In Defense of the Original English-Language Light Novel

As a writer of light novels I not only read them, but I also lurk around on forums dedicated to discussing them. Inevitably, some unassuming, aspiring writer wanders in wanting to either learn how to write an English-language light novel, or for someone to read what they’ve already written and tell them if they are on the right track. That’s when a specific type of light novel aficionado swoops in: “You can’t write a light novel,” they cry. “You’re not Japanese!” Sometimes others will come to encourage them, but usually once one of the naysayers has posted the others flock like vultures to repeat the message of: “You can’t do that; how dare you!”

If you’ve ever been run off a forum in that manner, then received a private message directing you to resources and offering encouragement, then it was most likely from me. Hello!

I see it quite often. I’ve been seeing it since anime and manga started getting popular in the USA, way back when I was in junior high school twenty years ago drawing in what my peers back then called “Japanimation Style”. [Note: Yes, I’m old. Also, the term Japanimation is like nails on a chalkboard to me and it kills me to even write it. I am extremely glad it never caught on.] It irked me then and it irks me now, because it’s such a haughty, purist statement. By that reasoning you can’t write a fairy tale if you’re not European, and don’t you dare put pen to paper on that country song if you’re not from the Midwestern United States! If you press them for a legitimate reason, the only argument they have is, “You’re not Japanese, and if it isn’t in Japanese then it’s not a light novel!”

All translated light novels suddenly cease to be light novels by that logic. So what if you’re not Japanese? So what if you don’t live in Japan? The author of the popular light novel “No Game No Life” was born in Brazil. Despite that he’s published in Japan under the pseudonym Yuu Kamiya. Of course, he’s a rare exception in the Japanese publishing industry–but it proves a point. You don’t have to be Japanese, live in Japan, or write in Japanese to create a light novel.

The base of the matter is this–the light novel is a format. It runs from novella word count range to full novel length. [Averaging roughly 50,000 words] It has a manga-style cover and monochrome illustrations at key points throughout. They are usually long, expansive series with multiple volumes–though one-shots are not unheard of. The target audience is late middle-school to early adulthood. The best equivalent we have for tone and length in the USA are the “Young Adult” or the “New Adult” categories. [The latter being a bridge between Young Adult and Adult literature.] But that doesn’t mean they’re childish–not by a long shot. They can be just as gory, profound, or racy as any other work of fiction!

“Slayers” was one of the first light novel series I had ever heard of. [And Naga is the best!]

I was around for the rise of anime into mainstream culture in the USA. I remember questionable-quality VHS fansubs that you ordered from some Geocities or Angelfire webpage–and if you were fortunate enough to have had a group of friends invested in the same series, you pooled your money to buy multiple tapes, and made everyone copies of them.

If you were lucky, you sent a check and got tapes back. Sometimes you sent a check and someone ran off with your money. It was a crap-shoot.

I remember buying manga in Japanese, then reading a [poorly] translated English script of it side-by-side that I printed out from the internet. I remember when Dark Horse and Mixx [Later re-branded as TokyoPop.] were the only legitimate publishers translating manga into English and bringing it over, even though they took liberties with the dialogue and flipped it to read left-to-right which made the art look weird. Now there are streaming services dedicated to anime, and manga magazines like Shonen Jump have been brought over. Right now light novels are on the cusp of pop culture awareness in the USA, and they are going to explode in popularity soon if history repeats itself. There are two publishers that I know of bringing them over currently, Seven Seas Entertainment and Yen Press. [Viz might be a third, but I can’t find evidence that they have started yet.] Neither of them are accepting manuscripts for English-language light novels.

Yet.

And I say that having seen western animation houses successfully pull off domestic anime [Avatar: The Last Airbender, or RWBY, anyone?] and more and more artists producing popular graphic novels and webcomics in a manga style. Light novels are next, and there are already English-language authors waiting in the wings, slowly building their audiences through web serials and self-publishing.

Write ALL the things!

So, if you’re starting out on your light novel writing journey and have run into one of these people, take heart. If you’re a light novel reader that has run out of things to read, then take a look at the self-publishing sector–there is quite a bit of talent out there if you know where to find it! [Plus, more often than not they participate in Kindle Unlimited, making them free to read if you are a subscriber.]

Those purists are going to get quite a surprise when one day they look at who wrote the light novel they just enjoyed, and find a non-Japanese name on the cover! But until then, all you aspiring authors can do is just keep on keeping on. Keep writing, keep creating–don’t let anyone tell you to do otherwise!

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