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This report is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

A Baroque Imagination Kirsty Gunn
I’ve always loved a remark Muriel Spark makes about novels, in a lecture she gave to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1970, describing them as part of a tradition ‘of socially conscious art’ that should not be doing our thinking for us. ‘For what happens when the sympathies and indignations of a modern audience are aroused by a novel of the kind to which I have referred?’ she says. ‘I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that a great number of the readers feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled.’ Nearly fifty years later, her words are a reminder that long form fiction is not there to serve some sort of socially ameliorative function – to answer to agendas, feed quotas or reflect right-on attitudes – but might be put to better use helping us to think, actually, and use our imaginations.

Poems, of course, do this all the time – bring us into the thinking and dreaming zone – but the novel gets stuck, mostly, serving the requirements of society, whatever they are, to be entertaining or educational or to show itself off as being relevant and timely by doing a great job of fictionalising the news stories of the day. Poor thing, it could be a poem, the novel, in a lot of cases – there are a number of us keen that the form might aspire to that kind of role. Be itself – a ‘cry of its occasion’ as Stevens had it – and not just some mimetic machine clunking away to show the ...


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