"Light novels." The literary phenomenon that is sweeping Japan.

Cover of "Bakemonogatari", by Nisio Isin

Excerpt from the cover of the Anglo-Saxon edition of "Bakemonogatari", by Nisio Isin, published by Vertical Inc.

The "light novels»Or«light novels"(Light novel laito noberu, also called ベ ノ ベ  ranobe) are a type of literature typical of Japan, and until recently completely invisible to the West, but that is opening a gap in the market beyond the borders of its country of origin. The term "light novels" is a wasei-ego, that is, a pseudo-Anglicism that is only used in Japan, and that is not recognized, nor used by the native speakers of the language. Hence arises the biggest problem to define what are the light novelsas the name itself can be misleading, and even the Japanese themselves have trouble agreeing on its meaning.

Although one might think that they are called "light novels" because of their length, this is not the case, since they usually have an average of 50.000 words, which is roughly the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon novel. On the other hand, many have a simple vocabulary and grammar to reach the younger audience, but it is not the common denominator of all of them either. This last point is interesting because, although it has been proposed to use the term «young adultTo define them, Japanese publishers are reluctant, as they do not want to be closed to a single demographic.

Ultimately, you have to understand that «light novels»Is not a literary classification (such as "science fiction" or "thriller«), But rather the result of a movement of marketing promoted by the companies that monopolize the market (in the style of what happens with DC and Marvel in the American comics sector). Although there is an element common to all light novels that, although it is not definitive, helps to recognize them: their manga style covers and illustrations (Japanese comic).

The origins of light novels

“It's like it's his natural way of being, with that cold expression on his face, reading in the corner of the classroom. Concentrated on building walls around her.

As if it was natural for her to be there.

As if it were natural not to be here. "

Nisio Isin, "Bakemonogatari, Monster History. »

(Own translation)

The history of light novels dates back to magazines pulp Japanese between the 10s and 50s. Like its American counterparts, such as the famous Weird Tales (for which you wrote HP Lovecraft), were publications with fantasy, science fiction and detective stories. Even then the writers of these magazines were open to Western influence (they especially admired works such as 20.000 leagues of underwater travel, by Jules Verne, and The Crimes of the Rue Morgueby Edgar Allan Poe).

From this period date ogonbatto (1930), by Takeo Nagamatsu (considered one of the first superheroes in history, even before Batman and Superman), and the adventures of the detective Homura soroku (1937-1938), by Sano Soichi (clearly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes). Also, and as precursors of such a typically Japanese genre, there were stories of «magical children«, Or children with powers, as in the case of Madojiden (1916) by Murajama Kaita.

The culture pulp in postwar Japan

After the end of World War II in 1945, and coinciding with the birth of modern manga, magazines pulp of the Country of the Rising Sun began to have their own character, and to be linked with the national comic market. By the 70s, the vast majority of these magazines had abandoned traditional illustrations in favor of the manga and anime aesthetics (Japanese animation series). On the other hand, publishers began to publish in novel format those stories that their audience liked the most.

Second volume of Slayers

Cover of the second volume of "Slayers" by Hajime Kanzaka, "The Sorceress of Atlas."

The first great revolution, which laid the foundations for everything that would come after, came with the great success of The heroic legend of Arslan (1986 onwards), saga of epic fantasy novels by Yoshiki Tanaka, and especially with Slayers (1989-2000), who parodied the topics of the sword and witchcraft traditional. The latter was adapted into an animation series, which in Spain was known as Reena and Gaudi, and aired during the 90s.

The arrival of the new millennium

«—My name is Haruhi Suzumiya. I come from the East High School.

Up to this point it seemed normal. Turning around to look at her was too much of a hassle, so I kept staring straight ahead. His voice went on to say:

"I have no interest in petty humans." If there are any aliens, time travelers or "espers" with paranormal powers around here, let them come and see me. That's all."

That did turn me around.

Nagaru Tanigawa, "The melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya."

Despite the good sales of some titles, the light novel market was still a very minority compared to other forms of entertainment. However, in 2003 came the great blow that changed his panorama forever: the publication of the first volume of The melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiyaby Nagaru Tanigawa, a story of science fiction, mystery, and paranormal phenomena.

Haruhi Suzumiya cover

"The concerns of Haruhi Suzumiya", sixth volume of the work of Nagaru Tanigawa.

This writer was unprecedentedly successful, opening the doors for later authors to follow in his footsteps, and making publishers see business in this art form. For 2007, the first volume of Haruhi Suzumiya had sold more than 4 million copies, and in total they have been printed 16,5 million copies of the series in 15 countries, 8 million in Japan alone.

Increase in popularity

From a castle window, a pair of jade eyes watched the small figures of father and daughter playing at the entrance to the forest.

The young woman, standing at the window, was far from looking weak or fleeting. She had light, soft blond hair and was wearing an archaic-style dress that wrapped around her slender physique. […] It was someone who didn't seem to fit the winter scenery of the gloomy Einsbern Castle.

"What are you looking at, Saber?"

As Irisviel called to her from behind, the young woman at the window turned around.

—To Kiritsugu and your daughter, who are playing in the forest. "

Gen Urobuchi, "Fate Zero."

Tras Haruhi Suzumiya, Other titles emerged that earned their audiences in their own right. We could cite the case of fatezero (2006-2007), by Gen Urobuchi, a thriller dark fantasy psychological. Precisely, 2006 marked the rise of light novels, which increased its sales year after year, getting a whole generation of young Japanese (and increasingly from other countries) to discover the pleasure of reading.

Four volumes of Fate Zero

Covers of the four volumes of "Fate Zero", by Gen Urobuchi.

The list of works and authors is so long, in a medium that has become so prolific, that it is difficult to name them all. There are light novels for all tastes: comedy, drama, romance, eroticism, science fiction, fantasy, police ... To name a few: Spice and Wolf (2006), by Isuna Hasekura; Toradora! (2006-2009), by Yuyuko Takemiya; Sword Art Online (2009 onwards), by Reki Kawahara; No Game No Life (2012), by Yuu Kamiya; Re: Zero (2012 onwards), by Tappei Nagatsuki; Konosuba (2012 onwards), by Natsume Akatsuki; Yojo Senki (since 2013), by Carlo Zen; or Goblin Slayer (since 2016) by Kumo Kagyu. All these sagas are characterized, as it has been possible to deduce, by their long duration, a large number of volumes, and by having been adapted to different animation series.

Dignifying light novels

Special mention deserves the novelist's work Nisius Isin (often written as nisiOisiN, to emphasize that his name is a palindrome), considered by many critics as one of the great renovators of the medium in recent decades. His style is characterized by being self-referential, mixing drama and comedy, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, long dialogues, complex subtext, and female protagonists with strong characters, strong personalities, and complex psychology.

"" Oh, I see, "Senjougahara muttered, sounding disappointed. I was planning to do all kinds of things to you if I got the chance. That bad.

"That sounds like some kind of grotesque conspiracy behind my back ..."

-How rude. I was just going to &% in your / - after * ^ there.

"What do those symbols mean ?!

—And I wanted to make you esto y that also.

"What is that underline supposed to suggest ?!"

Nisio Isin, "Bakemonogatari, Monster History. »

(Own translation)

From this prolific author we can highlight works such as Zaregoto (2002-2005, mystery, suspense, and murder novels), Katanagatari (2007-2008, the adventures of a swordsman without a sword) and, above all, his greatest success: the saga Monogatari (Since 2006, it literally means "history", a succession of stories that intertwine the most prosaic manners with the wildest fantasy).

Nekomonogatari cover

Cover of the Anglo-Saxon edition of "Nekomonogatari Shiro" ("Story of a white cat"), by Nisio Isin.

A promising future

Today, if we look at the numbers, the light novel market is a booming business. In Japan it is widely established, and employs numerous editors, proofreaders, writers, and illustrators, the latter being, in general, the most renowned graphic artists of portals such as Pixiv. Outside their country of origin, they are getting more and more readers in the Anglo-Saxon world, as many of the popular works are translated into English. On the other hand, they are beginning to enter the Spanish-speaking market, albeit timidly, with bets such as Planeta with its translation of Re: Zero.

I hope publishers soon realize that light novels have an audience, faithful also, and which values ​​the fact of buying more than other readers in physical format your favorite works.

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  1.   Juan Carlos Guzman said

    All good, good article. As a reader of novels, I know that I really would like to read them physically, but it is hard work. In fact there is one that I want in particular, that you did not give a mention despite being also quite famous, high school dxd. A novel that is difficult for a non-Asian country to translate: 'v

  2.   MRR Escabias said

    As exciting as Rias Gremory's adventures are, I don't think it's the most “family friendly” I could have talked about (insert laughter).

  3.   Bortolomé VL said

    Interesting article. I knew that Haruhi Suzumiy revolutionized animation, but I had no idea that it was also the starting gun for light novels to become such a wide market.

  4.   MRR Escabias said

    I was also surprised when I did my research. I'm glad you liked the article.

  5.   Joel Esteban Clavijo Pinzon said

    What a good article. Ohhhhh, I'm so looking forward to reading the Re: Zero novels. I already started reading the novel web, but it is not the same as having a book, with illustrations of the characters, in your hands, and reading it in the comfort of a park, or your own room ... What a pity that, in Japan, do not put the batteries to hire translators and expand the market for this great series.

  6.   M. Scabies said

    Your comment is greatly appreciated, Joel. 😀

  7.   Rodrigo Diaz said

    Good article, now to hope that this literary phenomenon sweeps the world too!

  8.   M. Scabies said

    Quite possibly it does.

  9.   Anyone said

    And I ask:

    Why settle for just Japan light novels? I mean, in the West there are a lot of people who would like to do anime (but there is no industry here). In the West, there are many people who would like to make manga (but the skills to draw it and, above all, places to publish it are not something within the reach of most). And the good point, in the West there are many people who wish they could publish light novels (and it turns out that there are no serious drawbacks, because writing, at least online, is within the reach of almost anyone. You just need to carve out a path to it like in Japan) .

    Does anyone know if this is being done or why not? I mean, normal that physical novels are not published or that people even make money yet. But online is free, surely in the Spanish-speaking world there would be many people wishing. And if this were to be successful (for which I don't see a clear impediment), something like in Japan could emerge. Does anyone if there is any platform like that, clearly publishing light novels or something like that? And if not, any idea why there aren't?

    Thank you for your attention

    1.    Teo said

      The closest you will find to that is Wattpad, which is an application and web page where people publish their works for free reading and whatever style, however there are no images so it would be difficult to publish a light novel in this medium .

  10.   René Driotes said

    Very interesting article, especially because it is a new topic for me. I have 2 questions regarding the topic that I would like you to answer:
    1. Do the "Light Novels" only apply to modern times or can one write one referring to ancient Japan?
    2. Do I have to be a Japanese writer to enter this type of market?

  11.   René Driotes said

    Excellent article, especially for being a subject that until now was unknown to me. I have two questions:
    1. Can you only make a "Light novel" from current times or can you make one from ancient Japan?
    2. Do I have to be a Japanese writer to be able to enter the market for this type of literature?

  12.   Daysha_109 said

    I would like to know: Are you planning to write light novels of Latin American origin?

    I am the author of a publishing house specialized in these works and I would like to contribute if that is what you plan to talk about about it.