, would be more similar to an American comic book. The artwork is an important part of telling the story, and artists tend to be as important a part of the creative process as the writers.
What Makes a Light Novel Different From a Regular Novel?
Light novels are very similar to typical novels. The main difference, of course, is the illustration. Most novels don’t feature illustration as heavily, if at all.
Light novels are also printed at a slightly larger size than most paperback novels. Indeed, they pull from a background more closely related to magazines and pulp novels than the modern novel.
In terms of written content, though, the two novel types are virtually identical. If you pulled the illustrations from a light novel, you’d essentially be left with a standard novel.
American light novels?
The United States doesn’t have a very strong light novel tradition. Strictly speaking, American light novels didn’t even exist until the 2010s. This has been a solely Japanese tradition, and any light novels in the US were translations of the Japanese originals.
The American equivalent to the light novel is the Young Adult novel. They feature similar themes and tend to have a similar style of writing. Both types of novel tend to target the same demographic, with strong adult periphery demographics in both cases.
There has been some interest in American light novels recently, and it’s still to be seen if there will be any success on that front.
Are light novels bad writing?
Whether light novels have any literary value is really in the eye of the beholder. There are strong arguments for or against these novels as literature, and a great deal of it has to do with the quality of writing.
It’s hard to say that light novels are written well or poorly, simply because there are so many of them. There are, of course, thousands of truly terrible light novels – just as there are thousands of truly terrible traditional novels. Poor writing is more the fault of greedy publishers than the genre itself.
Are light novels good? It depends on what you’re looking for. Most are of the quality of level of young adult novels, with all the good and bad that entails.
Popular Light Novels in 2016
Every year sees a new crop of light novels released. While some are part of long running series, others are entirely new. Regardless of their originality, some stand out more than others. Below are some of the most popular light novels released in 2016.
Your name is a light novel based on an anime, which is the reverse of the usual process. It is, however, one that’s been particularly well received. This light novel has sold over a million copies and has been licensed for translation in the United States.
A fairly typical body-swap plot, this novel tends to be a fairly good fit for male and female readers alike. It’s got a lot of the same elements one would find a typical young adult romance novel, albeit with a supernatural twist. It’s not surprising, then, that it will be adapted for the English-speaking market.
Konosuba – God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World!
Konosuba is a light novel series that has inspired several media adaptations, but it is the light novels that have been particularly praised. It has taken what many considered to be a tired genre and reinvigorated it with a sense of style and humor.
Konosuba follows the adventures of a boy who has died and gone to a different world – one where he teams up with a team of fantasy characters to survive and hunt monsters in an RPG-inspired world. While similar plots have played out in light novels for years, this one gets points for not taking itself too seriously.
Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online continues to be one of the most popular light novel series ever produced. It walks the line between being juvenile and sophisticated in all the best ways. It’s just weird enough to draw people in, but serious enough to keep them reading. It’s a perfect example of the art form.
Sword Art Online has dozens of novels and adaptations at this point, so there’s no chance that new readers will run out of material soon. This is one book that has safely made its way to English-speaking world, so it’s easy to find a translation in most book stores.
Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World
Re:Zero is another light novel based on the “other world” trope, though it’s one with a far more mixed reception than Sword Art or Konosuba. It’s a particularly good example of what the average light novel strives to be – pure entertainment.
The dialog in this novel isn’t as good as some others, but it’s got great artwork and a good premise. It has a great deal of world building within the novel, which is good for fans of deep fantasy. It’s not perfect, but it does make for a good read – especially for younger readers.
Overlord is another light novel series that takes place in an MMORPG. Instead of following the usual transported player trope, though, this one focuses on the last player of a game and his ability to interact with the denizens of this world.
Overlord is unique in that it started as a light novel published online. It still has some remnants of that history in its early pacing, but it’s become a more traditional series over time. It’s got a unique spin on what could be a tired trope, so it’s a good read for those who love the basic idea behind the premise.
The Irregular at Magic High School
Taking place in a world where magic exists, this light novel treads perilously close to being able to grab the title of a “Japanese Harry Potter”. While there’s not really much in common between the two sets of works, the complex magic system and its huge popularity make it hard to deny the comparison between the two.
Another novel that started online, this one is a bit different from the others listed here in that it also has a female protagonist. It’s become incredibly popular in Japan and has also been localized for international markets. It’s likely this one will have a huge impact in the United States.
No Game, No Life
No Game, No Life follows the usual transport formula, but with a twist. Instead of placing players in a game where they have to escape, this one follows a brother and sister pair who are seeking to become rulers of a game-based world.
This is a great novel because it both embraces and avoids some of the tropes so common with this type of light novel. Seeing the protagonists be a bit more proactive is a good change, especially if you have read several of these novels in the past.
Light Novel Turned into Anime?
Given their general popularity, it’s not surprising that many light novels have been adapted into other formats. One of the most popular types of adaptation tends to be the jump over to anime.
Anime adaptations of light novels tend to put a spotlight on the original novels and give a huge boost in popularity to the properties. Below are a handful of light novels that have been adapted into animation.
Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online is one of the best-known light novel adaptations in the United States. Shown on Toonami in the US, it’s a tale of virtual reality and conspiracy theories. It’s incredibly popular on both sides of the Pacific.
This is a light novel that seems like it was almost certainly made to be adapted. With the high level of action involved and the video game inspired premise, it’s a natural fit for animation.
Its international success has certainly made it more likely that more light novels will be adapted and exported to air in the United States.
The Irregular at Magic High School
It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that the Irregular series made its way into an anime adaptation, especially considering the popularity of the novels. There’s a lot to love here in a moving format, especially for those who enjoy the concept of magic.
In many ways the anime is far superior to the light novel. There’s a lot to be gained here through animation, even if some of the backstory is lost in the media translation. Anime is probably the format through which most consumers will become familiar with the story, so it’s a good thing that the new format is such a good fit.
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
This light novel series marries some aspects of the typical fantasy-dungeon based tropes with the basic plot of a harem anime, creating something that’s fairly unique. It’s got a great, unique world as well as a cast of lovable characters. It’s no wonder, then, that it was quickly adapted to animation.
The anime was a hit in Japan and streams on Crunchyroll internationally. While it hasn’t quite become the international hit that some of the other light novels on this list have become, it’s still created a strong enough fan base that people are clamoring for more.
The Asterisk War
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, this series focuses on arena combat between humans and super-powered individuals. It’s the kind of light novel that seems tailor-made for young men, and it’s also the kind of light novel that seems like it was initially made to be adapted into anime.
While the plot itself is fairly deep, it’s amazing to watch the anime. It doesn’t suffer from many of the translation problems that seem to plague other light novels, and the addition of animation seems to up the stakes for most of the battles.
Overlord is another series that seems like it was tailor-made for an anime adaptation. With its focus on video games and video game tropes, seeing everything in action helps the light novel to come to life a bit more easily.
One of the best selling points of the anime is that it helps to smooth out some of the earlier pacing problems of the first few volumes. It’s a good second pass at a novel series that was alright quite beloved. It’s definitely a worthwhile adaptation of something that people already loved.
Tokyo Ravens is another series that features a world with magic, though this one has a slightly darker tint. This world was one where magic was a result of actions in Japan in World War II, and the initial creation is a tragedy that haunts the plot through the present day. The plot of the light novel deftly combines magical tropes with conspiracy elements, which helped to make a darker, deeper kind of light novel for older readers.
The anime is a fairly decent adaptation of the light novel, one that’s notably a bit better paced that the books themselves. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s an incredibly popular show that deserves even more viewership in the west.
The Twelve Kingdoms
This light novel series took things in a fairly new direction, at least as far as standard light novel plots were concerned. Instead of basing the world on video games or on Japanese mythology, the world is based on Chinese mythology, though it does feature some of the usual transport plot tropes.
The animation tightens the scope of the novels, though it does also introduce some new characters to flesh things out a bit. It’s a bit of a departure, but it still works very well.
Why are light novels so popular outside Asia?
Light novels are popular outside of Asia for a number of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that they provide a link to Japanese culture that’s easy to consume. These brief novels aren’t difficult to read for new readers, but they can make for an entertaining read.
It’s the entertainment factor that has made light novels stand the test of time. As the name suggests, they’re not heavy reading – people from across the world can connect with the themes within. The addition of illustrations simply makes them easier to digest. It’s no wonder, then, that the light novel phenomenon is spreading across the world.
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