Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Penny Fiction


By James Payn

Nineteenth Century January 1881.

I have never seen this obscure article cited in any works of penny fiction but it is a fine humorous look at the penny dreadful style and includes some reference to Jack Harkaway. Payn was not the first author to attribute the terse one-line at a time writing style of the penny dreadful to Alexander Dumas. A writer in the Eclectic Review said in 1868 (“Literature of the Poor”) “One of the main objects of their author is to spin them out to an alarming extent; if this can be accomplished, and it usually is, one of the chief aims is obtained; but the method by which this is achieved is rather disappointing to a reader who studies the quality of what he reads, and not its quantity. Taking Dumas as a model, they endeavor to imitate his terse, epigrammatic, and progressive style of dialogue, but unfortunately fail in producing the same effect as that lively writer; for although Dumas frequently enters into unnecessary detail, in the questions and answers made and given by his characters, yet it all adds somewhat to the interests of the story. Our authors, on the contrary, make their tales drag by an unnecessary number of useless queries, -- sometimes a dozen, where one would have reasonably sufficed, and the reader is repeatedly refreshed by such brisk and spirited conversation as “You are sure you saw him?” “Yes.” “Certain?” “Yes.” “Positive?” “Yes.” “You are not mistaken?” “No.” “Then I may believe you?” “Yes.” “Your statement of having seen him is correct?” “Yes.” &c., &c., &c. Each question and reply having a whole separate line devoted to itself.”

The Unknown Public by Wilkie Collins (1858) is HERE.

*Images courtesy E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra

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