Nick Hornby notes here, “One of my favourite literary facts is that Dickens is estimated to have created thirteen thousand characters, an astounding number – the population of Ely! – that’s always taken as evidence of his extraordinary energy and indefatigable imagination. Every now and again, though, you start to wonder whether it’s not some form of incontinence. For example, he introduces fourteen new characters between pages 209 and 214 of my Penguin edition of Great Expectations – fifteen if you count Mrs Pocket’s deceased father, who gets a couple of pages more or less to himself anyway. Do the Pockets have to have seven children? And two nurses? And two lodgers? And a quirky next-door neighbour? There’s something almost animal about this level of production – this is Dickens as seahorse, popping out tiny creatures apparently uncontrollably, and with very little effort. It’s not his best passage of writing, understandably, those six pages. Maybe someone should have taken him discreetly aside and told him what precautions were available for great novelists.”
Surely Hornby's estimate of how many characters Dickens is way too high – Hornby is talking about Ely, Cambridgeshire, but I find it hard to believe there are enough Dickens characters even to populate Ely, Nevada – but this hardly matters because the image of Dickens as a seahorse is so perfect!
The image of novelist as sea creature is also frequently employed by P.G. Wodehouse, e.g. --
“Ideally, of course, authors ought to be like the male codfish, and many of them are, at any rate as far as looks are concerned. I know a dozen novelists whose appearance will admit them to an Old Home Week of codfish and no questions asked.”
“But I am thinking more of the male codfish after his union has been blessed and he has become a father of three million little codfish, for when this happens he conscientiously resolves to love them all alike and have no favourites. And this ought to be the spirit in which an author regards his books.”
I'm leaving the “u” in words like “favourite” today, and Noah Webster be damned. But if Dickens is a seahorse and Wodehouse a codfish, what kind of fish is Nick Hornby? Please let me know.
And now the newsflash -- there will be a screening tonight (Wednesday, October 7, 2009) at 8:30 p.m. at Embarcadero Center Cinemas, of the movie “An Education,” written and produced by Hornby, which won the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. You can buy tickets here. The price also includes a copy of Hornby's Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, his collected books column from “The Believer.” There will be a Q&A with Hornby after the screening, and here are his tips on how to process any life advice he may give you.