About Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

If you don’t know what a light novel is, it’s a kind of literature pretty much limited to Japan.  They’re written primarily for young-adult audiences, but are distinct from traditional young-adult novels. They’re usually serialized chapter-by-chapter in magazines before being gathered into full-volumes (a topic which I’ll probably discuss later because I love the idea of serialization).

Rental Magica, a Light Novel written by Makoto Sanda

Rental Magica, a light novel written by Makoto Sanda

A lot of people define light novels by the fact that they’re illustrated, which they are (usually in manga-style), but I disagree with that. I think it’s possible to have an illustrated novel that isn’t light and a light novel that isn’t illustrated. To me, the difference is wholly in the style of the writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in them.

The first thing to notice about how light novels are written is that they tend to be…shall we say playful…with the conventions of the language. It’s not uncommon to see musical notes used as punctuation, as well as things like “What???!!?!?!??” and my personal favorite: “…” to indicate a pointed silence. Whether it’s grammatically correct or not to use ellipses that way I think it’s fantastic. And sometimes they go on forever, taking up entire lines so that you can actually feel the awkwardness of it as you read.

But that’s all superficial. The real differences is that they’re very minimalistic in terms of their writing style. They’re generally shorter than regular novels, though not always (and, just as we see in regular novels, they tend to get longer the farther into a series you go). The good ones use their illustrations to make providing descriptions quicker and more fluid (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all), which can be helpful in cutting out some of the bloat. But again, that’s not necessary.

What really makes them faster reading is how their paragraphing is laid out. It’s rare in a light novel to see a paragraph longer than three sentences. This actually makes a huge difference in terms of reading speed. On my best day I can get through a full-length novel in eight hours. I can get through a light novel in three and get just as much out of the experience. The best example I’ve seen in American literature is the Danial X series by James Patterson and various co-authors (no paragraph is longer than three sentences and no chapter is longer than three pages).

This actually brings me to my main point, about what it means for a novel (or anything for that matter) to be “readable.” By definition that would mean if you are capable of reading it, it’s readable. But when we say that, we’re usually only thinking in terms of legibility, of whether or not it can be understood. Yes that’s an important thing to keep in mind, but there’s another question that is equally important that must be kept in mind: Is anyone going to take the time to read this?

There are some people who absolutely love books. For them, reading is its own reward. For them, the time spent reading isn’t a factor. That’s fine, and that’s why books like Ulysses get published despite being hellish verbal bogs through which readers must fight for every step forward. But I would argue that most of the market for novels isn’t made up of this kind of bibliophile. They’re not reading to be reading, they’re reading to be entertained. To hear a story, to see something different or unusual. And for a time, books were the only game in town if you wanted that kind of diversion.

But not anymore. Now books need to compete with movies, TV, video games, and comics to earn the right to entertain us, and just looking at the time commitments involved books don’t look so good. Let’s say it takes an average person ten hours to read a full novel. In that time, they could watch nearly seven movies or an entire 13-episode series of a TV show (I should know, I spent the first part of my winter vacation getting caught back up on How I Met Your Mother when I still have unread books on my shelves).

I believe that each media has some advantages over the others. There are things books can do that movies will never even come close to touching. But are those things really worth a whole 8.5 hours of someone’s life per book? With more things to occupy our time than ever before, now more than ever every moment is valuable and how we choose to spend it matters.

In light of this, I think the traditional ideas of readability, as well as the traditional idea of the novel, may need to change and adapt to the modern marketplace or else face extinction. This is why the style of the light novel interests me so much, because anything we can do to make our writing just that much faster will definitely help it stand out and ultimately survive.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?

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2 comments on “About Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

  1. I’ve experimented with different writing styles, still experimenting in fact – from the style similar to what you described above (including the ellipses in speech marks) in my first ever novel written 23 years ago, as a young adult myself – to a boggy epic wade through the first person ramblings of a recovering psychotic – to an 83-chapter serialisation of a zombie parody novel made up as I went along on my blog, which has just turned out to be my favourite (and hitherto most immediately successful) published book.

    I think it’s true what you say that readers want entertainment in today’s world, which means action, and stuff happening to the characters – not just clever ‘literary’ writing. I found blogging posts as chapters the best way to achieve this – a blog post has to grab attention, which meant every chapter had to perform – a great exercise in writing an action novel, which I highly recommend. So long as you can handle the concept of ‘no going back’ for rewrites of what your followers have already seen, if you’re doing what I did which was to make it up as you go along. Whatever you throw out there, make it work further down the line if you have to. Keep those readers entertained 🙂 x

  2. […] Japanese light novel series (if you’re not sure what those are, I’ve written about them before). The reason for this is that, far more than Western media, Japanese stories dive headfirst into […]

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