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Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls

The statistics on fiction genres we noted here a couple of posts back reminded us of dime novels and penny dreadful, the harbingers, you might say, of today’s $3.9 billion fiction industry. But to say “reminded,” may be a bit of a reach or a tall claim. How old would we have to be to have known and purchased these early products of popular fiction? We would have to be 160 years old or older–say 15 years of age in 1865. The first dime novel hit the market in 1860, and volume had built by about ’65. As Louisa May Alcott could have told us—she was a major, major contributor to this literature, but most of the titles she wrote are unknown—the typewriter hadn’t been commercialized yet; it appeared in 1874 (and was probably, at first, beyond the budgets of the poorest scribblers). Eventually they could all afford them; until then their hands literally hurt after churning out 50,000-plus-word fiction at breakneck speed.

All this wisdom comes from a delightful website maintained by the Stanford University Libraries here. To get a genuine feel for the “start-up” phase of fiction publishing for the masses, an extended visit there is highly recommended.

Penny dreadfuls? They are the name for dime novels in England. This type of publication was also called “story papers.” Stanford has a collection of more than 8,000 such publications, a genuine treasure. Incidentally, all of the genres had their birth in this phenomenon, including even science fiction. Jules Verne’s works all issued as dime novels. We show the cover of a sci-fi juvenal by Richard R. Montgomery here from Stanford’s site and hope they don’t mind. We’re just trying to promote their great collection—and let a little glory shimmer on Dwarf Planet in the process.


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