If your first reaction to the subject matter of Nick Hornby’s new book is a perplexed “Huh?”, you might take comfort in knowing its author had similar feelings. In superficial terms, his yoking together of two cultural giants – the novelist Charles Dickens and musician Prince Rogers Nelson – seems unusual given they operated not just in different media but different centuries. While both found fame early and died in their 50s, the bare bones of their biographies are otherwise wildly different. Before beginning his research, it seemed to Hornby that the biggest thing they had in common was him. “They are,” he writes, “two of what I shall have to describe … 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 work.”
It was a commemorative box set of Prince’s 1987 album Sign o’ the Times that gave him the idea for this book, which, at 90-odd pages, is really more of an essay. Record labels have long extended the shelf lives of dead artists by appending lost tracks, whether old demos or live recordings, on to classic albums. But the newly released Sign o’ the Times package took this to extremes, featuring an astonishing 63 unreleased songs – that’s four times as many as appeared on the original LP. This led Hornby to wonder what other artists have been as prolific as Prince, and so he alighted on Dickens.
A celebrated author by his mid-20s whose work was published in monthly instalments, we learn how Dickens wrote at high speed, releasing early chapters of Oliver Twist before the serialisation of The Pickwick Papers had ended, and publishing Nicholas Nickleby long before he was finished with Oliver Twist. This meant Dickens was able to write two books, and keep two sets of characters alive in his mind, simultaneously.
Heightened productivity is not all that these men share. Both grew up in poverty and were intermittently abandoned by their parents: Dickens moved into a boarding house aged 12 while the rest of his family were packed off to Marshalsea debtors’ prison; at the same age, Prince was kicked out by his father and forced to set up home in a friend’s basement. Both felt aggrieved at their treatment by their respective industries, which they felt prized profit over creativity: Prince’s wrangles with his record label culminated in him abandoning his name in favour of a symbol, while Dickens furiously took on the copycats and pirates who plundered his work without credit or remuneration. Finding dwindling value in physical sales, both also found new ways of working in a live arena: Prince restored his shrinking fortunes by playing a sellout 21-day residency at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena in 2007, while Dickens embarked on two money-spinning reading tours of America.
All this bears out Hornby’s hunch that two artists working 150 or so years apart can have lots in common, but there’s more to Dickens & Prince than mere comparisons. Most important is what their lives and work tell us about creativity, and it’s on this that Hornby is in his element. From his early days writing about football (in Fever Pitch) and music (in High Fidelity), the author has long been fascinated by the transformative impact of culture, so it’s natural that his ruminations on Dickens and Prince should cause him to reflect on his own status as consumer and creator. He writes brilliantly about his wariness of Dickens as a child – “[he] had the whiff of BBC early evening costume drama clinging to him” – and his subsequent Damascene conversion as a university student when he discovered the author of Bleak House could actually be funny.
Pointing to Dickens and Prince’s vertiginous rise to fame, he upends the theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to master an art – Dickens had “been writing for the Gladwell equivalent of five minutes before Pickwick … He was great and successful more or less immediately.” Elsewhere, he articulates with a fervour presumably born from experience what it is to fear failure after enjoying a major success – “People have their moment in the sun, and then the sun moves on to somebody else. Our careers seem built on nothing – words, ideas, sand” – and reflects on the ways artists can communicate from beyond the grave. The photos of Dickens and Prince that adorn Hornby’s office wall provide the impetus for him to work harder, think bigger, do better. “Whatever you do for a living,” he notes, “that’s something you need to hear every now and then.”
It’s possible that there are Dickens devotees who will bridle at finding Bleak House mentioned in the same breath as the author of songs such as Sex Me Sex Me Not. Equally, some Prince fans may stifle a yawn at finding their mercurial hero compared with a Victorian novelist. But Hornby has no time for cultural hierarchies, treating his subjects as the equals (and kindred spirits) they undoubtedly are. His book is both a love letter to two artists who have nourished him and the story of how they “caught fire and lit up the world”.
• Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby is published by Viking (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.