By Allen Michie
The overall thesis of this short book/long essay is that both Charles Dickens and Prince embody a certain kind of rare genius combined with a freakishly inexhaustible work ethic.
Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 192 pages, $18.
You never knew you needed a book about Charles Dickens and Prince, but I’m here to tell you that do, and, luckily, one has now been supplied by novelist and screenplay author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, An Education, and many others).
The reason you need a book about Dickens and Prince is because you don’t really need one comparing, say, Dickens and Thackeray, or Prince and Michael Jackson. Been there, done that. You could continue comparing apples to apples, and all the conventional “data-driven” scholars would stay happy. But for the rest of us who love the catalytic craziness of the humanities and the places they can take us, why not compare apples to kiwis for a change? Or apples to Cleopatra? Or apples to Tuesday?
Here’s one way to look at it: comparisons are usually either horizontal or vertical. The horizontal axis is time, with early on the left and late on the right. The vertical, up-and-down axis displays different things existing in a single moment in time. Comparative studies are typically either horizontal, comparing the same thing across time (i.e., the reception of Dickens from the 19th century to the present); or vertical, comparing different things from around the same time (i.e., popular British novelists in the 1850s).
But there’s a third way, which I like to call diagonal thinking. What if you compared two different things from two different time periods? The results could be silly or useless. But something interesting might get jarred loose when you give your conceptual categories a good shaking up.
Hornby, to his credit, doesn’t waste much time getting defensive about his comparison. Dickens and Prince coexist simultaneously in his own mind, which is no more and no less the same way that other conventional comparisons would exist, and that is justification enough. “They are two of what I shall have to describe, for want of a more exact term, as My People — the people I have thought about a lot, over the years, the artists who have shaped me, inspired me, made me think about my own work.”
Hornby points out a handful of trivial coincidences for fun (it would be a pity if he didn’t) and maintains a lighthearted tone throughout. The book is written for a general readership, and there’s just the right amount of background information. Hornby is aware that the people who picked up the book because they love Dickens may not necessarily be conversant with the full Prince discography, and the people who are hardcore Prince fans may have not yet gotten around to Bleak House. I’m a casual fan of both, and I learned a lot without being made to feel guilty. The book left me wanting to explore more of both Dickens and Prince, and thinking more about similar unlikely comparisons, which is exactly what an imaginative diagonal analysis like this should do.
The overall thesis of this short book/long essay is that both Dickens and Prince embody a certain kind of rare genius combined with a freakishly inexhaustible work ethic. “There actually aren’t many artists with no off switch…. What can we learn from looking at two artists both sui generis (which is why maybe the coupling isn’t so odd), who literally had more than their fair share of talent? What did they do with it? Did it damage them in some way, personally, professionally? Is there any way of knowing where it came from?”
And, ominously but inevitably, “Did it kill them?” Both were gone at 58. The book includes an arresting photograph of Dickens taken toward the end of his life, and he looks like he’s in his late 70s.
The first two chapters discuss the early years of Dickens and Prince to look for clues about what launched their astonishing trajectories. Both grew up in poverty, as many great artists did, and both suffered from some irresponsible parenting. Hornsby doesn’t cherry-pick his facts to fit his comparisons — he explains how Prince kept his childhood almost completely out of his music, and how Dickens made creative use of his in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Even with the proviso that great pop music is usually done by people in their 20s, Prince had an amazing run of five great albums in six years, all of them early on. At 18 he was the youngest artist to ever score anything like the three-album deal he had with Warner Bros. Dickens left school at 15, taught himself to write with clerkship and journalism jobs, and had produced the massively popular serialized Pickwick Papers by the time he was 24. Both knew they were onto something rare, and both rushed in. Prince essentially lived in a borrowed studio and taught himself every instrument. Dickens gave up sleeping.
One of Hornby’s many sharp observations is the way both were in the right place at the right time to take early advantage of changes in the means of artistic production. Dickens bypassed the exploitative publishing industry entirely and increased his readership by orders of magnitude through serialization in popular magazines. Prince caught the first wave of MTV: “Prince could be beamed straight into the living rooms and — as families started to own more and more consumer goods in the 1980s — the bedrooms of his natural audience.”
Other parallels are a bit of a stretch. There’s a whole chapter on movies. Too much is made of Purple Rain, and definitely too much is made of the 1960 Broadway musical Oliver! and subsequent movie. Purple Rain was a vanity project with an embarrassingly puerile script woven in with an unfocused frenzy of recordings (“the movie came from the record, and the record came from the movie”). It caused Prince to get too big for his tight little britches: he would soon angle for a $100 million deal from Warner Bros, which contributed to his famous feud with the label. Oliver! has its problematic role in the history of Dickens’ reception in the 20th century and translation into new media. But, of course, Dickens had nothing to do with shaping it, as Prince did with Purple Rain. Hornby grumbles that the movies led audiences to “get them wrong,” but it’s unclear what “wrong” means here. Different people are going to see different media in different ways in different eras. Why should Prince the movie star be any more or less authentic to his fans than any of his other personae? And if people enjoyed Oliver! at the time, was any harm done? And if some didn’t enjoy it, did anyone really blame its flaws, aside from the charges of antisemitism pertaining to Fagin, on Dickens himself?
The most amazing chapter is the one on “Working Life,” which details their breathtaking productivity. Hornby knows it would be dishonest to attempt to come up with a rational causal explanation for it. “The truth is that nobody knows anything. All we can say for sure is that great books and great plays come from people of any background, and of any age, in any circumstance.”
Just take the example of when they were both 28. Both were natural geniuses and workaholics at the peak of their creative powers. Dickens had already written three long novels and several plays and was the editor of a monthly magazine. He was in debt and had a young family, so he kept saying yes to opportunities when they came up, including editing an additional weekly magazine. When that wasn’t enough, he began serializing what would become The Old Curiosity Shop. When Prince was 28, he was in the middle of making one of his career masterpieces, the double album Sign o’ the Times, which a recent box set revealed to have an additional 45 (!) unissued tracks. He also recorded the album Dream Factory, which became part of the triple album Crystal Ball.
But, as the story so often goes, success plants the seeds of its own destruction. The chapter on “The Business” explains how the skies darkened for Prince in his scorched-earth fight against Warner Bros. over his paycheck and ownership rights. He went to the extremes of changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and writing the word SLAVE on his cheek. In Hornby’s account, this all proved to be a distraction from his creative process: “Nearly everybody who had any time for him lost sight of him during this period. There were countless albums, and it was impossible to tell whether they were any good or not, because nobody seemed to write about them or talk about them, although with the benefit of hindsight, Spotify, and YouTube, it turned out that they mostly weren’t.” The good side of it turned out to be that Prince “found out what the rest of his colleagues discovered much later in the digital revolution: that the only money to be made was in live shows. He made peace with his past, threw the mask away, and reminded people what a breathtaking performer he was.”
For Dickens, the curse that fouled his success was the machinations of plagiarizing, pirating publishers. (“If Dickens had known about the internet, he would have lost the rest of his mind.”) The popularity of his stories led to innumerable unauthorized dramatic adaptations. The American publishers went full Napster on Dickens’s works. When Dickens suggested to a Boston newspaper that paying authors fairly for their work would assist in the creation of an American literature, the paper responded, “We don’t want one. Why should we pay for one when we can get it for nothing? Our people don’t think of poetry, sir. Dollars, banks, and cotton are our books.” However, just like Prince, Dickens discovered that live performances and direct contact with his many fans provided both more money and more career satisfaction. He developed his own one-man stage show, dramatically reading excerpts from his greatest hits, and, like Prince, he was a breathtaking performer. Though there is speculation that the wear and tear of performance contributed to his death.
Hornby, a successful novelist and screenplay writer himself, puts in his own two cents. He is frustrated by the unauthorized commercialization of his art, “But I know that I don’t own my own work. I own the copyright but I sold the work, for money, to publishers, film companies, producers. They own it. That’s the deal. That’s how I get to work more…. And creating something that someone with a head for business wants to buy is a source of pride: it brings all this hot air somewhere close to the realms of a proper job.”
Hornby has written a very clever book, but not a brilliant one. His conclusion is forcefully written, but unprofound: the lesson to be learned here is simply to work harder. “What matters to me is that Prince and Dickens tell me, every day, Not good enough. Not quick enough. Not enough. More, more, more. Think quicker, be more ambitious, be more imaginative. And whatever you do for a living, that’s something you need to hear, every now and again.” The conclusion, while honest, rings a bit hollow. The comparisons between the pair stay mostly on the surface level of their historical lives: their childhoods, their 20s, their working life, their business relations, and their relations with women.
What’s missing is comparative analysis that provides fresh insight into the power of their art and why it still affects people so deeply. Is there, for lack a better word, a groove in Dickens’s novels? Is there a sense of irony in Prince’s work, showing how the forces that pull people apart are sometimes the very forces that bind us all inextricably together?
Dickens obviously wasn’t a musician, so there’s no point in following that line of inquiry. But Prince was a writer. I know I may infuriate many of his loyal fans here, and I mean them no disrespect, but I find Prince’s use of the English language immature and irritating. It’s difficult to think of a lyricist less Dickensian than Prince. Instead of Dickens’s panoramic view of society, from the highest aristocrats to the poorest child beggars, from the battlefields of France to the drawing rooms of a country manor house, from the agonies of unfixable poverty to the exhilaration of triumph in a long-suffering courtship, Prince gives us drivel like “Do me baby, like U never done before/Give it 2 me till I just can’t take no more/Come on and do me baby, like U never done before/I want U now, I just can’t wait no more.” I realize Prince wrote some religious songs, and “Sign o’ the Times” touched on societal problems deeper than where he would find his next orgasm. But these were exceptions; they weren’t developed or sustained over the course of his career. Even when Prince’s lyrical vision looked to a horizon further than, say, six or seven inches away (ahem), the constant 2’s and the U’s in his lyrics kept things at the level of what a middle school girl would doodle in her notebook. Purple Rain is great, but it’s no What’s Going On.
Prince was brilliant at what he did, as was Dickens. Prince could throw one hell of a party. But Dickens invented complex characters out of a preternaturally dynamic imagination, hundreds of them across his career, each one memorably vivid and unique. Dickens saw deeper, reached higher, and actually moved the needle on the world’s capacity for human compassion and empathy (and continues to do so, every Christmas, to the present day). Perhaps this is looking for a different book than the one Hornsby wrote. His book is excellent for what it is. But perhaps the strongest takeaway from Dickens and Prince is that other book it gets you writing in your own mind, where you look around for other unexpected diagonal comparisons and think about the kaleidoscope of culture that makes you who you are.
Allen Michie is the author of “Jane Austen and John Coltrane,” forthcoming in Jazz and Literature: An Introduction (Routledge). He has a PhD in English Literature and works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He is the manager of the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook and the Jazztodon.com instance on Mastodon.
Allen Michie says
What are some diagonal comparisons that work for you, and why? Wittgenstein and Jagger? Picasso and Amy Tan? Palestrina and Jeffrey Koons? Let us know in the comments!
Stephen Provizer says
Thanks, nice piece.
Boxing and Jazz have been somewhat explored, as I do here: http://brilliantcornersabostonjazzblog.blogspot.com/2015/01/boxing-and-jazz.html