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What Do Prince and Charles Dickens Have in Common?

Esquire 34 mins ago Adrienne Westenfeld

Riddle me this: what do Charles Dickens, nineteenth century chronicler of social issues, and Prince, modern-day music’s master of sensuality, have in common? You’d be forgiven for struggling to come up with an answer, but for Nick Hornby, the ties are obvious—and numerous, too.

In Dickens and Prince, a slim new volume from the author of High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, the similarities between these two late luminaries come into plain sight. Both faced childhood poverty; both favored dandy-ish clothes and striking facial hair; both bristled at the strictures of their industries (Prince famously changed his name to protest his record label, while Dickens fought mightily against American copyright law). But what really links Dickens and Prince, Hornby argues, is their “particular kind of genius”—as the author reveals, both shared an extraordinary drive to create, often writing or recording late into the night, and generated massive bodies of work, even though they died before reaching sixty. “Nobody ever worked harder than these two, or at such a high standard, while connecting with so many people for so long,” Hornby writes.

But beneath the surface of this fascinating biography, there lies a warm and wise craft book about what it takes to make great art in any century. Through their prolificacy, their discipline, and their resistance to perfectionism, Dickens and Prince offer continued insight about ambition and imagination—so much so that their portraits hang in Hornby’s office. “The truth is that nobody can stay hot forever,” the author writes. “All one can hope for is that one’s talent lasts for an entire career in a way that makes some commercial sense to the people who pay for it. That’s the whole thing. That’s the prize: a lifetime spent doing what you want to do.”

Zooming from his home in London, Hornby spoke with Esquire about Dickens and Prince. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: When did Dickens and Prince begin for you?

Nick Hornby: It was when the Prince estate released a massive Sign o’ the Times box set in 2020. It was clear that Prince was working on several projects at once, so that was how there came to be an extra 63 films that hadn't gone on the original double album. I was fascinated with the idea that he was working on several things at once, then I thought, “That’s so weird. That's what Dickens used to do. He used to write two books at once.” From there on out, I just kept thinking about them. The first thing that interested me was the fact that neither of them reached 60. I've always been fascinated by poverty and creativity and how many great artists of the 20th century came from poverty. Things fell into place and I thought, “There’s enough here to write about.”

You've done exhaustive research into life and times with both these artists. What about them most surprised you?

Until the book, I hadn't followed the course of Dickens' romantic interests, and I hadn't traced it all back to the loss of his sister-in-law. That struck me as a very odd detail—he lost this very young woman who was only his sister-in-law, but it seemed to mess him up for the rest of his life and set a pattern, both in terms of the characters he wrote and also the two or three real-life infatuations that fit the same mold, including the one that eventually ended his marriage. As for Prince, I knew about these aftershows he put on—everybody did. But I didn't realize quite how frequent they were or how punishing they were for the rest of the band. One of his backing singers said that the crowd used to chant, "Six in the morning, six in the morning!” As someone who doesn't have that kind of energy, it was exhausting to read about.

Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius © amazon.com Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius

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You write, "Surprisingly little is known about Prince's childhood, which he rarely discussed." As much as we think we know about these two very famous people, there's still so much we don't know. What are some other tantalizing mysteries about Dickens and Prince that you encountered in your research?

I’d like to know more about Prince's domestic life and how it actually functioned. When he was with someone, how often was he with them? Did he ever have anything approaching a regular daily life in front of the television with a nice lady? There's absolutely no evidence that he had a domestic life, but he must have. I also want to know what happened right at the end of his life. Why did somebody call a doctor the night before he died? Why was it suddenly so urgent, and then another overdose? I don't think there was anything sinister about it apart from the misadventure, but it strikes me as a very panicky scene where he was surrounded by lots of people whom he employed, but perhaps nobody who loved him. It’s depressing, especially given that he’d nearly died a few times before he ultimately did. As for Dickens, he’s a dream dinner party guest. It seems that he was always on, always entertaining, and I'd like to read more from people who actually spent time with him.

In the book, you challenge the way we think about talent. Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve mastery, you write, “Dickens had been writing for the Gladwell equivalent of five minutes before The Pickwick Papers. He was great and successful more or less immediately.” Do you think he and Prince are outliers, or might it be useful for us as a culture to move away from this common understanding that talent is about mastery?

There are only certain fields of endeavor that this applies to. Clearly in sports, you can't run onto a tennis court and beat Roger Federer right away. It's just not possible. I would imagine chess and classical music require mastery, too. But there are all sorts of other ways of looking at talent. Think about punk rock—a lot of that music has endured culturally, but these musicians literally picked up guitars and started playing. If they couldn't play, that didn't matter so much. Some people have been thinking about doing things for a long time and not doing it; then, when they eventually get around to doing it, a lot of stuff that’s been dammed up pours out straight away.

Is thinking at all equivalent to doing? Some writers say that the time you spend thinking about what you’re writing is still writing time.

It all depends on whether you actually do it, and that’s part of the talent. I don't think there’s any such thing as squandered talent, because part of the talent is not squandering it. Part of the talent is the ability to sit down and produce even if you don't feel like it. When we talk about squandered talent, we're not really talking about true talent.

I’m reminded of the section of the book where you write about the curious case of writers who write a fantastic novel, then disappear for fifteen years. Dickens didn’t have that problem.

I've always thought that's an interesting phenomenon. I think a lot of the time, it must be about fear. I suspect that some of the time there's a lack of modesty in it, because people are thinking, “I'll never write anything better than that, so I 'm just going to shut up.” Of course, that’s believing your own press. I admire people who have an enormous success and then just write something else.

You say of Dickens that he was not a perfectionist “because he didn't have time.” Sound engineer Susan Rogers said something similar about Prince, remarking, "He wouldn't have had that output if he'd been a perfectionist. It had just poured out of him. He didn't have time to wait on perfection." How do you think that that resistance to perfectionism defined both of their lives?

It certainly defined the amount of material they produced. I added up Dickens' words and it comes to about 3.5 million. That's just the books—that doesn’t include his letters, which constitute twelve volumes that are each the size of novels. With Prince, people got weary of the amount of product and stopped taking notice, but there are some really great songs he made during the 21st century that got lost in the barrage of releases. That defined him, but I suspect people will go on discovering Prince songs over the next twenty or thirty years. They won't believe how good some of them are. Probably, this wasn’t something either of them were able to control—the need to release things, the need to get things out there, and then move on to the next. It came naturally to them, and they were fearless in that way. They both had thin skins—when they were criticized, they found it difficult to deal with, but that couldn't make them shut up.

High Fidelity © amazon.com High Fidelity

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How did writing this book change your own creative process?

I suppose it was a justification for my lack of perfectionism. Dickens and Prince felt like kindred spirits in that way, because I've always got something else that I want to be doing after the current project. I once wrote for a very prestigious American magazine and the editing process was torture; I didn't know how much better the pieces became as a result of having gone through this process. Then I moved to writing for The Believer, where the editing was incredibly light. I really don't think that the work I did for the prestigious magazine is better than the work I did The Believer. I felt that The Believer pieces possibly had more life in them because I didn’t get so bored with them. What I’ve learned is that absolutely no one can be definitive about how much time you need to spend on something. On the Road was written in two weeks. People always think stories like that are exceptional, but that’s part of it. There are books that take five years; there are books that take two weeks. There is no guarantee that the book taking you five years is going to be read in forty years time.

It's a sobering realization. Was the extra time worth it?

Think about Harold Brodkey—how terrible that people waited all their lives for his first novel! As far as I know, it’s out of print in the UK. I don't think the wait was worth it for him.

You observe that both Dickens and Prince broke a lot of rules. About Dickens, you write, "If arguably the greatest novelist in the English language wrote for today and not tomorrow, and proceeded quickly and without much care, then maybe the advice that other writers dispense isn't worth tuppence." What’s the best and the worst advice you've ever gotten about writing?

The worst advice was when I made the mistake of telling a friend about the idea for my first book. My friend said it was a terrible idea and gave me an idea that he thought was better, which was actually incredibly boring. Of course I was frightened because I was halfway through the book, but I ignored him and wrote the book I wanted to write. There’s a scary period where you have to trust your gut even though you have no experience whatsoever and you’ve never published anything before. As for the best advice, I think I give the best advice to young writers. Here’s the advice: a book is around 80,000 words. Not a long book, but a book. If you write 500 words a day, which is really just a couple of long-ish paragraphs, couple of longish paragraphs, then you can complete a book in around 160 working days. That makes the whole process seem less scary.

It seems so doable when you put it like that.

So doable. Yet that doesn't explain where my time's gone.

How do you think Dickens and Prince would relate to one another? Would they get along?

I think they would have recognized a lot about each other. Even the way they dressed—they were both dandies. Dickens spent a lot on flashy waistcoats and cravats, so I think Prince would've admired his style. But if they'd actually had a proper opportunity to talk about their working processes, they would've understood each other.

For someone who hasn’t read much Dickens or listened to much Prince, where would you recommend they start?

There’s no easy way with Dickens, because the best ones are the long ones. Great Expectations and David Copperfield are both fantastic novels—they're incredibly involving if you give them the time to involve you. No one believes me when I say that Dickens is incredibly funny, but he really is incredibly funny. He switches tones in an instant—there's the rage in him about society, especially the way that the poor and the children are treated, but he can switch in a heartbeat. There are also all these memorable characters. The best estimate is that he invented 1,500 named characters, some of whom have entered our language. Micawber the Eternal Optimist, Scrooge, Miss Havisham—they’re all still with us. When you think that he probably invented them on the hoof while writing another book because he needed to turn something out for the next episode, you have to wonder what kind of brain he had.

As for Prince, I'd start with Sign o’ The Times. It's such a varied record, possibly because he was making three different records, but it gives you the full range of what he did. The rock star, the funk star, the soul singer, the pop singer, and the eccentric. If you can't find something you like on Sign o’ the Times, then Prince probably isn't for you. But if you don’t like Prince, then something is probably wrong with you.

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