Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Light & Dark Novels

This is a bit of an epilogue to the recent series of posts. I've been thinking about this post Ben Cheah posted on Steemit about the difference between old pulp novels and current Japanese light novels. It turns out there is quite a bit of difference.This also pair with a post on Twitter from a user (@deffik_) that goes into more detail on how current light novels are being made in Japan.

For those that don't know, Light Novels are short punchy books usually no longer than an old pulp novel. They are focused on action, they blend genres, and they are massively popular. However, despite the similarities to the old pulp novels, there are quite a few differences. And those differences are quite large.

So let me sum up my thoughts on this here.

Several authors I have followed on social media including those such as JimFear138, Rawle Nyanzi, and Mr. Cheah himself have all come to the conclusion that light novels (or at least the modern ones they've read) are simply not well written at all. Ever since the Pulp Revolution started, this has been a common topic rising up again and again. What are these books missing that they simply don't hit the mark? After all, they appear to give what so many of us what we were asking for.

As these men are highly into the Pulp Revolution, and also anime and manga fans at that, one might wonder exactly what they're talking about. After all, doesn't a significant chunk of both consist of adaptions from these light novel stories? They're short books, written fast and without any notion of genre boundaries, and they contain constant motion. Surely this should be what those in the Pulp Revolution asked for.

Well, read the Steemit post above and come back here. Did you read that prose? It was all telling and no showing. It reads like the blurb on the back of a book. There's no character or imagination. It's all surface, no depth. The words and grammar have no creativity to them, and I don't mean in a workshop sense. It reads like fiction by an assembly line. And it might actually be.

Of course, there's a very good possibility the translation is to blame. There have been many bad translations that suck the air out of books before. However, I don't believe that's the case here. First is that I've read good books in this style before (the first Vampire Hunter D book is full of character and life) and second of the news coming out of Japan from the Twitter post mentioned above. The following images are from him.

It looks like the assembly line assumption isn't that far off the mark. The industry is just throwing anything out there to see what sticks. Quality control is a myth.

What you have here is the fact that the market is so overstuffed with trash that no one actually pays attention to the prose or anything below the surface level. It's just cranked out to sell because no one has any incentive to get better from merely writing words down. Why bother with learning to write when you'll make money simply from having an Isekai, an over long title, and a harem of girls in the story? This is a long way from the days of Crusher Joe and Vampire Hunter D when you couldn't rely on trends to keep you afloat. They had to actually try.

Where the West has the problem of getting anybody to buy anything, the East has the problem that anybody will buy anything.

In other words, Japan has the complete opposite problem we do. We have writer workshops and seminars focused on purpling prose until it hemorrhages, but no focus on stories that excite or lift up the reader to make them happy enough to pick up the next book. In Japan they have writers who don't even need to learn to write because people will buy it for the tropes anyway. These are two different ends of the problem. There's no balance here, and that's the real issue.

Prose is important and so is readability. But they work together. You write a sentence to engage the reader into the action, not to show off. That includes flow and the proper nouns, adjectives, and verbs to get them breezing through to the next plot point. You don't want a reader to stop in the middle of an action scene because of a poorly worded phrase or have them slumber through a conversation because the character's are merely giving an info dump to the reader. You want it to roll off the page and have enough creativity that it lifts the reader into your world. Both plot and prose are needed to achieve this.

And who achieved this synthesis better than anybody?

That's right! The pulps.

In fact, Mr. Cheah's post is about exactly that. While we can't get hung up on prose like those in Traditional Publishing do to the expense of their audience, we also can't just throw words into a junk-heap resembling a novel and expect people to buy it.

My question in this is how this ended up happening, and why? Is it because of a lack of Mutation or Death that Western genre writers sank into after being infiltrated by nihilists and moral cultists? Why were the Japanese not chased from reading like those in the West were? Their standards might have lowered, but they still pick up books. That's more that one can say about today's market. So what is the difference?

To be honest, this looks like what would have happened if Weird Menace didn't die with magazines and continued on to the mainstream to become the dominant form. Instead of pointless slogs through crybaby snark land we would have fast action packed books . . . that don't ultimately have anything to them at all. That is what Weird Menace was. These stories were just exploitative violence and sex created to titillate, which is exactly what modern light novels are meant to do.

For those who don't know, Weird Menace was a subgenre in the pulps that focused on merging the detective story with weird tales, but not in the way you might hope. There's an eerie menace that breaks the norm like in weird tales but it is always explained away at the end as something completely natural and scientific by the end. There are hard bitten protagonists like in detective stories, but they rarely have much in the way of integrity or morals. What Weird Menace did was stripe the wonder and morality out of both styles to leave the hollow shell of excitement and action behind. And for the longest time the stands were flooded with those gory and sex-filled covers. If you want to know why all the classic pulp writers are tarred as some of the worst people to ever pick up a pen even today it is because when the average person thinks "pulp" they think of Weird Menace, which none of the best writers engaged in.

This is what the writing landscape in Japan is basically like now. I can't decide if this is worse than what we have here, but traditional publishing is dying and we still have movements like the PulpRev to help set us straight. I'm not sure if Japan has anything like that there or if they're really interested in changing the norm. I do, however, feel sorry for the better writers who get overshadowed simply because they don't want to write another story about a big breasted fantasy video game mage inexplicably attracted to a hapless nerd from Japan. I do hope they have a way to do what they want and reach success, but it is a shame the market is as flooded as it is.

So, yes, modern light novels are not very good, and are not what the standard should be, but neither should the dark and depressing dirges that consist of lumpy and awkward works like Chuck Wendig Star Wars books or whatever overwrought claptrap is winning the Hugo Award this year. We have a middle ground to hit, and it is where the revolution is destined to travel.

Let's just be sure not to get lost along the way. The road ahead has many curves.

If you want to see how a light novel should act, my book is much closer to it. It is fast, to the point, and with plenty to keep you entertained. There is more going on under the surface, too. And I can guarantee that the prose does not read like a first draft! That's the influence of real pulp for you.

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