The meaning of “OELVN”

For the unaware, OELVN is an acronym for “original English language visual novel.” However, as an acronym, it is a bit artificial in the sense that you’re unlikely to find the phrase “original English language visual novel” appear in any context other than to explain the definition of the acronym OELVN.  Unlike most acronyms, which are spawned as abbreviations of common phrases, OELVN is actually a combination of two acronyms, “OEL” and “VN.”

The “VN” abbreviation should be relatively common and intuitive for those familiar with visual novels, and it’s common to see it employed for the sake of brevity. “OEL” is a bit of an oddity, though. The earliest usage of the acronym OEL is to refer to “OEL manga,” or “manga written in English (by non-Japanese authors).” However, by commonly-accepted definition of the word “manga,” this alleged “OEL manga” is not truly manga at all. “Manga,” being the Japanese word for “comics,” is used outside of Japan to refer to Japanese comics, and to use it to describe non-Japanese works is misleading. (Non-Japanese comics, according to that commonly-accepted definition, cannot be manga!) However, because “manga” is hip and trendy among younger consumers while traditional western comics have struggled in recent years to reach a younger audience, the fictitious term “OEL manga” was invented so that western comic book artists could market their works to fans of Japanese comics.

Visual novels, however, are different. Unlike Japanese words like “manga” and “anime,” “visual novel” isn’t language-specific. There are visual novels written by authors of a multitude of nationalities in variety of languages, including Japanese, English, Russian, and Korean, just to name a few. There’s no need to divorce non-Japanese works from the term “visual novel.”

OEL is a term that exists largely for the purpose of allowing the use of the word “manga” to describe works that are not actually manga. In that sense, I feel that applying the same qualifier to visual novels actually undermines non-Japanese visual novels, because unlike OEL manga, which is not actually manga, OEL visual novels are visual novels. “OEL manga” and “manga” are actually exclusive terms, but “OELVN” is just a subset of “VN.”

The term “OELVN” becomes especially cumbersome when you consider applying the same qualifier to Japanese visual novels. The idea of referring to Japanese visual novels as “OJLVNs” seems silly, so why do the same with English visual novels?  Moreover, in the context of an English-speaking community, many common uses of “OELVN” become redundant. You wouldn’t announce to your English-speaking friends that you are writing an “original English language novel.”

Another reason to avoid the OELVN distinction for your own work is that it puts you into a smaller pool of works. Rather than being compared to visual novels (including those of Japanese origin), you are inviting users to place you in the same category as all those other projects made by English-speaking devs. For the unambitious, this may not be an entirely bad thing, since the current pool of non-Japanese visual novels is relatively starved for quality, and you may benefit more from a comparison to other works not particularly renowned for their quality.  But do you really want your work to be associated more with the (sometimes negative) connotations that the term “OELVN” may carry?  Do you want people to look at your work and say it’s “good for an OELVN?”  Or do you want people to critique it as a visual novel, without undue regard for the original language?

All that being said, I don’t expect the term “OELVN” to leave the vocabulary of the visual novel community any time soon. At this point, its definition is pretty well-established within visual novel communities, and it’s the most laconic way to refer to visual novels originally composed in English (as opposed to non-English visual novels which were later translated into English).  However, those within the visual novel community may want to consider the connotations the term may carry before using it as the default term to describe certain works, especially their own.