Review: ‘Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius,’ by Nick Hornby

Review: ‘dickens And Prince: A Particular Kind Of Genius,’ By Nick Hornby
Riverhead/TNS/TNS

"Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius" by Nick Hornby. (Riverhead/TNS)

NONFICTION: A breezy, entertaining look at the similarities between two artistic greats, a 19th-century Brit and a 20th-century Minnesotan.

“Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius” by Nick Hornby; Riverhead (169 pages, $18)

Event: Club Book, 10:30 a.m. Nov. 19, virtual appearance. Go to clubbook.org/portfolio-posts/nick-hornby

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Both had rough childhoods, after which they worked tirelessly in what amounted to apprenticeships. In their 20s, both made attention-getting breakthroughs — and romantic decisions — they’d regret. Both died in their late 50s but remain bankable stars.

Does this make Charles Dickens and Prince creative soulmates? Of course not. Such career trajectories aren’t uncommon in the arts, sports and other fields. But for a disparate pair, “The Pickwick Papers” author and the Paisley Park hitmaker have astonishing commonalities, Nick Hornby contends in his new book.

Plainly, this is not among the crucial concerns of our time. But if you care about how and why art is made — or if you just love “Little Dorrit” and “Little Red Corvette” — “Dickens and Prince” was written with you in mind.

Hornby’s heroes are most alike in their approach to work. This occurred to Hornby when he revisited Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” an expanded edition of which, released in 2020, contained more than 60 songs that weren’t included on the original double album.

“I thought, ‘Who else ever produced this much? Who else ever worked that way?'” Hornby writes. “It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but then I realized there was an answer: Dickens.”

It’s hard to think of a contemporary author better equipped to write this book. In Hornby’s 1995 “High Fidelity,” a novel about the bliss and woes of deep music fandom, a character names a Prince tune as one of her all-time favorites. In “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” a column Hornby wrote for the Believer from 2003-21, Dickens made numerous appearances.

Hornby detects several similarities between the men. Unhappy with his recording contract, Prince was photographed with the word “slave” written on his face. Dickens, too, felt he was underpaid, complaining in a court filing, and in the pages of “Nicholas Nickleby,” about competing publishers stealing his work.

Attempting to demonstrate that Prince and Dickens’ work remains important — something that seems self-evident — Hornby undermines his argument by marshaling flimsy evidence. The album “Purple Rain,” he writes, “was placed by the Library of Congress on the National Recording Registry.” This sounds lofty, but it’s one of 600 recordings so honored since 2000. Likewise, Hornby’s chapter on Dickens’ and Prince’s uneven love lives does nothing to bolster his thesis.

But it’s hard to argue with Hornby’s main contention: that the lack of a creative “off switch” distinguishes Prince and Dickens from most of their respective contemporaries. Prince wrote and recorded scores of songs in 1986 alone. Over 30 months at the end of the 1850s, Dickens wrote both “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Great Expectations.”

“Nobody,” Hornby writes, “ever worked harder than these two.”

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Kevin Canfield is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune’s books coverage.