Prince and Charles Dickens—Are They Creative Cousins?

A new book draws parallels between Dickens and the Purple One, and the argument may prove more convincing than you’d think
by Nick Hornby, 192 pages, Riverhead Books, $18
“Dickens and Prince:
A Particular Kind of Genius”
by Nick Hornby, 192 pages, Riverhead Books, $18

I was skeptical when I learned that author Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) wrote a book comparing Charles Dickens to Minnesota superstar Prince, titled “Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius,” to be released November 15. But the more I read, the more I understood the connection.

Hornby hooks the reader early, discussing the fact that both artists died in their late 50s—Prince was 57; Dickens was 58—and by age 12, they were on their own. After Prince’s parents got divorced, his father kicked him out for allegedly bringing girls home, forcing him to live in his friend’s basement. At 12, Dickens was sent to live in a boardinghouse where he labored away in a shoe blacking factory.

Much of the 192-page book is dedicated to Hornby tracing the arc of their careers, beginning with the success they both achieved in their 20s. By 29, Prince released “1999,” “Purple Rain,” and “Sign O’ The Times.” Many songs from these albums, including “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette,” are still in heavy rotation on radio stations and streaming services worldwide. By 26, Dickens had written two critically acclaimed novels, “Oliver Twist” and “The Pickwick Papers.” 

But Hornby is not just interested in reporting on their accomplishments; he also delves into the uniqueness of their creativity and why they were so prolific. Were they born with God-given talent? Did early trauma motivate them to be perfectionists? Were they afraid of failure? These are some questions that Hornby attempts to answer, although one thing is sure: Prince and Dickens were obsessed with perfecting their craft. In his teens, Dickens taught himself shorthand and worked as a journalist. Prince purchased records from a local record store and copied lyrics “to break down a line, to see what it’s made of.” 

Hornby also writes about their financial responsibilities. Prince signed a $100 million deal with Warner Bros. in 1992, and, at the time of his death, Dickens’ estate was worth $58 million in today’s money. However, they had a lot of expenses. Prince’s overhead, which included the upkeep of Paisley Park, topped $2.5 million per month, and Dickens had 10 children to feed. Hornby closes his intriguing tale of two artists with the indelible impact of their legacies, which includes Prince’s unforgettable Super Bowl XLI halftime show in 2007. Hornby’s masterful comparison conjures the lives of Dickens and Prince, reminding readers of just how special they were.

Pre-order “Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius,” on Amazon.

Wayne Catan is a book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Millions, Chapter 16, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, where he also serves as the head wrestling coach.