27 Dic Electric-fan writers and sponge writers
Electric-fan writers and sponge writers
In my first book, La huella de Vértigo (The trail of Vertigo), I indicated that all art history can be divided into warm and cold movements. Recalling Manny Farber’s brash, influential division between Termite Art and White Elephant Art—which referred to cinema but can be extended to any creative pursuit—I feel that almost all writers can be divided into electric-fan writers and sponge writers. Sponge writers are those whose strong ability to read and analyze their surroundings lets them bring together a multitude of knowledge, organize it, think it through, and transform it into a work of literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, whether the writer is a poet, narrator, or essayist. Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and Pérez Galdós, for instance, I consider sponge novelists. Electric-fan writers, then, are those who do not work from the outside in but from the inside out: their writing reproduces their inner world, as occurs with poets and with authors such as Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe. In light of the biblical tradition, most Jewish authors are sponge writers, though there are exceptions like Kafka, who for me is the prototype of the electric-fan writer. Likewise, Proust, of Jewish descent, is an electric-fan writer, as was Albert Cohen. Some writers manage to be both, such as Joyce and perhaps Tolstoy. There is no need to be strict or simplistic about this. However, it seems right to mention these categories before venturing into the next pages, which bring together differing viewpoints of Jewish authors very different from each other (many of them sponge writers). Sponge writers prioritize drawing nourishment from the world. Electric-fan writers aim to nourish the world (with the author’s feelings, sensations, opinions, with the author’s externalized inner universe). Electric-fan writers are more intellectual, sponge writers more humanistic. An electric-fan writer’s jumping-off point is the individual, while the sponge writer’s is the broader community.
I agree with Luis Racionero that there are three basic types of novels: a) plot-driven, b) character-driven or psychological, and c) dramatic, which mixes the other two. In plot-driven novels, story is everything and its development should be like that of a thriller, where suspense is the most effective literary tool. In character-driven books, authors focus more on showing the personality of the primary and secondary characters through their psychological development and their traits, which are almost always complex (unless one voluntarily chooses to include two-dimensional characters). I do not know all of Jewish literature and do not suppose anyone does; that would be impossible. Nor can anyone know all of the literary output of Jewish writers, obviously. And generalizations, we know, are misleading. Can we say that literature by Jews tends more towards one of these three sorts of novels? (Or of short stories, for that matter?) We cannot. But if we concentrate on top-tier authors, who are read and translated into numerous languages, we could state that before the Holocaust, these writers’ fiction leaned more towards the type-A plot-driven novel or the type-C dramatic novel, with exceptions such as Kafka and Schulz. Since the 1940s, though, we can say there are two kinds of Jewish novelists: the psychological or character-driven (who directly or indirectly channel the tragedy of the Shoah or its consequences and traumas, including genealogical and hereditary consequences) and Jewish professional novelists, many writing in English, who to reach a wider public, choose option C: a carefully thought out dramatic narrative, well measured and well structured, aimed not at intellectual elites but at a popular mass audience. There can and will be exceptions, as always, but this is a trend I believe I have detected over the more than two decades that I have been reading fiction by authors of Jewish origin (starting with Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Roland Topor, Jodorowsky, and the scripts of Woody Allen, for example, all dramatic narrative in my frame of reference).
Diego Moldes, When Einstein Met Kafka, translated by Steven Capsuto, New York, December 2021.