In his essay "On Several Obsolete Notions," Alain Robbe-Grillet describes the novel in its "classic" phase:
All the technical elements of the narrative--systematic use of the past tense and the third person, unconditional adoption of chronological development, linear plots, regular trajectory of the passions, impulse of each episode toward a conclusion, etc.--everything tended to impose the image of a stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal universe. Since the intelligibility of the world was not even questioned, to tell a story did not raise a problem. The style of the novel could be innocent.
But then, with Flaubert, everything begins to vacillate. A hundred years later the whole system is no more than a memory, and it is to that memory, to that dead memory, that some seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered. . . .
It is tempting to say that Robbe-Grillet's account of the 19th century novel and the shadow it cast on subsequent novelists still seems relevant, fifty years later, and that many readers still think of the "innocent" narrative as the novel's natural form, from which any variation or experiment in form is merely a temporary departure. However, an honest consideration of Robbe-Grillet's bill of particulars would have to conclude that fiction over the course of the 20th century did in fact move beyond the model Robbe-Grillet associates with Balzac and other early novelists.
While much current fiction does continue to employ third-person narration--usually the "free indirect" variant through which a character's thoughts, recollections, and emotions provide a perceptual matrix but are not directly stated by the character--first-person narratives are probably more prevalent than ever before, as are experiments in shifting, alternate, and multiple points of view. Similarly, stories related in the present tense have become so common that what was once a notable divergence from the norm is probably no longer noticed by most readers. And while most novels still rely on "plot," their plots are by no means always "linear," such chronological development as they possess often enough supplied by the reader after piecing together the fragments of narrative presented without much immediate regard for chronological continuity. It could perhaps be argued that too many novels do still imply a "decipherable universe"--decipherable insofar as it can be adequately rendered through the protocols of realism--but most literary fiction is not so tied to a 19th century worldview as to portray human experience as "stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal."
Indeed, to the extent that contemporary life seems to many of us discontinuous and indefinite, the modernist-derived strategies emphasizing subjectivity and fragmentation seem justified in the name of realism itself. And to this extent, Robbe-Grillet has been proven correct when in the same essay he predicts that this sort of modernist experimentation (with which he more or less associated his own fiction) will become "assimilated," viewed by critics still attuned only to the past as the most recent golden age of storytelling. Thus, esteemed critics such as James Wood point us back to Henry James or Virginia Woolf as writers who set a standard of inner-directed realism, a realism of the mind and its subjective perceptions rather than a realism of the material world presented as a collection of facts. Wood is certainly not alone in holding up the psychological novel as the apogee of the novel as a literary form. The notion that in fiction, and only in fiction, we can "get inside" a character, can "feel" what it's like to negotiate the world from a perspective other than our own, is very widespread. But, I would argue, this is because one part of the modernist project, the extension of realism into "psychological realism," has been successful, while that part setting a prececent for aesthetic innovation ("make it new") as a measure of artistic achievement has not been embraced as firmly by either writers or critics. The set of accepted conventions for the writing of fiction has been advanced from about 1825 to about 1925, but those voices that "seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered" to a "dead system" can still be heard, even if that "system" has incorporated some of the strategies for which Robbe-Grillet himself was an advocate.
Although "innocent" novels are still being written (particularly within some forms of genre fiction), very few serious writers have failed to notice fiction's loss of innocence. But the expansion of techniques available to the modern writer has developed into its own kind of "systematic" practice that can be just as stubborn an obstacle to the development of a "new novel" as the traditonal story form Robbe-Grillet wanted to clear away. It is probably inevitable that strategies and approaches once regarded as mold-breaking will eventually become conventional, established techniques for the novelist to adopt when they suit his/her need. But this only makes it more important that writers like Robbe-Grillet or Donald Barthelme or Gilbert Sorrentino emerge to point out that such techniques have become hidebound and to offer fresh alternatives.