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We're spoiled today. If you want entertainment, we got movies, video games, books, music, comics and many other things. You want a story, you have many choices.
People in the 19th century weren't so lucky. With entertainment being far more limited, you had to learn to enjoy what little you could get your hands on. Around the time of the American Civil War, literacy in the US began to increase considerably, and just around then, a new form of entertainment was invented. The dime novel. (It also had a UK equivalent known as the penny dreadful.)
Dime novels were basically books aimed primarily at immature adults but soon became popular with preteen and teenage boys, and they were largely pulp adventure fiction. Tough men going on exotic adventures around the world, fighting villains wherever they went - it was basically "turn off your brain" stuff, but provided the adrenaline rush and imagination boys wanted.
High-brow critics quickly derided the quality of the storytelling, and "dime novel" soon became a derogatory term for cheap, sensationalistic stories in general.
Dime novels were highly sought after. In tough economic times, boys would sometimes get together with their friends to scrounge up enough money to be able to afford a dime to buy the novels, and then try to get as much enjoyment out of them as possible. Nowadays, a book that lasts just as long barely costs anything by our current standards, and if you enjoy reading, you probably own a lot of them anyway. But back then, any entertainment you could get your hands on was precious material, and dime novels fit a specific need.
The dime novel itself changed in format a number of times. The term referred not only to 10 cent books as described above, but both 15 cent books, and also to "story papers", a sort of newspaper-like format that contained multiple stories encompassing detective serials and globetrotting adventures. Due to changes in publishing, the price of these dropped to 5 cents, but the term "dime novel" remained in use.
Dime novels were hardly known for their characterization. Plot was king, and the whole point was to be exciting and entertain the newly literate audience.
The style of storytelling of the dime novel has lived on even today. Cliffhanger movies told essentially the same types of stories as dime novels, and the Indiana Jones and The Mummy movies are essentially the dime novel in big budget form. While our entertainment today is much more sophisticated, there's still a market for low-brow high adventure stories. Heck, even many of today's video games have roots in these.
These types of works tended to contain:
- The Chick - The defining characteristic of almost any woman character. Sadly, their sheer lack of characterization resulted in many boys objecting to any female character on the sole basis that she would inevitably turn out to be bland and uninteresting.
- Distressed Damsel - Women did not get much in the way of important roles in these books, that was for sure.
- Mighty Whitey - The hero naturally tends to become this when he visits any exotic land.
- Train Job - When focusing on famous outlaws of the time, particularly Jesse James.