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What is a light novel? And things I hate and love about them

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

During a dull, unamusing day, a thirteen-year-old boy meandered an aisle at a now-closed Kmart store in Yauco. He was scanning the corner-to-corner bookshelf, which was mostly packed with illustration books for children, until his eyes spotted something. It was a novel, but he recognized the art style of the cover. Anime. He reached out, and it struck him that the character in the front cover was none other than Kirito, the main protagonist of Sword Art Online, an anime he binge-watched a few months earlier. Without peeking inside its contents, he marched to his mother, who was not far off, ceremoniously placed the book in the cart, and eagerly awaited his return home.

If you can’t guess who this tween is, that’s me! It was I that brought home a special type of novel that I would later learn the name of: light novel. In Japanese, it’s called raito noberu or ranobe.

So, what’s a light novel?

A light novel is basically a short novel or a novella with themes and subject matter markedly similar to young adult literature. Light novels are often serialized, although it is uncommon for standalone ones to exist such as All You Need Is Kill and Welcome to the N.H.K. What distinguishes a YA book in the US to a light novel can be boiled down to two elements: illustrations and content. Illustrations are typically anime or manga-style and are interspersed throughout the book. The content of these novels are closely related to those found in anime and manga. Shut-ins, otaku, and introverted characters populate light novel stories, though they aren’t exclusively the only type of protagonists. 

Despite my description of light novels, there are exceptions. For example, light novels can exceed the word count of a novella and become straight up novels like volume 14 of Overlord. Another example has to do with illustrations. Not all light novels feature illustrations in their books. And finally, light novels can touch on sensitive and mature themes depending on the author. 

So as you can see, defining a light novel can be tricky. But don’t fret!

While I spent 300 words listing off what a light novel is, I’d like to discuss something closer to heart: what I hate and love about this “medium”. Certain aspects of light novels can be problematic when they become systemic; or, in other words, form an echo chamber of ideas that leaves no room for innovation.

WHAT I HATE ABOUT LIGHT NOVELS

  1. Harems!

Why does the main male character get surrounded by beautiful women without any build-up and care? Why do the women enter in a kerfuffle over the main guy? Because the god-author ordained it so? Come on! If you’re gonna write a harem, make it interesting or have some logic behind it. The light novel series Date A Live features a harem precisely due to the fact that the main character has to swoon the girls’ hearts (spoilers I guess?). Or hell, subvert the harem entirely and make it seem that the main character has a harem because he’s a dictator and will kill the women’s family if they don’t participate in it! That can serve as a masterful critique on the whole harem thing.

  1. Fanservice!

It’s no surprise for any straight male above the age of thirteen that women are gorgeous. But when time and again light novel authors mention a female character’s chest or how they look in their bikinis…Please stop! Focus on the story. That goes also for the illustrations.

  1. The characters…

I understand that a sizable chunk of light novel readers are into anime and manga. Most probably belong to the otaku culture in Japan. Nevertheless, can we have characters that aren’t teenagers? Or, at the very least, move on from characters being genre-savvy otaku? Have a criminal, for example, get isekai-ed and have him go through a redemption arc. Or have a struggling musician travel to another world. Something different.

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT LIGHT NOVELS

  1. Quick reads

In the age of short attention spans, streaming services, Youtube, and a whole bunch of visual stimulation, it’s nice to appreciate the succinct, nonchalant writing style that predominates light novels. Because most stories in light novels are dialogue-heavy (cough cough Bakemonogatari cough cough), that means a page can, at best, be filled up with a dozen or so exchanges between characters. 

  1. Creativity

If there’s one thing that trumps all the negative tendencies of light novelists, it’s their unbridled and absurd imaginations. From slice of life stories to isekai, light novels offer a variety of settings for readers to escape to. Not all stories are sprawling epics, some are more down-to-earth, focusing on bookbinding or cooking; you could even find a  fantasy story following the funny adventures of a protagonist. The sky’s the limit!

If there’s one thing I want you to take from this article, that’s to read light novels! Check out this list and see which light novel is right for you.

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Emilio M.

UPRM '22

Emilio Mejill is a fifth-year UPRM student pursuing a mayor in pure mathematics. His two dreams after graduating is to one day publish a novel and to drive from Miami to Seattle. He loves reading, learning about history, and strives to master koine greek.
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