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Dickens & Prince by Nick Hornby: Two artists united by an insatiable appetite for work

Both waged disastrous, personal campaigns, in Prince’s case against his record company, in Dickens’s against unscrupulous publishers and plagiarists

Dickens & Prince – A Particular Kind of Genius
Dickens & Prince – A Particular Kind of Genius
Author: Nick Hornby
ISBN-13: 978-0241585252
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £9.99

It’s a reasonable question. What could the father of 19th-century social realist fiction and the imp of polymorphous-perverse funk-pop have in common that might justify a book-length essay from one of Britain’s most enduring popular novelists?

The answer is not genius per se, Nick Horny proposes, but something easier to quantify: an insatiable appetite for work. Not drudge work, or even dutiful work, but work generated by the white heat of creative obsession. To wit, “Talent, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has suggested, is ‘best thought of as any package of personal characteristics that accelerates the acquisition of expertise’.”

That acceleration is driven by hunger for insight and information. Dickens was many things in his life: a child labourer, a street reporter, a legal clerk, an editor and a social note-taker. His repertoire of human experiences was extensive. Prince, by comparison, was musically voracious: he’d steal from Joni Mitchell, from Jimi Hendrix, from Duke Ellington and from Sly & the Family Stone. “Perhaps it’s not ten thousand hours of practice that counts,” Hornby suggests, “maybe it’s ten thousand hours of consumption”.

In terms of psychological profiling, the two subjects overlap. Dickens was no candle-and-quill hermit; he was a social creature, a ham, a wannabe actor, a spoken-word touring artist who could fill theatres from London to Boston. Equally, Prince wasn’t just an electrifying live performer and peacock revolutionary of the video age, but also a disciplinarian bandleader and incurable studio rat who stockpiled thousands of unreleased tracks in the bunkers of Paisley Park.


Both artists raised themselves out of financial and spiritual poverty. Both achieved impossible artistic feats while still in their 20s (Prince released five classic albums in six years, Dickens published five bestsellers). Both men were led around by their libidos. Both waged disastrous, poisonous wars against The Man: in Prince’s case, his record company, in Dickens’s, unscrupulous publishers and plagiarists. Both died in their late 50s.

This is a fascinating little book. If, like me, the author’s novels are not to your taste, Dickens & Prince might just be your favourite of all his works.

Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber). His second album with Cursed Murphy Versus the Resistance, entitled Republic of the Weird, is released next month