Nick Hornby is the author of several hugely popular novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, as well as books about literature and popular music. His new book is Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius. Recently Observer executive editor James Ledbetter interviewed Hornby; this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Observer: I’m going to guess that most readers have never made a connection between Charles Dickens and Prince. I’m curious: in your own head, where did this idea come from?
Nick Hornby: It came when that Sign o’ the Times box set was released, and reading about how Prince used to be working on three different records. And it just came into my head that Dickens used to write more than one novel at the same time. Then it sort of made me smile, the thought of Dickens and Prince connected in that way. I carried on thinking about it. And there were some other things that were interesting to me: their lifespan—both dead before they were 60—the amazing output, the childhood poverty. And I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there is something here.’
Is there any evidence that Prince was a Dickens fan?
Not that I’ve come across.
Both of these artists were incredibly prolific to an almost comical extent. You could be prolific without being a genius. You could be prolific without having a legacy, but how do you think that aspect of being prolific affects their reception and their reputation?
I think that both of them suffered from it in their lifetimes. As I mention in the book, I was astonished that Bleak House couldn’t buy a review, pretty much. The meaning of Dickens has changed many times. He was trashed, he went through a reputational dip for sure, but now he’s completely cemented as certainly our greatest novelist in England, I think. But producing a lot means, the excitement when something else comes along, six months after the last thing came along…there is a sense in which you maintain excitement by not giving the public anything. But, these guys couldn’t do that. And the Prince albums that came and went, people just stopped paying any attention at all. I’ve been very surprised to find out that there are amazing songs buried amidst those albums. And given that we don’t listen to albums all the way through anymore anyway, it’s a good time to plow through and discover what else there was in Prince’s work.
You touch on something that you discuss in the book that’s so interesting to me, this idea of perfectionism. I think that people who are familiar with Prince’s methods might think of him as a perfectionist. But I think your point is, that’s not quite the right word for him. He wanted absolute mastery over every aspect of production, but that’s different from perfectionism. And I’d love for you to discuss that distinction.
As his engineer Susan Rogers said, he didn’t have the time for perfectionism. He had so many musical ideas that—even though he wanted to control how something sounded and how it was released and produced—it was always on with the next, on with the next, on with the next. I think that the cost to him was that there was no other life. Looking at both of them there are obvious costs, but I think to have that brain working every single day with no off switch for both Prince and Dickens must have been a terrible torment.
In the case of Dickens, that “next thing, next thing” was at least at times economically driven.
Yes, economically driven, but if you look at the manuscripts, he made lots of corrections. He just didn’t correct after it had been published. It was economically driven, but also technologically driven. He wanted to publish these things in serial form. So that is writing a big chunk every month.
Many Dickens readers today will know that his novels, although we read them as a whole today, were published serially. Can you talk a little bit about how that affected his work and how that compares or doesn’t compare to Prince?
I think it’s quite clear from reading Dickens that there were ways of telling those stories with fewer words for sure. There’s a fantastic little section in David Copperfield where I think he’s selling his jacket to raise some money. And he could have gone into the shop and come out with sixpence or whatever in his hand. But there are these two pages of this terrifying guy who we never have never met before, will never meet again. But the pure joy of writing it also gives an, of course, extra substance for serialization. I think he always wanted to provide a solid chunk each month, and if that meant an interesting minor character that he could run with, then he would do it. It’s kind of the opposite of how writing schools tell you to write, which is to take it all out, take it all out, take it all out. I think the joy of leaving it all in is something we’ve all benefited from. For me, Hard Times is Dickens’s least enjoyable book, and it’s easily the shortest.
One of the things you talk about is that the audience for a Victorian novel, both because of expense and literacy rates, was pretty small. But the magazines, such as Bentley’s Miscellany, allowed him a much bigger audience.
Extraordinary sized audience. There were scores of thousands of people reading those things every month. You get the sense that basically anyone who was literate read Dickens. He had this incredibly popular touch. People seemed to completely understand where he was coming from and identify with him as a writer.
In the book, you draw a parallel to Prince and MTV. Can you talk about that a little bit?
At one time Prince was struggling a little bit with the public persona, he could be so awkward on television and in interviews. There are all kinds of excruciating interviews you can find on the internet where he’s refusing to speak, or he is answering monosyllabically. Suddenly he could present himself in these videos, beaming right into teenagers’ bedrooms.
I think one distinction that most readers would draw is, we associate Dickens with advocacy for social reform: Poverty prisons, antiquated laws, antiquated institutions, and the struggle against them. It’s not obvious that Prince was engaged with the same type of material.
It is in the work sometimes. “Sign o’ the Times” is kind of a protest song or a very bitter observation of what’s going on. There’s a great song called “Baltimore,” which is (inspired by) the Freddie Gray murder. I think that the real point of contact that interests me is the abundance of work, the need to work, and the connection with an enormous popular audience.
Dickens has from the get-go always been very popular, but as we were discussing before there was a time when he was kind of relegated to a second tier. The literary critic F.R. Leavis in the mid 20th century said that he was more of an entertainer than a great novelist. I’m curious to know your thoughts about that relationship between entertainment and kind of great literature.
The cynical side of me thinks everything that survives and then becomes old becomes great literature. And that’s one of the things that’s happened to Dickens. I quote George Orwell saying that he was convinced David Copperfield had been written by a child. When you think about how we are convinced that it was written by a great and rather difficult novelist, you can see how far we’ve come in terms of what we expect from prose and fiction and direct communication. Setting that on one side, I don’t get the thing about entertainment versus great literature at all. I think that P.G. Wodehouse is a great writer, and he wrote 96 books, I think, in his lifetime and all to entertain people.
Leaving Prince to one side, do you think that in today’s English language literature that Dickens has an obvious heir? It’s not you, no offense.
No, it’s not me. It’s very hard to find those combinations, of proper humor and proper darkness. I couldn’t think of anyone.
Do you have more fun writing novels or writing about music and literature?
I find writing about music and literature easier, because it’s a form of adaptation. I’ve written a few movie adaptations. Someone’s done something for you. Once I’ve had the idea of Dickens and Prince and I’m starting to burrow, then the hard work is in the thinking rather than the writing. But I think with fiction, the hard work is both.
You’ve probably had this experience: It’s late at night and you start browsing Netflix, looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles, you watch a couple of trailers, you even read a few reviews—but you just can’t commit to watching any given movie. Suddenly it’s been thirty minutes and you’re still stuck in Infinite Browsing Mode, so you just give up. You’re too tired to watch anything now, so you cut your losses and fall asleep.
I’ve come to believe that this is the defining characteristic of my generation: keeping our options open.
The Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has a great phrase for what I’m talking about: liquid modernity. We never want to commit to any one identity or place or community, Bauman explains, so we remain like liquid, in a state that can adapt to fit any future shape. And it’s not just us—the world around us remains like liquid, too. We can’t rely on any job or role, idea or cause, group or institution to stick around in the same form for long—and they can’t rely on us to do so, either. That’s liquid modernity: It’s Infinite Browsing Mode, but for everything in our lives.
For many people I know, leaving home and heading out into the world was a lot like entering a long hallway. We walked out of the room in which we grew up and into this world with hundreds of different doors to infinitely browse. And I’ve seen all the good that can come from having so many new options. I’ve seen the joy a person feels when they find a “room” more fitting for their authentic self. I’ve seen big decisions become less painful, because you can always quit, you can always move, you can always break up, and the hallway will always be there. And mostly I’ve seen the fun my friends have had browsing all the different rooms, experiencing more novelty than any generation in history has ever experienced.
But over time, I started seeing the downsides of having so many open doors. Nobody wants to be stuck behind a locked door—but nobody wants to live in a hallway, either. It’s great to have options when you lose interest in something, but I’ve learned that the more times I jump from option to option, the less satisfied I am with any given option. And lately, the experiences I crave are less the rushes of novelty and more those perfect Tuesday nights when you eat dinner with the friends who you have known for a long time—the friends you have made a commitment to, the friends who will not quit you because they found someone better.
The Counterculture of Commitment
As I have grown older, I have become more and more inspired by the people who have clicked out of Infinite Browsing Mode—the people who’ve chosen a new room, left the hallway, shut the door behind them, and settled in.
It’s the television pioneer Fred Rogers recording 895 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood because he was dedicated to advancing a more humane model of children’s television. It’s the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day sitting with the same outcast folks night after night because it was important that someone was committed to them. It’s Martin Luther King Jr.—and not just the Martin Luther King Jr. who confronted the fire hoses in 1963 but also the Martin Luther King Jr. who hosted his thousandth tedious planning meeting in 1967.
As this new type of hero captured my admiration, I started appreciating a different constellation of figures from my childhood than I did at the end of my teenage years. The “cool teachers” faded in my memory—I can’t even remember some of their names—but the slow-and-steady ones have lingered.
There was the intimidating stage crew and robotics director from my high school, Mr. Ballou, who built up a student cult of misfit tinkerers and future engineers. He seemed to have a whole wing of the school to himself filled with half-built projects, technology from various decades, and devoted student acolytes clad in matching black T-shirts. Most of the school, myself included, were a bit afraid of him—scared we would get in his way, or worse, break something. But that was the key to his method. If you were willing to face your fears and engage with him, he would train you in any one of the dozens of craft skills he knew.
Over time, I started seeing the downsides of having so many open doors. Nobody wants to be stuck behind a locked door—but nobody wants to live in a hallway, either.
One time, I made a funny video with my friends for a school variety show. He saw it and told me that I had “absolutely no sense of framing”—and that the video wasn’t good enough yet to show to a crowd. My other teachers, just delighted that a student was making something, had always heaped praise on my teenage filmmaking. Mr. Ballou was different. He insisted that if you were going to get into a craft, you should hone it. I remember complaining that he was being a little hard on me.
But the Ballou method cut both ways. Another time, I had the idea of building a concert venue inside the school’s junior courtyard. Every teacher thought the idea was ridiculous—What the heck are you even talking about? But when I told Mr. Ballou, he wasn’t taken aback at all. If I learned the engineering software AutoCAD and designed a blueprint, he told me, he would help me advocate for building it. That’s a real teacher—demanding more of you but committing to you if you commit to learning.
I took piano lessons from Mrs. Gatley, who clocked four decades in the same chair next to the same grand piano in her living room on Oak Street. While my other friends got to bop in and out of lessons, one or two years at a time, and learn whichever songs they wanted (Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and Coldplay’s “Clocks” were my era’s songs), Mrs. Gatley was old school. It wasn’t just that her students had to learn their scales and play classical music. By taking lessons with Mrs. Gatley, you were signing up to join an entire immersive experience that was bigger than piano—and bigger than you.
Just taking weekly lessons wasn’t allowed—you had to follow the full Gatley calendar with all her other students. There was the fall recital and the Christmas concert, the sonatina festival and the June recital—and each of these events had a corresponding gathering preceding them where every student would prepare together. You had to learn the history of the pianoforte, the difference between the Baroque and the Romantic periods, and the proper way to bow after finishing playing.
You also couldn’t really quit. Once, in middle school, I asked Mrs. Gatley if I could take a year off.
“You can, I guess,” she responded, “but we don’t really take a year off here.”
I ended up spending twelve years in the Gatleyverse. As a result, I learned about a lot more than just piano in Mrs. Gatley’s living room. I saw what it was like to watch older students play some impossible song—and eventually learn to play it myself. Because Mrs. Gatley knew me for so long, she had the insight and authority to give deeper advice than other teachers, like when she told me: “You move a little fast in life; you might feel better if you slowed down.” And when my dad died, it meant something that Mrs. Gatley—who knew him from all the concerts over the years—came to the funeral. You couldn’t get that from some one-off teacher who let you play “A Thousand Miles” during the first lesson and quit the first time you got bored.
Folks such as Mrs. Gatley and Mr. Ballou—and icons like Dorothy Day, Fred Rogers, and Martin Luther King Jr.—aren’t just a random assortment of people. I’ve come to think about them as part of a shared counterculture—a Counterculture of Commitment. All of them took the same radical act of making commitments to particular things—to particular places and communities, to particular causes and crafts, and to particular institutions and people.
The heroes of the Counterculture of Commitment—through day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out work—become the dramatic events themselves.
I say “counterculture” because this is not what today’s dominant culture pushes us to do. The dominant culture pushes us to build our résumés and not get tied down to a place. It pushes us to value abstract skills that can be applied anywhere, rather than craft skills that might help us do only one thing well. It tells us to not get too sentimental about anything. It’s better, this culture tells us, to stay distant—just in case that thing is sold off or bought out, downsized, or made “more efficient.” It tells us to not hold true to anything too seriously—and to not be surprised when others don’t, either. Above all, it tells us to keep our options open.
The kinds of people I’m talking about here are rebels. They live their lives in defiance of this dominant culture.
They’re citizens—they feel responsible for what happens to society. They’re patriots—they love the places where they live and the neighbors who populate those places.
They’re builders—they turn ideas into reality over the long haul.
They’re stewards—they keep watch over institutions and communities.
They’re artisans—they take pride in their craft.
And they’re companions—they give time to people.
They build relationships with particular things. And they show their love for those relationships by working at them for a long time—by closing doors and forgoing options for their sake.
When Hollywood tells tales of courage, they usually take the form of “slaying the dragon”—there’s a bad guy and a big moment where a brave knight makes a definitive decision to risk everything to win some victory for the people. It’s the man standing in front of the tank, or the troops storming up the hill, or the candidate giving the perfect speech at the perfect time.
But what I’ve learned from these long-haul heroes is that this isn’t the only valor around. It’s not even the most important type of heroism for us to model, because most of us don’t have to face many dramatic, decisive moments in our lives—at least not ones that spring up out of nowhere. Most of us just confront daily life: normal morning after normal morning, where we can decide to start working on something or keep working at something—or not. That’s what life tends to give us: not big, brave moments, but a stream of little, ordinary ones out of which we must make our own meaning.
The heroes of the Counterculture of Commitment—through day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out work—become the dramatic events themselves. The dragons that stand in their way are the everyday boredom and distraction and uncertainty that threaten sustained commitment. And their big moments look a lot less like sword-waving and a lot more like gardening.
Pete Davis is a civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He works on projects aimed at deepening American democracy and solidarity. Pete is the cofounder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy. In 2015, he cofounded Getaway, a company that provides simple, unplugged escapes to tiny cabins outside of major cities. His Harvard Law School graduation speech, “A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times.