BORN: 1957, Redhill, Surrey, England
GENRE: Fiction, screenplays
Fever Pitch (1992)
High Fidelity (1995)
About a Boy (1998)
A Long Way Down (2005)
Nick Hornb.y Cambridge Jones / Getty Images
Nick Hornby is an award-winning English novelist best known for his works High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch, all of which have been made into films. Hornby’s novels offer honesty about emotion and an awareness of the deficiencies of modern men, an awareness that is charming rather than defensive or apologetic.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Student of Literature and Popular Culture. Nick Hornby was born on April 17, 1957, the child of middle-class parents who lived outside of London. His father, Sir Derek Hornby, is an international businessman. When his parents divorced, he lived with his mother and younger sister, Gill, who is also a writer. He spent Sunday afternoons with his father, who, in his need to find ways to entertain his son, took him to a football (soccer) match, thus beginning the younger Hornby’s lifelong obsession with the Arsenal Football Club.
After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in English literature, he worked as a high school English teacher and taught English as a second language to foreigners. He later began writing reviews and articles about popular culture for such magazines as Time Out, Vogue, GQ, and the New Yorker.
From Football to Fiction and Film. Hornby’s first book, his 1992 memoir Fever Pitch, is an account of his years as a fanatic supporter of the Arsenal Football Club. Hornby followed this by editing another book about football, My Favourite Year: A Collection of New Football Writing (1993), and in 1996 he co-edited a book of sports writing.
Hornby turned to novel writing with High Fidelity (1995), a book that shows the author’s passion for music. His third novel, About a Boy (1998), concerns a man who likes to date women but has commitment issues. Both novels sold well and were made into feature films. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film adaptation of Fever Pitch. Hornby has continued to write popular novels, including a novel for young adults—Slam—as well as nonfiction and screenplays.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hornby's famous contemporaries include:
Jay Mcinerney (1955—): American writer who is considered a member of the American ''literary brat pack'' that came to prominence in the 1980s.
Nicholson Baker (1957—): American novelist whose unconventional novels use stream-of-consciousness narrative to focus on the minutiae of everyday life.
Cameron Crowe (1957—): American writer and film director best known for his works depicting popular culture, such as Almost Famous.
Rick Bragg (1959—): American journalist and memoir writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1996.
Works in Literary Context
Hornby is a writer noted for his sense of humor and earthiness, primarily writing about male obsessions and crises. He writes about his subjects in a way with which some critics strongly identify.
Football and Modern Men. When Fever Pitch was first published in 1992, critics asserted that the novel is more about obsession than about football. When Fever Pitch was a nominee for a Whitbread Prize, it received remarkable critical praise, including the admiration of many people indifferent or even hostile to British football. Andrew Anthony called Hornby ‘‘the most successful British author of his generation.’’ Hornby followed that success by editing another book about football, placing himself in a niche as the intellectual’s football fan.
Like Fever Pitch, High Fidelity is about a sort of addiction, in this case to rock-and-roll music and the making of lists. In this novel, Hornby extends his range beyond football to the concerns and shortcomings of modern men in general.
In About a Boy, Hornby focuses on the shortcomings of his protagonist, a somewhat affectless man who becomes involved in the lives of two people who have serious problems. One critic wrote that ‘‘About a Boy is another guy’s book: female characters are drawn with sympathy, but halfheartedly.’’ Hornby has admitted to some hesitation in writing about women: ‘‘I think that I still have a certain degree of caution about it, I think that I’ve been very hard on the men in my books and I think it would be quite hard for a male writer to be—in this current climate—as hard on a certain kind of woman.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Hornby's works explore the concerns and shortcomings of modern men. Here are some other works that touch on similar themes:
A Fan's Notes (1968), a novel by Frederick Exley. This novel is an introspective fictional memoir that examines celebrity, masculinity, self-absorption, and addiction.
Something Happened (1974), a novel by Joseph Heller. This novel consists of the internal monologue of a man facing the futility of his career, the stagnation of his marriage, the impossibility of being a good parent, and the loss of opportunities and time.
Bridget Jones's Diary (1996), a novel by Helen Fielding. This novel chronicles the attempts of a thirty-something woman to make sense of single life in the 1990s.
Works in Critical Context
Hornby’s books are genuinely well liked, in some cases with readers who are not customarily bookish, in part because of Hornby’s familiarity with contemporary popular culture—rock music, television, and movies as well as football. Other critics attribute his success to his ability to represent contemporary masculinity, especially its short-comings, with honesty and emotion. David Gritten writes: ‘‘He is beloved by some people who rarely read books at all, but to whom he appeals on a direct, emotional level.’’ Andrew Anthony agrees that he has achieved ‘‘that most delicate and difficult of acts: a literary writer with mass appeal.’’
Reviewers, however, have sometimes accused Hornby of being too ingratiating to readers. Others have noted that his plots are slight and conventional, and that he breaks no new literary ground. He is often considered to be merely a popular writer who makes no real intellectual demands on his readers. While critics may disagree about his literary value as a writer, his status as the most successful British author of his generation seems secure.
High Fidelity. Tony Parsons of the Daily Telegraph (London) noted that in High Fidelity, Hornby ‘‘writes like Martin Amis with a heart or Roddy Doyle with an unfeasibly large record collection.’’ Molly Gould of the San Francisco Review of Books praised the novel for its solid representation of how music affects human life and added that ‘‘although [High Fidelity] is a trip through territory that in real life is mundane, depressing, and trite, the novel is anything but.’’ Hornby was also commended by Mark Jolly of the New York Times Book Review for capturing ‘‘the loneliness and childishness of adult life with such precision.’’ Jolly also said that one of the many good things about the novel was that it ‘‘fills you with the same sensation you get from hearing a debut record album that has more charm and verve than anything you can recall.’’ Joan Wilkinson of Booklist called the novel ‘‘a rare, touching glimpse of the masculine view of affairs of the heart.’’
A Long Way Down. Hornby’s 2005 novel, A Long Way Down, has also been well received by critics, and Hornby has been praised for knowing ‘‘how to write dialogue that comments on human experience without drowning in a vat of sap,’’ in the words of Yvonne Zipp of the Christian Science Monitor. Gail Caldwell of the Boston Globe agreed, adding that while ‘‘Hornby has long since proven his hilarity,’’ it was his ‘‘depth and generosity of his grasp of the tragic’’ that endears him to his readers. Ken Babstock of Toronto’s Globe And Mail commended the characters in the story, saying that he ‘‘does social misfits exceedingly well. He does misfits interacting with other misfits near perfectly.’’ D. J. Taylor of the Independent (London) regarded A Long Way Down as ‘‘one of those transitional novels in which the interest lies in the spectacle of the novelist trying to break new ground.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Hornby has been noted for his insightful portrayals of modern men. Based on his portrayal of men, what kinds of insights does he offer into modern women? Discuss whether these insights are as revealing and poignant as his depictions of men.
2. Hornby wrote for magazines for many years before turning to novels. What aspects of his magazinewriting show up in his novel-writing? In what ways might his magazine experience have helped or hindered his fiction writing?
3. Critics have accused Hornby’s works of being too easy to read to have much intellectual or literary value. Write an essay either supporting or opposing this criticism of Hornby’s writing. Consider other authors you have read whose works might be subject to a similar criticism.
4. In Fever Pitch, Hornby writes honestly and revealingly about one of his passions. Choose an activity that you are passionate about and write an essay modeled on Fever Pitch.
Anthony, Andrew. ‘‘The Boy Done Good.’’ Guardian (Manchester, U.K.), August 25, 1998.
Joyce, Cynthia. ‘‘Litchat with Nick Hornby.’’ Salon, October 14, 1996.
Moseley, Merritt. ‘‘Nick Hornby, English Football, and Fever Pitch’ Aethlon, Spring 1994.
Rayne, Jay. ‘‘The Observer Interview: Nick Hornby in Edinburgh.’’ Observer (London) August 25, 1998.