12 Days of Japanese Literature: The Concept of a Novel

The concept of a “novel” is strictly a Western idea.

Novels started becoming popular in the West sometime during the 18th century. More people are becoming literate and got interested in reading novels. But in Japan, the concept of a novel never seemed to take place. Despite boasting the “first” novel, The Tale of Genji, there are plenty more short story collections that surfaced afterwards. To the Japanese, it’s just a story. The length doesn’t matter. Novels are only a thing in Japan sometime during the 20th century and they seem more interested in publishing what we would call novellas than actual novels. It is telling that the Japanese don’t differentiate novels, short stories, or anything in between by looking at the word 小説. 小説 literally means a “small story”. This word can mean novels and short story collections. To suggest something is more like what we think novels are, people sometimes describe these books as 長編小説.

Even today, we see more novellas than novels. They do have serialized fiction in magazines and volumes and this is where it gets interesting. Fiction can forever continue if the writer says so. This is why you have long series (what some Western critics would call a meganovel), even in non-genre literary fiction. Mishima Yukio’s 豊饒の海 (The Sea of Fertility) is a tetralogy and is considered as one book (a 長編小説), the same way Marcel Proust considers In Search of Lost Time as one novel.

Japan has been experimenting with how novels work too. In the West, people generally expect certain writing styles and storytelling techniques; these are often taught by a creative writing establishment that rarely tells aspiring writers to go beyond the charted boundaries. In Japan, you can do anything. You can add LINE conversations like in Takeda’s 石黒くんに春は来ない. Or the weird episodic chapters in Morimi’s first book 太陽の塔 that never really become a “full story arc”. Or the no showing, all telling in Tanizaki’s 春琴抄.

Are these novels in the strictest sense? Maybe it’s better to ask: How does the English word “novel” works in Japan? It seems it has evolved (or devolved) into a marketing term. Whenever the Japanese publishers use the word, “novel”, in all-caps it is more to emphasize the format the book is published. That usually means tankoubon and that costs a bit more than the usual bunko book.

This is where it gets confusing when we mention the term, “light novels”. To our Western minds, a light novel is a more light-hearted novel. A popular one. Pulp fiction comes to mind. The comparison has been made to young adults. But sadly, that isn’t true. If a “novel” is a marketing term to tell readers to expect a certain type of format, then light novels may be the most meaningless marketing term of them all. A book can be called a light novel as long as it is published under an imprint that markets itself publishing light novels. That is how the Japanese publishing world works.

The stereotypical “light novel” and its tropes don’t actually exist in the reality of marketing.

If this sounds extremely confusing and unintuitive, that’s because the concept of a novel is strictly Western. Nothing like this exists in Japan.

And in other countries, the Western phenomenon of a novel barely exists either. South Korea’s literature is all about short story collections. Indonesia as well. And Singapore has some novellas, but it is far more well-known in the realm of poetry and short story collections.

Which makes you think: what does it mean for something to be considered a novel? Who knows. Maybe this is important in finding a universal trait for good writing — if such an idea is possible.

It is important to remember how Western-influenced our thoughts are when we read Asian literature of any kind. Our tastes have been influenced by the communities we live in and may not bear true in other places. In the realm of translation, this is strongly felt not just in language and cultural values but how we form a book. How can we market certain works as “novels” when the idea doesn’t seem to exist? These are questions I can’t answer, but I hope they provoke some thought to you.

Tomorrow, we will survey the landscape of Japanese literature once more and examine the abundance (and importance) of literary magazines.

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