Talk about an unexpected premise.
In “Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius,” (2023, Riverhead Books) the author of “About a Boy” draws parallels between the most influential author of the Victorian age and a musical provocateur whose career spanned genres, challenged gender roles, and produced some of the most enduring music of the 20th century.
I picked up the book mostly out of curiosity, to see if Hornby could pull off this stunt: comparing artists who lived 150 years apart, occupied different creative realms, and outwardly could not have seemed more different. The answer is an unqualified “yes.”
In childhood, both Dickens and Prince endured poverty and abandonment. Dickens was passed around among relatives, and at 12, was forced into factory work while his parents were in debtors’ prison. Prince was homeless as an adolescent, and slept for a time in a friend’s basement.
In their twenties, both shot out of obscurity to become world-famous. Both became known for their prolific output: Prince recorded 40 studio albums, and Dickens wrote millions of words. Neither was conventionally handsome, but each was known as a great lover in his day.
If you consider yourself an artist in any discipline, reading about these guys—their compulsive creativity, astonishing bodies of work, and limitless fame and acclaim—can be a little daunting. I, for one, find it challenging to produce a magazine article in a week or a book in a year, and the process is always fraught with insecurity and struggle. Not so for Dickens and Prince. They apparently didn’t know the meaning (and misery) of writer’s block or the musical equivalent. They kept producing, without the self-censor that keeps a lot of creative work stuck in a drawer.
"Dickens and Prince" reveals the working lives of two greats in a way that entertains, inspires, and, okay, makes the rest of us feel just a little inadequate. But few can claim the title of genius. Maybe the best we can do is use their example as a prod to do more, and do it more freely.