Light novel adaptations are interesting things.
There - I've said it. I actually enjoy the genre that LNs and their adaptations represent, both academically and personally. Maybe it's just the blogs I subscribe to or people I chat with, but the genre of LN adaptations seems to stir up strong feelings on both sides of (Western) fandom when it comes up online, especially since they're all the rage nowadays. Is the extensive adaptation of the genre a good thing? I don't know (although the response might be similar to ), and I'm not going to try to discuss the deeper issues behind what LN adaptations mean for the anime industry and the fanbase as a whole today. Instead, I'm going to put things in groups and pretend like it's somehow important to stick labels to things.
One thing I've noticed though that for all their use nowadays, LN adaptations, like any media, tend to fall into several decently well-defined categories. As far as I can tell, there are essentially three main groups , which are as follows:
* THE LN - the LN adaptation that is "just" an adaptation of a story. While the quality of the story and the themes it deals with may vary wildly, the story is just meant to be conveyed as such. Examples include SAO and Hyouka.
* THE META-AWARE LN - the LN adaptation that is aware that it is a story and/or adaptation. It constantly puts itself in perspective (e.g. by referencing otaku culture) and references others stories or aspects of itself (e.g. the fact that it's an anime), and often can break the "fourth wall" between viewer and show. OreShura and Haganai are good recent examples I think.
* THE META LN - the LN adaptation that not only aware that it is a story and/or adaptation but who's elements actively deal with the abstract mediums themselves. Examples include the -monogatari series as well as OreImo.
Obviously these categories, like most, are fluid - and LN adaptations are no exception. I also find that these groupings can easily be applied more generally to group most anime shows. Furthermore, while adaptations will frequently fall between categories, most shows tend to gravitate towards one side of the spectrum.*
So why split everything into categories like this? What's the motivation behind trying to group these things? Sometimes there's no reason for it - it just makes it easier to organize my thoughts and makes me seem more intellectual (look at me, I'm meta-aware!). In this case though, it's because I've noticed the level of enjoyment I get out of a show is quite strongly predicated on which category the LN adaptation falls into. And so the quicker I can sort shows into these groups (and I think you definitely should be able to within the first 3 episodes, and possibly without seeing any!), the better I'll be able to pick what I should keep up with.
My preference is definitely towards (3), because I love things that I see as legitimately clever rather than "posing" as clever, which is where I tend to group (2). This is why I thought that OreShura was shallow while Oregairu was deep. I am almost guaranteed to enjoy a show that works and executes a concept well if it falls into (3), and it's why I enjoyed OreImo as much as I did compared to many other views (watching it in a meta frame of mind made the show much more interesting). I'm still conflicted about Nyaruko-san. But I'll hopefully deal with those in another post.
The main differences between (2) and (3) are in terms of the quality/elements of storytelling. First off, let me ask a question: HOW DOES BEING META-AWARE/REFERENTIAL HELP A SHOW? Sure you gain a sense of context to help separate it from the medium, but any discerning viewer should realize that. You get some nice jokes out of it as well, which rewards viewers for making connections (although many shows make it painfully obvious) and/or for paying close attention to specific elements. But personally I don't think these further the storytelling ability of the show very much, and the humor (like all types of humor) tends to become repetitive over time. Many of the complaints about Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, for instance, actually can be seen to stem from the fact that it was rather than a (1).
So now let me ask another question: HOW DOES BEING META HELP A SHOW? Well, you do gain the same context of separation as in (2), but now instead of being a passive observer you take a position and explore it. It can gain a point of separation from the medium due to its positions, but here that is less important. Unlike the meta-aware LN, which needs to constantly try and distance itself to establish its place, the meta novel can take refuge in the medium (in fact, that might even be the thing that can truly distance it in the end). The jokes can also be there, but being meta doesn't mean you actually explicitly need to reference the source material. Being meta-aware tends to lean that way, because you continually need to prove that you actually are meta-aware of your meta-awareness. All these works instead help to contextualize the genre, rather than simply trying to define it.
Take OreImo and Oregairu for example. Both are expert subversions of genre(s) and tropes that make pointed commentaries about (otaku) culture and their nature as LNs/LN adaptations. And if we want a great example we can just turn to Bakemonogatari or Nisemonogatari, both of which do it all over the place.
But what about (1), the LN who just are simply LN? Well, here it's quite a bit tougher because it's ultimately just a story, which can swing either way in terms of quality. A story doesn't have to be self-aware or anchoring in order to be good, and indeed, many of the best LN adaptations I've seen have taken this route, such as Hyouka and Sakurasou. We can even throw in Kino's Journey since that technically is an LN adaptation. And shows like Accel World and SAO fit in here as well.
But then you get shows like H ga Dekinai and Horizon which are pretty terrible and seem to conform to a bunch of trends (they could fit in (2) as well, but I find they tend to utilize a lot of tropes without trying to subvert them). You probably could throw HenNeko in here too. And then of course you get shows like Maou-sama, which I enjoyed quite a bit and yet also conformed to all these trends.
Given these splits, we can probably split (1) into two sub-categories:
* THE LN-AS-SUCH
* THE LN-AS-ADAPTATION
I can confidently say that I enjoy much more of (1.1) and much less of (1.2), although my variability tends to be higher among the (1.1)'s and my most hated shows concentrated in the (1.2)'s. So while I'm guaranteed a more "fine" to "good" rating if I stick out a LN-as-anime-adaptation like OreShura, I'm much less likely to really enjoy it and there's a definite possibly I could hate it. However, while I usually like LN-as-such adaptations a bit more, the amount of variation between "bad" and "good" is much more significant.
LN adaptations can be divided into 3 categories (and two subcategories):
* The LN (with LN-as-such  and LN-as-adaptation )
* The meta-aware LN
* The meta LN
I find that I tend to prefer LN adaptations that fall into (3) since I see them as clever, am fairly ambivalent about those in (1.2) and (2) which I see as more "shallow" clever, and am unpredictable when it comes to enjoying (1.1) since they're all over the place. Hopefully, using this type of grouping thing can help you judge what LN adaptations (and shows in general) you might want to stick out, which is becoming increasingly relevant for me as my real life has been ramping up over the summer.
Heh - ironic that my summer in Japan is actually when I'm finding the hardest time to make time for anime.
*That said, I've noticed that an overarching theme in LN tends to involves the interplay between fantasy and reality as well as the nature of duplicity. So maybe all of them are at some level meta.