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Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius


Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius

Having produced nine novels, several works of nonfiction and multiple screenplays in some three decades, Nick Hornby is, by any standard, a prolific writer. But as he confesses in DICKENS AND PRINCE, when he compares his productivity to these towering artistic figures, in his own estimation he comes up woefully short. In this compact book, Hornby offers vibrant, affectionate sketches of two of his creative role models whose artistic lives, surprisingly, display some important common threads.

One of those shared features is that both embarked on their respective careers at an early age after difficult childhoods. Dickens went to work in a blacking warehouse at 12 years old in the midst of an impoverished childhood. After leaving school at age 15, he began writing almost immediately, and his sketches of London life formed the content of his first novel, THE PICKWICK PAPERS, originally published in a serial form that sold as many as 40,000 copies monthly. He was 24 at the time. Prince signed his original three-album deal at age 19. In his early 20s he produced four albums, turning out a total of nine in the 1980s alone, and he benefited from the popularity of MTV music videos just as his career was launched.

"In this compact book, Hornby offers vibrant, affectionate sketches of two of his creative role models whose artistic lives, surprisingly, display some important common threads."

In that chapter on his subjects’ early lives, Hornby considers the notion, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in OUTLIERS, that one cannot attain genius without 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. The brilliance of their early work seems to belie that dictum, and Hornby gives it an interesting reformulation, suggesting instead that a more accurate one is to say that deep consumption --- in Dickens’ case nightly attendance at the theater for three years, and in Prince’s a practice of transcribing the lyrics to favorite songs --- is “the minimum requirement for entry into the Genius Club.” But even with that, he admits, there is an ineffable quality to their talent.

Though both became wealthy in their respective fields, their work was exploited in different ways. Dickens became the target of outright plagiarism in knockoff versions of his work, and there were numerous theatrical adaptations of his novels without his permission. In the United States, publishers simply pirated his books. He was never able to obtain a legal remedy for these transgressions. Prince signed a deal with Warner Bros., his record company, that on paper promised to pay him $100 million, but its structure tied him to the company while almost assuring he’d never see compensation remotely close to that sum.

By any measure, the quantity of material turned out by both men was staggering. In his concluding chapter, Hornby suggests that an “addiction to work” may have contributed to their early deaths (Dickens died at age 58, and Prince a few weeks short of that birthday). However, Dickens’ complicated personal life created considerable stress, and in Prince’s case an addiction to painkillers clearly was a major contributing factor.

Dickens’ novels alone total some four million words, which only represents a portion of a literary output that included theatrical works and journalism, not to mention a massive trove of letters that stood at 14,000 when the last collection of them was published in 2002. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, Prince sold more than 100 million records, and Hornby cites one estimate that he left behind some 5,000-8,000 unreleased songs at the time of his death in 2016.

As Hornby acknowledges, the culture’s tastes in books and music are fickle, and though interest in Dickens remains high, there’s no guarantee that will persist a century from now. Still, he argues that Dickens “has won his case. If he dies out, if his novels cease to be read, it’s because novels, too, are dying out, which of course may yet happen.” Pop music is a more disposable commodity, and the advent of streaming has diminished the likelihood that all but the most devoted listeners will experience Prince’s albums in the way he fastidiously constructed them.

But in the end, for Hornby, it’s all about the work, “and nobody ever worked harder than these two, or at a higher standard, while connecting with so many people for so long.” It’s for that reason that pictures of Dickens and Prince adorn his office wall and that “they will stay there for as long as I need them, which will be for the rest of my life.” For all the flaws of their too short lives, someone aspiring to artistic greatness could do worse than to endeavor to follow in the footsteps of these giants.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 23, 2022

Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius
by Nick Hornby

  • Publication Date: November 15, 2022
  • Genres: Humor, Nonfiction, Popular Culture
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593541820
  • ISBN-13: 9780593541821