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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


…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.


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:


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.)


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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