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The Current State of English Light Novels

Ore-Twintail-ni-Narimasu-illustration

LN translation is in a similar place fansubbing was in before Crunchyroll and other forms of legal streaming came along. There aren’t too many light novels officially translated into English, and many series are out of print and discontinued. As a fan translator, I do my part in making Japanese LNs available in English, but I know that what I’m doing is actually illegal. But in many ways, it really can’t be helped, at least for now.

The good news is that the situation is changing, little by little. With more LNs being adapted into anime than ever before, people are taking notice of LNs (for better and for worse). Yen Press has recently licensed the guaranteed cash cow known as Sword Art Online, with other popular LNs like Kagerou Daze on the way. And with the shift from print books to Ebooks, LNs have a better chance of finding exposure at a cheaper price. The digital revolution has opened up possibilities for every literary subgenre  imaginable, so it’s not as if there is no market for LNs, even if they will remain niche for the foreseeable future.

Beyond translated LNs, there’s another type of English light novel, one that’s been eking out a humble living in the dark corners of the internet up until now: original English light novels, written by English-speaking anime fans. It’s this kind of LN I’ll be focusing on today.

Original English Light Novels? Are they even a thing?

[gg]_Hyouka_-_02 eru i'm curious

They are, but you probably wouldn’t know how much they’ve caught on unless you’re invested in the English-speaking LN community. Baka-Tsuki, for instance, hosts a handful of original novels. Original English light novels (which I’ll just refer to as OELN from now on) are very similar to fanfiction in the way they’re written and consumed. Their readership consists almost exclusively of English-translated LN readers, with the key difference being that the stories aren’t based directly off the LNs that have inspired their creation.

As a matter of fact, my own friends have expressed interest in writing OELNs. One friend of mine has been writing a story quite a lot like Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei – it features a technologised magic system set in a high school, except with heavy gamer influences. Reading the story, I was struck by how much it resembled a fanfiction. It was very much a work of pastiche, with LN cliches and otaku tropes being cut and pasted into the narrative ad hoc. Every couple of sentences the narrative made way for a friendly exposition dump. I was told that this was deliberate – my friend was trying to replicate the tone and feel of an LN. This really says a lot about what LN readers perceive the LN “genre” to be about.

Indeed, there’s a lot of confusion about what does and what doesn’t constitute an LN. What’s the difference between light novel and teen lit? Are recognisable “anime-like” tropes necessary? Honestly, not really – LNs encompass a broad range of genres beyond just fantasy and harems.

But there are recognisable industry trends, especially among titles that spawn multimedia franchises, and it’s no surprise fans have identified with those common elements. Some stories like SAO and Mahouka did start off as web novels, which explains their extremely indulgent storytelling. And LNs are notorious for being mass-produced and authored by smelly otaku who don’t know how to write. LNs even make fun of themselves for being like this.

vlcsnap-2014-06-22-22h07m34s184

Ultimately, LN-writing is a form of self-indulgence, no matter what language you’re doing it in. I suppose every LN fan has a “pet project” they’re working on, whether it’s on paper or in their heads. Actually, the majority of OELNs I’ve come across are fantasy ones, making them no different in spirit from the video game/Tolkein-inspired EPIC FANTASY TRILOGIES I used to write in high school, only to get bored after two chapters.

Do OELNs have the potential to sell?

The fantasy ones, maybe. Besides basic grammar and style issues, I don’t think amateur writing is a deterrent to commercial success. Fanfic writers can and do turn pro, as the very existence of 50 Shades of Gray proves. And fantasy is arguably the most accessible genre in anime for non-anime fans, making chuuni LNs fairly easy to digest even for a non-anime literate audience.

(Male-targeted incest romcoms probably won’t sell… but no one seems to write that stuff in English except for me, so um yeah. Let’s move on.)

Since they’re not translations, OELNs are by nature a bit more in touch with English literary style and convention. You can actually spot the hybrid influence of “translationese” (i.e. Engrish) and “proper” prose. And in terms of the plots themselves, the lack of censoring and commercial factors has given authors free reign. So sometimes I do get pleasantly surprised by plot events that probably wouldn’t happen in a Japanese LN. Even amateurs have their sparks of creativity and occasional brilliance, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from being invested in fanfic culture for so many years, it’s not to underestimate the passion and wit of amateur writers. So I do think OELNs have the potential to appeal to a wider crowd than who they’re currently written for.

likeyouveneverseen

But this is all theoretically speaking because a couple of things need to happen first. Firstly, more people need to start writing OELNs and publish them. The fandom needs to get bigger and more systematised. There should be a legit, specialised website dedicated to hosting OELNs, and I’m not talking about Wattpad or FictionPress. Also, more serious OELN writers need to take that step into publishing for money, even if it’s just self-publishing through Ebooks.

The standard of writing also needs to improve. This is where I’d point to my guide on how to write LNs, but there are certain sections of that post that are seriously outdated. In any case, I encourage prospective LN writers to read widely. Don’t just read translated LNs and expect your prose to be marketable. Read classics, read different genres, read whatever you can get your hands on. Only good readers can ever be good writers.

Any OELNs you recommend, Froggy?

Glad you asked! There are two OELNs I really enjoyed and both of them can be found on Baka-Tsuki.

Ryodraft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first is The Longing of Shiina Ryo. As the title suggests, it’s very strongly influenced by The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, both in form and in contact. It’s one of those quintessentially “meta” LNs that’s constantly navel-gazing and making self-conscious observations about the nature of storytelling. Like, there’s one part at the beginning of the novel where the MC launches into flowery descriptions of a beautiful girl he bumps into, and then states matter-of-factly “I never saw her again. … That was the shipwreck of our romance, I suppose: the fact that it never happened. I believe they call this tragedy. Back to the story.” Very cute.

Honestly, it is a bit too self-consciously witty and referential for me to fully endorse it, which is probably the reason why I never really got into the Haruhi LNscome to think of it. But it’s very good for what it is. The writing style is strong and confident and I can hear the narrator’s voice, which is a lot more than I can say for many LN translations.

The other OELN I like is Daybreak on Hyperion. This one’s a standard high fantasy story with a genderbender theme – and despite being very iffy about the “reverse Zero no Tsukaima” premise, I was surprised by how intelligent every character was. No one did stupid things for the sake of the plot and the genderbending aspect was handled with dignity and insight. There are still a few self-conscious winks to the audiences in this story too, like the reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I lol’ed, so all was good.

The reason I thought these two OELNs succeeded as literature is because they weren’t afraid to dig outside of otaku culture for their influences. Shiina Ryo drew from the internet and TV Tropes culture, while Hyperion drew from an academic understanding of alternate history. As an academic who took a minor in history, the latter strongly appealed to me. I guess you could even say that it pandered to me (HAHA see what I did there?). I usually find high fantasy boring, but I found myself getting absorbed by Hyperion’s worldbuilding and finished the first volume in a couple of sittings. So I would consider it my favourite OELN for now.

Conclusion

I’d like to see this part of the fandom grow. Honestly, my favourite LN genre is the harem romcom, as you might be able to see from my choice in translation, but I understand that I have very unique tastes. I wish more people would write trashy imouto wincest stories, but you can’t have everything I guess. If anyone’s writing an LN and you’re confident your writing won’t burn my eyes, please do tell me about it!

And if you had zero interest in OELNs before reading this, I hope this could have sparked at least some of the potential of the subgenre, which I suspect can only grow from here.

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Posted on June 23, 2014, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Ah Frog-kun, you keep writing the exact sort of articles I want to see more of. :>
    I think things are looking up for light novels officially released in English, and I believe the realm of ebooks will make it possible for many more titles to get localized at less risk to English publishers (Another, Aria the Scarlet Ammo, and the various yaoi novels from Digital Manga may be foreshadowing to a much bigger wave that’s in store). The digital realm has done well to cater to niche readerships, and in time I think a more stable English light novel fanbase will begin to take shape. Just how many titles make it over though will likely depend on how willing publishers are to give it a shot. Yen Press is making it work; it will be nice if other companies start to follow suit…

    I’m only aware of maybe a handful of *finished* stories on the web that have been labeled as original English light novels. I’ll probably make entries for them on my LN site at some point because I’m all for this sort of thing, but I must admit the very concept requires a little thought to be given regarding what constitutes a light novel in the first place. Most of the OELNs I’ve seen don’t have illustrations, for example, and as you noted they tend to read much like a regular work of genre fiction. Which is okay, of course–there *are* epic fantasy and heroic fantasy light novels in Japan, and ultimately light novels stemmed from such pulp fiction in the first place.
    But at any rate, it will be interesting to see if OELNs can really become “a thing.” There will need to be a lot more titles to make it happen, but I’ll see what I can do to raise a little awareness for what’s already out there. (I’ll be adding a story to the pool myself actually, hopefully in the next couple months. Story’s finished; once the rest of the artwork is done it’ll be good to go.)

    • Aww thanks! I’m pretty passionate about the amateur literature scene in general and like you, I’d like to see a stable LN readership grow for original and translated works alike. Good to see you publishing your own work – in Ebook format, I assume? Now that I have the free time to read and give critique, I’d like to read the polished version rather than just a draft (and I assume you feel the same way) so I eagerly await the final copy!

  2. “And if you had zero interest in OELNs before reading this, I hope this could have sparked at least some of the potential of the subgenre”

    You almost had me. You ALMOST got me there.

    Then the Kirino pic happened. We will never speak of OELN’s again!!!

  3. I actually almost finished my high school epic fantasy trilogy! Got like two and three quarter books into it before I graduated and subsequently realized it was all terrible.

    • B-but you only had one quarter to go! That would’ve driven me nuts! Couldn’t you have at least put a neat ribbon around the terribleness?

      • I ran out of high school too quickly! Plus it got pretty tough when I started noticeably losing faith in my own old material. It’s hard to finish the third book in a trilogy when you think the premise of the *second* book is asinine…

  4. I thought I’d give Hyperion a go, do you know if it’s available in epub or pdf form?

    • What you can do with BT novels is open up the full text of the novel, and then open up the ‘Print/export’ tab on the left and click ‘Download as PDF’. It doesn’t make a very *good* pdf, but it’s usable. Here’s the full text: http://baka-tsuki.org/project/index.php?title=Daybreak:Volume_1_Full

      If you’re planning to read a BT novel on an iphone/tablet, you can download the Baka-Tsuki ap. Using that you can download the novel you want and read it on your device any time. So… yeah!

  5. So, do you think something similar to OELN-LN relationship existed in the West: Using Tropes, but only western-originated one? Like the Inheritance Cycle to star War? Could it be done in LN?

    • I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking, but I think relying on well-established tropes is part of amateur writing in general and is in no way restricted to light novels. As for people writing stories inspired by things like Star Wars and the Inheritance Cycle – yes, that happens all the time. And in no way is being inspired by fiction a bad thing! See: all those epic fantasy stories clearly inspired by LOTR.

  6. I like reading the novels in their native language so while I have read translations, I am not exactly sure if I would say I like it but that’s just me. I feel like a lot of this is speculation, but whether this fandom grows or not will have to do a lot with marketing and the state of economy, I think. When you see licenses go out successfully in the English speaking world, you can be assured that fan translations may be hindered and a lot of opportunities to buy a copy would be increased. A great example would be eroge (or VN in general) is popular in Japan and the English speaking world tried to capitalize on this for business purposes but it didn’t sell well so it never really took a stronghold and fan translations continue (or until the company requests removal of content). This is also just speculation on my part too though.

    • I agree with you – if more titles were licensed, the fandom would be bigger. But it’s not such a make it or break it deal. The LN fandom has been growing underground for quite some time now. Companies pay attention to the existing fanbase before picking up a title because they’re the ones they’re aiming the official release at. I do think LNs have better potential than eroge to sell to a broader market, in any case.

  7. Okay from my limited understanding is that the L in LN refers to the prose. I’ve tried reading Baccano!, SAO, Log Horizon, Spice and Wolf and honestly, I honestly don’t find much appeal in it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these, but only in anime/manga form.

    Now granted I’m spoiled by my heavy prose English reading since I was a kid. I recall reading a collection of Greeky mythos short stories (Icarus, Hercules, Troy, etc) in my school library when I was 11. I read Archie comics when I was 8 or so though I’ve stopped reading years ago. I’ve read Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King and I recently finished A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords (book 3).

    I even read the translated Metro 2033 and I find its messy English more entertaining than LN prose. Hell, I like reading fanfics more (the rare good ones).

    My question would be: why LIGHT novels? I know that LNs can be very long but that prose though kills it for me.

    I think my bias against LN stems from me reading the translated Japanese, I’m sure the links for OELN you gave are good and maybe I’ll give it a try later. (edit: no, not doing it for me)

    And is it just me, but why is it a lot of LNs are written in first person? There’s only a very small amount of writers who can actually pull that off well and the majority of first person writing (in my experience) is very clumsy.That link (5 Light Novel adaptations announced in one day – further analysis) you gave, they’re all very similar to each other. It’s harem, it’s echi, it’s high school, it’s shallow (at the moment) fantasy, it’s pandering.

    It feels shallow. And maybe that’s the problem. Then again, 50 Shades of BDSM Porn is on the best seller list ….

    Would it be fair to pit these LNs against something like ASOIAF? “Ultimately, LN-writing is a form of self-indulgence” you say, but if you look at something at ASOIAF with its fantasy, politics and grim dark grimdarkness, it’s very deep. Idk, my thoughts are incoherent with this at the moment. What’s YOUR opinion?

    • Personally, it literally took me years to get used to LN prose. The first time I encountered them, they turned me off entirely, so I can understand why people never take to them. They’re not exactly high art, content-wise or prose-wise, and this is the case both in English and in Japanese (in other words, it’s not just a translation issue). I detail all my frustrations with LNs as literature here: https://fantasticmemes.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/light-novels-frustrate-the-crap-out-of-me/

      I read LNs for a number of reasons: 1) My Japanese is shit. My literacy level is on par with a 6th grader’s. So the most difficult Japanese literature I can read comfortably is light novels. I use them as a learning tool, mainly. 2) I am an otaku and I genuinely enjoy harems. This isn’t stuff I can read about in regular books. so I turn to LNs. 3) This is my ego talking here, but I think I’m pretty good at translating and I want to do my part to help improve the general standard of fan translation in this area. I care about literature and what makes English prose flow.

      Judging by how fond you are of ASOIAF and from your own writing, I suspect you like detailed writing and that you may have trouble grasping the appeal of literary minimalism in general. LNs aren’t a super great example of what this style of writing can accomplish, but it’s still literary craft at the end of the day. So I don’t have it in me to just dismiss LNs as trash and plus, I strongly encourage young people to write their own stories, even if they are critical of LNs. If this brand of writing gets people who would otherwise not pick up a book to read, then LNs have accomplished something great. Just don’t expect them to be masterpieces.

      • So LNs are the pulp fiction of this era? Actually that wouldn’t be too far off. Yes I know the differences between something like SAO and The Adventures of Manly Man Doing Manly Stuff of Manliness. (seriously though have you seen old timey pulp books?) (wait I just summarised SAO in a nutshell minus manliness)

        As per reasons:

        1. This one makes the most sense to me. If I were to learn Japanese, I’d probably start off reading LNs as you say it. Maybe people learning English can do the same?
        2. Makes sense as well. I suppose it’s easy to spot all the anime/manga tropes easily compared to reading deep Japanese literature with references that fly over our head.
        3. God bless you, froggy, for translators for manga, anime and LNs are severely understaffed and under appreciated.

        Yes most likely I don’t ‘get’ the minimalist writing. Now I’m not entirely against it, I think I have yet to develop an appreciation of minimalist writing. I know for a fact that teachers of foreign languages highly value this. Ask any Latin student and they’ll tell you how Julius Caesar’s Commentary of the Gallic War is also very simple in prose and style which in itself made it popular to the working class of Rome of his time.

        Wait, I just realised Julius Caesar wrote his war diary in LN prose. Whoa.

        Damn you Froggy now I’m going to ponder all night how simple prose helps works spread throughout history. Will have to ask my Christian buddy and local Imam how ‘simple’ Biblical and Quranic prose were.

        Anyway another question, if an aspiring writer comes up to you for advice would you recommend him to write an LN or a standard novel?

        PS: Btw Google ASOIAF Japanese covers. I can’t pinpoint what kind of artist has that style but it is very similar to me somehow. The emo looking fellow in black is supposed to be Jon Snow.

        • Wait, I just realised Julius Caesar wrote his war diary in LN prose. Whoa.

          This analogy is both epic and horrifying to imagine. XD

          But yeah, simple prose is easier to read, especially when it’s not your first language. I know some English second language learners who tell me they read fanfiction for this reason.

          On a more general note, I think there’s beauty to minimalism. You might get a sense of it reading haiku. To express a lot with very few words is the talent of a great writer. Also, one of the stories that made the strongest impact on me as a person is Jonathon Livingston Seagull, which is very minimalist. It’s a classic.

          if an aspiring writer comes up to you for advice would you recommend him to write an LN or a standard novel?

          I wouldn’t recommend either! I’d tell him to write what he wants to write. If you spend too much time thinking about what sort of literature is “good” and what should be written, you’ll never learn the joy of writing in the first place.

          ASOIAF Japanese covers

          I like the mixture of manga and western influence in those cover arts. Reminds me of video game art. I can’t really think of a specific artist it reminds me of either, though.

          • Commentaries on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, Book 1, Chapter 7.

            When it was reported to Caesar that they were attempting to make their route through our Province he hastens to set out from the city, and, by as great marches as he can, proceeds to Further Gaul, and arrives at Geneva. He orders the whole Province [to furnish] as great a number of soldiers as possible, as there was in all only one legion in Further Gaul: he orders the bridge at Geneva to be broken down. ‘

            Well okay to be fair it is more historical writing but you can kind of see how simple it is. Yes he wrote himself in third person. Even Caesar himself knew that writing in first person is difficult!

            I know some people who have this awesome concept but never go through with it because they’re afraid of screwing up. Hey, if Evil Santa can also mess up some aspects of the Game of Thrones, no one expects the first book to be a masterpiece.

            In Malaysia, there’s these comics/manga that’s about 20 pages long with magazine size pages. They have this DBZ feel but it feels like super artsy Street Fighters. Idk how well they sell because I never read them, but that’s what reminds me of most.

  8. One thing i’ve always been interested to know is how much it costs to legally license a LN for english digital distribution. I’ve always thought that there is a definite business possibility in legally translating light novels and selling them through amazon (among other ebook stores).

    We have seen recently that yen press after a couple of successes (spice and wolf FTW!) has started licensing even more series. However these are mostly all physical books. Inherintley printing and distributing physical books is rather expensive and probably has a lot of risk unless you have a wealthy backer.

    Hense why I find it strange that amongst all the fan translation groups for LN’s that someone hasn’t tried doing it legally. Surely there must be a LN fan out there with enough money to have a go at licensing something legally? Who knows… my rant ends here..

    BTW who wants to go into business with me :D LETS DO THIS!

    • The reason why fans don’t make licensing deals comes down to a combination of factors including money, legal representation, the language barrier and the fact that Japanese LN publishers aren’t exactly proactive when it comes to selling their rights overseas. But I freely admit that I don’t know much at all about this side of the industry.

      • Yeah i’ve heard plenty of stories about how japanese companies aren’t very willing to license out their stuff. You definitely would need to have money and japanese business experience or something. Maybe someone with ties to an english anime or manga publisher can start up something one day.

        (I’m still just bitter about no one licensing the Hyouka manga or novels.)
        Also still super annoyed that yen press have licensed the novels that already had good fan translations rather than my personal favourite novels like hyouka and Seikai no Senki. But I suppose the novels with good fan translations are the ones with the most fans and will probably sell the most. oh well. A man can dream, one day…

  9. Great post, Frog-kun! I definitely enjoy hearing your thoughts on the changing state of Light Novels in English, and what the future may hold in terms of translated works and readership in predominately English-speaking countries.

    What interested me the most about this post, though, were your thoughts on OELN’s. Despite being in the middle of the process of writing a story in English that is based loosely in style on Light Novels (and also borrows a few common thematic elements), I had no idea of the widening scope and rising potential of these types of stories. Honestly, it’s a little comforting to know that there are others dabbling in this specific form of telling a story, and I agree that there will need to be more activity in terms of writers and readers to really help it grow.

    But, I was wondering, do you have any specific thoughts on the best way to go about releasing these types of stories online, or the best place to do so? I definitely plan on contributing to the community, however small, but I haven’t been sure on exactly how to best go about it. Would you have any suggestions?

  10. What’s the light novel in the first pic I think I’m gonna try it

  11. Woah, thanks! This really helped. I was starting to doubt whether my OELN that I’m in the progress of writing would make it or not. But this has made me hyped! Especially since it was written almost 2 years ago! ありがとうございます!

  12. Greetings, Frog-kun! I found this specific article when doing a web search for original light novels, and was surprised to hear there was an actual acronym for what I was doing: OELN. It is now about three weeks later, and I have decided to host my current work online, but also join the ranks of the literary bloggers. Thank you for being an inspiration.

    However, there is much I’m unfamiliar with so if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to ask for some advice as a light novel amateur and a newbie (and TBH, terrified) blogger. Is there some way we could exchange messages outside of comment threads?

    I checked out the rest of your blog and liked your writing style so I am now a follower. :D

  13. I have a light novel and it is published. I would love for you to post it on this site, of course it can be read for free on here.
    LOG Legends of Genesis: Not your ordinary Heroes
    The first volume is already done
    http://www.mediafire.com/file/gq95x4bw9yqugqy/log.docx
    It is on amazon, barnes and nobles, chegg, and many other places.
    It maybe only volume 1 but it is long
    Asian, African, and World Mythology
    Super powered Wuxia/XianXia
    Plus you can learn some Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Ebonics, and ancient Egyptian while reading it
    Now the MS word version or paperback (cheap one) is the best for me.
    but if you want there is a kindle and a booksie version.
    But I’ll say again I would love it, if you posted it to this site.
    Contact me if you need higher resolution pics or you have trouble with charts

  14. Thank you for writing this article! It’s one I read when starting Vic’s Lab, LLC, to host and publish original English light novels. We’re now offering formatting and distribution of OELNs to online retailers with no upfront costs, so if you know of any authors interested, we’ll be glad to talk with them.

  1. Pingback: News: Light Novel Articles (July 2014) | English Light Novels

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