These days rather than reading Japanese novels, each which can still take me quite a long time to finish, I’ve been reading a literary magazine called 小説幻冬 (“Shousetsu Gento”, where “shousetsu” means ‘novel’ or ‘short story’) published by 幻冬社 (Gentosha). [Gotta love the name “幻冬”, which is made up for the characters for “mysterious” and “winter”]
Each isssue of this magazine contains many short works of various genres and authors. For example, the 5th volume contains around 30 works across around 350 pages.
There is a good mix of poems, essays and fiction, tending towards serious, adult oriented content (including references to sex and drugs in some of the stories). There is a collection of works that stand on their own and those that are part of a series. Personally I wish there was more of the former, since I haven’t bought every issue. For the serial works, there are sometimes character or story summaries, and even if there isn’t they can be enjoyable on their own. There are also author interviews.
There is usually at least one or two historical works, and more real-world based stories, as opposed to fantasy. While I hesitate to use the term, I guess it is a good representation of what some people consider ‘literature’.
I don’t know famous Japanese authors that well, but it seems there are some famous ones contributing, like Naoki Matayoshi of the well acclaimed Hibana (which I unofficially translated a little of here).
Generally the language is quite advanced and furigana (Kanji reading hints) is quite sparse, making this book really only suited for advanced learners of Japanese with several years of experience. I’ve seen some of the authors use kanji even in places where it isn’t frequently employed, like “一寸”. But for those that can manage the difficulty, it’s a venerable treasure trove of knowledge about Japan’s culture and language, and the unique writing style of each author keeps things interesting. One thing common to many of these stories is that there is some type of background knowledge required to fully understand them, about history, culture, a region or dialect in Japan, or some other domain of knowledge that you may not be familiar with unless you’ve lived in Japan. This is ironically the same thing that makes them so educational.
I have bought a few issues at a Kinokuniya bookstore in Portland, and I think you can probably find it online as well. The list price is 880 yen, though you’ll probably get a heavy markup if you are importing it from Japan.
I usually read a page or two of each work, and continue reading to the end for those I like, even if they are difficult. I reviews one of those here, and translated a part of another here (both are from a previous issue). One of my favorite stories from volume 5 was 銀河食堂の夜 by さだまさし, which was a good combination of great writing and story.
The great part is that even if your Japanese level is a bit lacking, you can try to get through one of the shorter stories (some are only a few pages), and the satisfaction from finishing one is very motivating. Once when I had trouble understanding with an area or two of one of the stories, I wrote to the editors and they were kind enough to give me a little help, which I blogged about here.
If nothing else, being able to sample many types of Japanese literature in one small package is very convenient, especially for those that have don’t have easy access to Japanese books on a daily basis. From a business point of view, this is also really a win-win situation since the publisher gets a chance to advertise their works and highlight certain authors. While there are a few explicit ads telling you to check out a certain book, those are interesting in themselves.
By the way, I have also seen a similar-looking literary magazine called オール讀物 (Ooru Yomimono), though it appeared to be even more difficult than Shousetsu Gento.