Reading in shul on Saturday instead of listening to the Torah, I came upon this passage in Gershom Scholem:
At all events, I have been making a nuisance of myself lately by arguing that novelists who spend a lifetime in writers’ workshops have narrow experience and knowledge, and it shows in their fiction. I am not against creative writing, as I keep protesting, but only the narrowness.
Scholem suggests how writers’ experience and knowledge might be broadened, without going on safari or to war. They might make contact with what has been forgotten or has not yet come to the fore. They might go on a treasure hunt within the literary tradition, searching for things that were written by someone other than their teachers or peers, things that are more than ten minutes old, things that approach the problem of bringing coherence out of personal confusion in a way that is unheard of, because nobody has read the things or set about trying to recreate a living relationship with them for long decades.
When Scholem spoke of tradition as a domain that is “hidden under the debris of centuries,” lying there “waiting to be discovered and turned to good use,” he was probably thinking of the geniza in Cairo’s Ezra Synagogue, a hiding place for documents that could not be destroyed because they contained the name of God, which was discovered in 1896. Hillel Halkin describes it well:
But it might also foment a revolution in contemporary literature. What if young fiction writers were to learn something about their art and craft, not from the latest shortlist for the National Book Award, but from, say, forgotten Renaissance texts, including character books, hunting guides, dancing manuals, religious tracts, political pamphlets, travelogues, and advice to women? Stanley G. Crawford is one writer who has plundered the literary past for solutions to the problem of writing a novel, but perhaps the obscurity of his quirky and brilliant Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine (1972) and Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood (1978) has discouraged other writers from trying anything similiar.
That’s a shame. The rediscovery of a living tradition, although it might require some research, which is against the religion of creative writing, might deepen and improve contemporary literature, if only by sending a few intrepid writers off in a different direction from the literary pack.
Update: Rabbi Mark Glickman, whose book about the Cairo Geniza will be released by Jewish Lights later this month, wonders in a private message (which he has given permission to quote) whether “the mountains of information now available online [are] more like the historical Genizah–messy, disorganized, and inaccessible–or are they more like a modern archive?” Only now, he points out—now that “the manuscripts are stored in climate-controlled, secure libraries”—are the contents of the Geniza fully available to scholars. But even now, over a century since it was discovered, the Geniza has never be comprehensively catalogued. Rabbi Glickman is of the opinion that the immeasurable size of the Internet, then, “makes it far more like an old genizah than an archive, which is part of what makes exploring it so much fun.”
An excellent point, nicely put. Which means that the “treasure hunt within tradition,” the rummaging around in literature’s attic, is more of an adventure than days spent in the cross-referenced and neatly arranged stacks.
 Gershom Scholem, “Israel and the Diaspora” (1970), trans. Walter J. Dannhauser, in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 253–54. Originally delivered as a lecture in Geneva in May 1969.
 Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Jewish Encounters (New York: Schocken, 2010), p. 72.