Term popularized in Japan for pocket-sized Pulp works of Young Adult fiction, often mistaken for a literary genre. "Light" was originally a statement not of content, but of literal weight, with publishers commonly splitting up larger novels into two- and three-volume chapbooks in order to aid the train-commuting reader. In this regard, the format bears a distant relationship to the "railway novels" once sold in 1840s Britain, the paperback Armed Services Editions issued by the US military between 1943 and 1947, and the more recent Penguin 60s issued in the mid- to late-1990s.
Such formats remained commonplace in Japan throughout the late twentieth century, not only for new books from the likes of Yoshiki Tanaka, but for bunko ("archive") discount editions of older works. Between the lines, we might also note a slow creep in book prices, as in the case of Haruki Murakami's Norway no Mori (1987; trans Alfred Birnbaum as Norwegian Wood 1989) a single work released in both Japanese and English in two parts, and hence demanding two purchases. But it was in the Young Adult realm that Light Novels truly flourished, both as single novellas in the vein of Motoko Arai's Hoshi e Iku Fune (1981; trans Naomi Anderson as A Ship to the Stars 1984) and as multi-part serial fiction like the same author's Black Cat series. "Light novel" became a short-hand for book marketing, pushing unthreateningly thin and portable publications at teenage readers, luring them into longer narratives as if feeding them The Lord of the Rings one section at a time. Many light novels have strong ties to Anime and Manga, and often share cover illustrators.
The rise of electronic publishing in the twenty-first century has turned Light Novels into something of a vestigial term – with many Japanese consumers using phones or dedicated electronic readers, there is no need to factor in paper costs, and a "light novel" format once restricted to a novella-sized 50,000 words per volume is now simply a brand on e-books that might already have bloated to true novelistic length. The term has hence arguably become meaningless, were it not for the implication from marketers that any work published as an "LN" is liable to have anime-style illustration, a pulpy quality, and form the first volume of a series. Book sizes being what they are, simply "committing trilogy" in light novel form might take up a dozen volumes. Since the inauguration of the online publishing website Shōsetsuka ni Narō ("Let's Become Novelists") in 2004, the paper incarnation has become something of a bespoke achievement – would-be authors upload electronic editions for readers to read for free, and the publication of a "light novel" edition in old-fashioned paper is the mark of a publisher's tardy but monetizing approval. The nature of Japanese overseas arts funding since 2015, particularly the Japanese Contents Localization or Promotion (J-LOP) initiative that contributes to translation and marketing, but not printing costs, has also incentivized some foreign publishers to move into Light Novels in electronic format, since printing would be the only part of the process not covered by subsidy.
The online menu-based listing of multiple contending works may have been an influence on a twenty-first-century trend in Japanese Young Adult fiction in which titles become demonstrable clickbait such as Kimi no Suizō o Tabetai ["I Want to Eat Your Pancreas"] (2014), or absurdly long enough to function as mini-blurbs, such as Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken ["That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime"] (2013) and Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni ["In Another World with My Smartphone"] (2013). [JonC]
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