There is much in Ron Silliman's recent post on the process of historical change in poetry with which I agree, and in fact I would extend most of what he says to include the history of all literary forms. Among his most salient points are that "the history of poetry is the history of change in poetry," that the critics of innovation in literary practice are themselves writers and critics likely to be swept away by the historical currents that favor innovation and are thus mostly engaging in "tantrums" over their own unavoidable fate, and that the "new" and the fashionable are not synonymous terms in our appreciation of the innovative in poetry (or fiction.).
Literature certainly is more the history of its own evolving forms than it is an assemblage of "great works," although I would substitue for "change" John Dewey's notion of "growth" as the inevitable outcome of artistic traditions that manage to extend themselves over time--"growth" not as simplistic "progress" but as the expansion of available approaches to the form, an increase of insight into the variety of its possibilities. Indeed, even if we were to consider literary history as the accumulation of great works, in most cases these works are great precisely because they represent some new direction taken by the form employed. Surely English drama was not the same after Shakespeare finished stretching its boundaries, nor was English narrative poetry (narrative poetry in general) after Paradise Lost. Although we now think of the realistic novel as the epitome of convention in fiction, there was of course a time when it was on the cutting edge of change and writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Henry James were writing what was for the time experimental fiction.
Thus I am less willing than Ron to dismiss the "well-wrought urn" as a metaphor for aesthetic accomplishment in works of literature. A poem or novel may indeed be "well-wrought" without conforming to pre-established models. Perhaps the passage of time does allow us to see more clearly the craftedness of some works of art that at first seemed simply model-breaking, but ultimately I see no conflict between innovation in poetry or fiction and the skillful construction of individual poems, plays, short stories, or novels.
On the other hand, Ron is certainly correct in characterizing most of the critical resistance to change in literary forms as a kind of lashing-out against writing implicitly recognized as destined to be remembered precisely because it exposes most of the otherwise critically favored writers of the moment as aesthetically tame and unadventurous, tied to the critical nostrums of the day (which, especially with fiction, are typically not only aesthetically conservative, but often not really focused on aesthetic achievement at all but on what the writer allegedly has to "say" about prominent "issues"). American experimental fiction of the post-World War II era has been especially subjected to these "tantrums"--if anything they have only increased in intensity--concerted efforts to marginalize this fiction by accusing it of lacking seriousness of purpose, of indulging in games and jokes rather than sticking to straightforward storytelling, of striving after effects that turn out to be "merely literary." In my opinion, however, it will be the work of writers like John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and Gilbert Sorrentino that will be recognized as the indispensable fiction of this period, not that of the more celebrated but less formally audacious writers such as Bellow or Styron or Vidal.
Eventually almost all postwar writers whose work departs significantly from convention have come to be labeled "postmodernist," a term that has definable meaning but that also has been used as an aid in this lashing-out, a way to further disparage such writers both by lumping them together indiscriminately and by identifying their work as just another participant in literary fashion. Ron Silliman points out that a distinction can be made between fashion in the arts and the truly new:
Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change. For example, one could argue that the visual arts world, at least in New York & London, has become self-trivializing by thrusting change into warp drive because of the market needs of the gallery system. There, capital demands newness at a pace that hardly ever lets a shift in the paradigm marinate awhile. I seriously wonder if any innovation in that world since the Pop artists let in the found imagery of the mid-century commercial landscape has ever had a chance to settle in. That settling process seems to be an important part of the run-up in helping to generate the power of reaction, to motivate whatever comes next. The problem with the visual arts scene today is that innovation is constant, but always unmotivated.
Poetry has the advantage of not being corrupted by too much cash in the system. That ensures that change can occur at a pace that has more to do with the inner needs of writers as they confront their lives. . . .
The New York art world has become so dependent on "the latest thing" that aesthetic change becomes "unmotivated" except by the need for individual artists to enter the system that confers purpose on their work. And although fiction is probably more tied to the cash nexus than poetry, most serious literary fiction is much less so, and the degree of change and resistance to change, while perhaps somewhat less pure than in discussions of poetry, is largely determined by honest beliefs about the direction fiction ought to take.
In this context, to regard experimental fiction as "fashion" is essentially to believe there can be no "shift[s] in the paradigm" in the development of fiction, that the experimental must always represent an irritating deviation from the accepted unitary model of how fiction should be written. It forecloses the possibiltiy that the established paradigm might "shift" if something genuinely new were to appear and transform our assumptions about the nature of the novel and/or the short story. Even if it is allowed that the occasional genius comes along to produce work that stands out from the mainstream, such work is considered a singular achievement, a momentary departure from the otherwise settled paradigm granted only to the genius. The exceptional, extraordinary talent thus helps to preserve the status quo since no one else can be expected to rise to his/her level.
In reality, the "postmodern" period in American fiction came close to establishing a new paradigm insofar as it seemed to validate the experimental impulse behing modernism, its own even more radical experiments extending the reach of literary experiment beyond modernism and implicitly suggesting it can always be extended farther still. But ultimately experimental fiction can provide a paradigm only if it is one that rejects the creation of paradigms except in the loosest possible sense of the term--the model fiction writers should follow is the absence of a model. However desirable such a model might be in the cause of aesthetic freedom, it isn't likely to offer much stability to literary culture, and thus it was almost inevitable that some sort of reaction against the postmodern would set in to restore good critical order. The past thirty years or so has not seen a shift in paradigm but a reinforcement of conventional practices, a widespread return to narrative business as usual.
Such an embrace of convention--of the assumption that the art of fiction = storytelling, that the writer's job is to create characters who can be regarded as if they were persons, persons with "minds," etc.--can't really be said to be a part of the kind of dialectical process Ron Silliman describes. Postmodernism in fiction didn't "settle in" and then become the impetus for a new a refreshed practice but was considered a temporary aberration until writers could be brought back to producing "normal" fiction. Experimental writers have not disappeared altogether, but those sometimes still called "experiemental"--Lethem, Saunders, Wallace--are surely much less resolutely so, much more restrained, than Hawkes and Coover, et. al. Normal fiction is precisely what is taught to aspiring writers in most creative writing programs.
Literary change will continue to occur, of course, but in fiction it won't come in paradigm shifts but through the persistence of individual writers impatient with normal fiction. These fiction writers will be motivated by the need to preserve the integrity of their own work and by the desire to ensure that fiction has a purpose beyond providing the "book business" with a commerical product designed to be another entertainment option. Their work will continue to demonstrate that the aesthetics of fiction are manifested more in the continued reinvention of the form than in the successful reinscription of the existing form.