What does Dickens (Victorian Englishman, man of letters, and social reformer) have in common with Prince (Midwesterner, composer, and multi-instrumentalist)? On the face of it, not much. This unexpected pairing is, however, the basis for Nick Hornby’s new book Dickens and Prince, which aims to show how each artist was a “particular kind of genius” who “lit up the world.” Hornby compares the two men in chapters organized partly by chronology (“Childhood,” “Their Twenties,” and “The End”) and partly thematically (“The Movies,” “The Working Life,” “The Business,” and “Women”). It is a strange and intriguing dual inquiry that Hornby sets before readers, and by the end of the short book, he pulls it off with interesting, if rather mixed, results.
The introduction begins by citing the coincidence that first caught Hornby’s attention, that both Dickens and Prince died at about fifty-eight (a little younger in the latter’s case). This comparison being tenuous, as Hornby is aware, their true commonality is prodigious creative output. Writing of the Sign o’ the Times box set, which includes forty-five songs not on the original album, Hornby wonders, “Who else ever produced this much? Who else ever worked that way?” And thus the strange pairing of Dickens and Prince begins. Hornby then expands on this somewhat vaguely by classifying them among, “for want of a more exact term,” what he calls “My People,” a personal definition based on the artists he considers his “influences and role models and heroes.” The novelty of the pairing does not quite overcome the sense of its arbitrariness. This chapter does, however, include a fair amount about Hornby’s university years, when he first encountered both Dickens (through Bleak House) and Prince (through “I Wanna Be Your Lover”), an autobiographical element that binds an otherwise structurally loose chapter, as do other such tidbits that intersperse the remainder of the book.
In the chapters “Childhood” and “Their Twenties,” the triumphs of Dickens and Prince seem both impossible and inevitable. Readers follow Dickens from his tumultuous childhood, during which he briefly worked in a boot blacking factory while his father served a sentence in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison, through years in his teens and early twenties as a reporter, on to the enormous commercial success of his first novel The Pickwick Papers, published at age twenty-four. Prince, too, ascended vertiginously from hardship to success. After his parents’ divorce, he spent his teens living in a friend’s basement-cum-rehearsal space with little to keep him company except bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums. After the paltry sales of the first four albums, each a “startling demonstration of virtuosity” on many instruments, Prince found major commercial success with 1999 at the same age: twenty-four.
While interesting, the middle chapter “The Movies” is one of the weaker chapters, where the comparison is strained: Prince starred in and directed films in the late twentieth century whereas Dickens died in 1870, when photography was still a rudimentary technology. The Prince portion necessarily dominates the chapter, furnishing interesting information about the Purple Rain period. Dickens, having died before the advent of film, had no involvement in the numerous film adaptations of his work, but his novels did, as Hornby briefly notes, influence directors Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith, a connection Hornby would have done well to plumb further. In spite of the centrality of Purple Rain the film in Prince’s oeuvre, and in pop culture more generally, what little there is on it (and even less on his other films) makes for a slight chapter.
In “Working Life,” with the chapters on childhood and young manhood, is the book’s strong point. These were men with unearthly, uncanny capacities for work. Dickens started writing Oliver Twist before finishing The Pickwick Papers, and then he began Nicholas Nickleby while still writing Oliver Twist. He “could keep two books alive in his head at once”—two enormous sets of characters, “two plots, two different tones.” That he called himself The Inimitable was a bit of justified boasting. Hornby insightfully compares this working method with the cautious writing bromides now in circulation: rewrite and revise many times, write for tomorrow and not today, never expect more than a usable fifth of a page per day, cut mercilessly, and go slowly. Dickens never did any of this. Throughout his three-decade career, he “wrote by the seat of his pants for serial publication,” making minor changes when the numerous installments were collected and printed in book form. There is “something very liberating about [Dickens’s] way of doing things, because it immediately explodes the idea that there is a right way of doing things.” Hornby suggests that aspiring artists would do well to aim for production rather than perfection.
The penultimate chapter “Women,” like “The Movies,” rests on a tenuous, strained comparison. Even Hornby acknowledges as much, writing that women “were their weakness” and then adding that the statement is “such a cliché” that he is “embarrassed” to have written it. The chapter is, however, intermittently illuminating. Prince, for his part, cultivated close relationships with numerous female musicians, and he wrote many hit songs for them (“Manic Monday” perhaps being the most notable example). Although Hornby overlooks this fact, it is also worth noting that some of Prince’s alter egos were female. Dickens’s women issues were simpler, and he occupies much less of the chapter. His affair, estrangement, and divorce are covered well enough for an introduction to the Dickens biography, but where Hornby shines is in the too brief psychological readings of Dickens. Why is it that the young, attractive, and kind female characters are, as Hornby calls them, such drips? Why are the “older women,” the “grotesques and caricatures,” so much more interesting? Hornby suspects that whatever was “dammed up deep within” Dickens is what made his relations with and writing about women bizarre. It is unfortunate that Hornby devoted only a few pages to such an interesting inquiry.
When they had been famous in their respective times for over three decades, they died. “And when death came,” Hornby writes, “it came both suddenly and in slow motion.” Each artist died while still working prodigiously, encountering mixed response and even critical silence. “But the addiction to work went on,” Hornby writes. Enormous oeuvres were left behind. In Prince’s case, the archive of unreleased songs is estimated to contain “five thousand to eight thousand” recordings, enough for “a ten-song album every six months for the next three or four hundred years.” As happened with Dickens, a few generations of critics will likely come and go before the extent of Prince’s achievement will be understood.
At the end of the book there is disappointment in the possibilities left unexplored. Maybe the most glaring issue is the lack of engagement with the implications of the subtitle, A Particular Kind of Genius. What is genius? Remarks on enduring popularity and critical approval do not quite answer the question. Furthermore, that Dickens and Prince are posited as a particular kind of genius implies the existence of other kinds. Perhaps a short study meant for a general readership can’t be expected to engage with theories of genius and the canon, but some investigation of a term crucial to the book’s premise seems warranted.
In spite of these flaws, missed opportunities rather than missteps, it is a charming book that mostly reads like two brief biographies with pleasant digressions. The shortcomings in coverage and thoroughness may be due to Hornby’s conception of the book less as a critical study than a kind of creative call to arms, which he sounds in the final lines. “What matters to me,” he writes, “is that Prince and Dickens tell me, every day, Not good enough. Not enough. More, more, more. Think quicker, be more ambitious, be more imaginative.” If the idea is to leave the reader wanting to strive for more and to take these two remarkable figures, as models, to visit and revisit bits of the vast corpuses to learn a thing or two about craftsmanship, then Hornby succeeds well enough.
Dickens and Prince
by Nick Hornby
Published November 15th, 2022
Eric Vanderwall is a writer and musician. His fiction has appeared in Pathos, The Nabokovian, and The Ekphrastic Review. Book reviews and other nonfiction writing have appeared in Philip Roth Studies, Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. He has released two solo guitar albums. Learn more about his music at www.ericvanderwall.com.