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Taiwan: Debate Over the ‘Light Novel’ Phenomenon

What is a ‘light novel'? If you are a fan, then you might not completely agree with the English Wikipedia description, or the entry on Uncyclopidia [zht], which tries to literally weigh the ‘lightness’ in question.

Light novels – manga and cosplay books which originated from Japan – are hyper popular in Taiwan, where they have conquered the book market.

Light novels. Photo by Flickr user metalfinally (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Light novels. Photo by Flickr user metalfinally (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Reluctant Readers?

The enthusiastic crowds at this year's Taipei International Book Exhibition are the latest proof of this craze. However, Yang Chao, a well-known columnist, writer and blogger, criticized light novels as a mere social tool invented for students [all zht], which reflect the younger generation's reluctance to read real challenging novels:

台灣人在讀什麼書?至少照書店通路的年度報表,及公立圖書館的借閱統計看來,台灣人最常看、看得最多的書,是「輕小說」。是一些在網路上流傳,沒有什麼特定作者身分,通常內容大量重複,也很容易預期的小說。

What are Taiwanese reading nowadays? According to the annual statistics from bookstores and public libraries, the most-read books are ‘light novels’, which are distributed online without particular authorship, and are usually repetitive in nature with a predictable storyline.

這種趨勢其實過去早有跡象,只是現在更加清楚、更加嚴重。「輕小說」成為年輕人閱讀的主流,沒有什麼好意外的,其來有自。

This trend has been emerging for a long time, but it is getting more obvious and severe now. It is not surprising that ‘light novels’ have become the mainstream reading among young people. There is a reason behind this.

最主要的根源,在於台灣教育當中看待閱讀的態度。閱讀是一件重要的事,但教育體系裡教導閱讀的重點,不在於掌握閱讀作為一種學習的能力,而在於藉閱讀獲取標準答案。也就是說,閱讀不是為了碰觸、摸索廣大外界的豐富知識與經驗,而是簡單地從文字寫的東西上單純接收答案。

It is rooted in the Taiwanese education system, in particular the way the way in which it cultivates students’ attitudes toward reading. Reading is important, but our education system does not regard reading as a tool to learn, but as a means to get standard answers. That is to say, the objective of reading, under the education system, is not to connect to and explore knowledge and experience of the enormous world, but to get answers from written texts.

教育中反覆訓練如何「正確地」閱讀。也就是讀的內容都應該有一定的意義,而且要用考試的方式,確定沒有「讀錯」,如果偏離了那固定的意義,馬上就會在考試成績上遭到懲罰、阻止。

Our education repeatedly trains students how to read ‘accurately’, which means everything you read has a standard meaning, and you will be tested to make sure you did not read it ‘inaccurately’. If your understanding moves away from the fixed meaning, then you will be punished and stopped immediately through the grades on your test sheets.

久而久之,台灣的學生一個個都變成了膽小、保守的閱讀者。他們只讀有辦法「讀懂」的書,也就是那種一眼看過去就知道在講什麼的書。他們選來閱讀的書,因而要嘛是學校裡要求他們讀的,要嘛就是自己可以輕鬆有把握「讀懂」的書。

Over time, Taiwanese students have become timid and conservative in choosing books they are capable of ‘reading right’, which are the books that you can understand easily with a glance. They only select the books that are required by schools, or those can be easily read ‘correctly’.

Over-simplified Attack
However, novelist and blogger plamc disagrees with Yang's over-simplified statement [zht] and argues that Yang did not get the definition of light novels right from the very beginning.

首先,楊照先生說,「輕小說」「是一些在網路上流傳,沒有什麼特定作者身分,通常內容大量重複,也很容易預期的小說。」這個對輕小說的定義,是他整篇文章論述的前提,但是這個前提完全是錯誤的。

First, Mr Yang says that ‘light novels’ are “novels that are distributing online, without particular authorship, usually repetitive in nature with predictable story line”. This definition is the premise of his article, but such an assumption is completely wrong.

輕小說到底是什麼,我先前在部落格的拙文《何謂「輕小說」》有比較詳細的說明,簡單的說,目前要怎麼說一部小說是輕小說,其實是作者本身,出版社的書系,以及讀者,都有一個主動的意識將這本小說歸為輕小說而與其他大眾小說區別開來者,就叫輕小說。

I explained the correct definition in detail in my previous blog post ,”What are ‘Light Novels'”. To put it in simple term, the term ‘light novel’ is a collectively drawn definition consciously drawn by the author, the publisher, and the reader in order to distinguish them [the novels] from other popular novels.

同一個作品,如果投稿非輕小說書系,就不是輕小說,但如果投稿輕小說書系,就是輕小說,這種狀況是完全可能的,如果你有機會逛逛日本書店,你會發現很多主流大眾小說,和某本輕小說的題材故事文筆都相近,之所以一個是正規小說,一個是輕小說,完全只是因為後者出在輕小說文庫裡,封面畫了美少女。

A work submitted to non-light novel book series is not a light novel, the same work submitted to a light novel series is a light novel. This situation is completely possible. If you have had the chance to visit Japanese bookstore, you will find many mainstream popular novels resembling light novels in term of subject, storyline and style. What differentiates a normal novel from a light novel is just that the latter are published in a light novel series with pretty manga girls on their cover.

事實上,輕小說的讀者是很講究作者身份的,會去追如谷川流等大家的作品;而輕小說的內容經常是五花八門南轅北轍,並非大量重複(頂多是封面看起來很像)和楊照先生所以為的完全相反。

In fact, readers of light novels pay close attention to the authorship, for example, they will follow big authors like Nagaru Tanigawa; the content of light novels are usually varied and distinctive, and they are not repetitive (at most in the covers), the opposite to what Mr Yang has suggested.

….我想由此看來,楊照先生並沒有看過任何輕小說,如此,「不想讀承載陌生內容的書,不想讀要求他們發揮好奇心努力去解釋的書」的敘述,應該是適用在楊照先生身上,而不是輕小說讀者。

…I think Mr Yang has never read any light novels himself, thus, the paragraph describing light novel readers as people who “don't want to read books that carry unfamiliar content and require them to read with curiosity” is more applicable to describe Mr Yang's reading attitude.

網路上以訛傳訛的文章很多,為什麼我要特別找楊照先生的麻煩?這是因為楊照先生並不是普通網友,他是「知識份子」的代表,主張著閱讀的重要性,但是這樣德高望重的楊照先生,卻在寫文章的時候,不顧基本的正確性,而是像他想批評的「缺乏思考的讀者」一樣,在一知半解的狀況下胡亂發言,這才是真正代表著知識的墮落,與缺乏閱讀(楊照先生若有心想了解何謂輕小說,就算不親自閱讀,上網搜尋一下也有很多資料)。

There are a lot of ungrounded assertions online, and why do I particularly find faults on Mr. Yang? Because Mr Yang Chao is not a normal netizen, he is a representative of “the intellectuals”, who keep promoting reading culture. When such a respected figure as Mr Yang did not take basic factual accuracy into account while writing, and talked with the same limited knowledge as “the thoughtless readers” he has criticized, the value of “knowledge” and “reading” is ruined. (If Mr. Yang really wanted to know what is light novel, he can just go online and search the information even if he did not want to read the novel by himself.)

plamc cites the vampire fantasy romance series Twilight as an example: when Twilight was first translated into Chinese as ‘Vampire Darling’ (吸血鬼達令) and published as a light novel in Taiwan, only 3,000 copies were sold. When it was latter re-translated into ‘City of Twilight’ (暮光之城) and published as a real novel, 300,000 copies were sold. This means light novels are not a fixed genre and Taiwanese readers are not such diehard fans:

輕小說有固定小眾支持的族群,有一定的銷售量,當其他書表現不好時,它看起來排名很前面,不代表它就是受到普遍歡迎,就像以往出版界說「哪年推理小說上排行榜,表示那年書市很差」一樣(推理小說也是有固定族群支持)。

Light novels are supported by a stable minority community, which guarantees constant sales. When other books do not sell well, light novels rank highly in the book market. However, it does not mean that they are popular. Just like the publishers used to say, “when detective fictions rank on top, the year's book sales were terrible.” (Detective fiction is also typically supported by a stable community.)

看到小眾讀物浮上榜,表示我們這些大眾小說的作者們要自我檢討,輕小說的讀者群自看自的,突然間被推上台面猛罵,其實是其他書表現不好,實在是關他們什麼事呢?

Seeing these minority novels occupy the top of the annual book sales charts, the authors of popular novels should in fact reflect upon themselves rather than condemn light novel readers. They have their own reading culture and should not be blamed for other books’ poor performance in the market.

Light novelist and blogger EverDark also discussed the existing problem in the categorizing [zht] of light novels. He criticized some publishers’ rigid requirements and definitions of light novels when calling for submissions, and suggested that the writers should be given more authority in defining the genre of their novel.

There are many light novel reader discussion groups and forums in Taiwan, one of them is on Gamer.com.tw.

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