Sunday, January 18, 2009

Literary Jealousy

I caught the noir thriller DOA ("Dead on Arrival") last night. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan star in a fast paced story about a university professor of literature who has been given a slow acting poison, and who spends his final hours unravelling who his own killer is. A remake of a 50s noir, its interesting that in this version it is a tale of literary jealousy that has been implanted in the plot. For Quaid was a hot shot writer who stopped at some point in his success, because of his fear of failure, and in doing so lets down his students, his wife and himself. His faculty colleagues and idolise despise and idolise him - the talent that he had which they haven't got or hope to discover, and his running away from it. Its rare to have a literary theme for a thriller (though Stephen King's "Misery" and "The Dead Zone" have covered it) but I thoroughly enjoyed the film, which is a very creditable noir, touched with now-kitsch 80s fashions (bad hair, "Timbuk 3" playing on stage in a bar). A recent piece by Adam Kirsch in Poetry posited that all writing is competitive, because there's not enough praise to go round; and Malcolm Gladwell's latest book talks at length about whether genius is instant or worked at. Outside of lyric poetry, I think "genius" in writing is a maturing art, despite the occasional young debut that seems to contradict this - after all, the "meat" of a novel is life itself, lived or imagined. We don't live in a time of great prose style, and I wonder if we ever will again?, but where "DOA" does totally get it right is in showing that however we get it, "literary talent" whether worked at, innate, or discovered by bitter chance (Anne Frank's diary for instance...) is something real, that can't be faked. Literary success, well, that's another matter.

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