October 01, 2017

Is the Term “Light Novel” Helpful in the American Context?

The wave of anime and manga coming from Japan to America (now a set of phenomena decades old) has brought with it a concomitant interest in and market for other aspects of Japanese pop culture. Iron Chef. Gas station sushi. The light novel.

What are light novels? Light novels are books written to be read simply for the sake of enjoyment. While many of the people publishing light novels in this country also publish manga, the light novel is a primarily written medium rather than a comic. They are often illustrated with manga-style illustrations, but they are written stories not comics—though the most popular quickly find themselves adapted into manga and anime. Though the individual volumes may shorter than “serious” novels, they are often serial stories running to a dozen or more volumes. They have the same targeted focus that manga do: “boys,” “girls,” “young men,” etc. Yet there is the same sort of cross-over readership.

In other words, “light novels” are the modern Japanese equivalent of traditional “pulp fiction.”

So far as I understand it, then, literature in Japan exists in two streams. The “serious” (or “literary,” “socially relevant,” “heavy,” “fill-in-your-adjective-here”) novel and the light novel. You can read your Kawabata and Murakami, and you can read your Heroic Legend of Arslan and Vampire Hunter D. Each stream of literature has its own set of expectations, its own awards, and its own readership.

Should American speculative fiction be heading in a similar direction? I think it’s perfectly fine for science fiction novels to strive for “social relevance,” but does every novel to be of that sort? Why can’t The Handmaid’s Tale exist alongside A Princess of Mars? To call both simply “science fiction” I think does a disservice to both works.

Perhaps a way to ensure that everyone can play in the speculative fiction sandbox is to make separate sandboxes. It seems to work for the Japanese. Is it helpful to start thinking that way in the American context?