In his comment on my Statement of Purpose below, Mark of The Elegant Variation asks about the continued "relevancy" of literature, an issue he takes up further in an exchange with Splinters. Here he explicitly wonders about the novel's ability to "shake up society" as it has arguably done in the past. These are perfectly good questions at a time when one could wonder about the future not just of specific literary forms but of written language itself, and I would like to address them in an indirect way by examining one novel in particular.
It was fortuitous that TEV raised the issue while I was reading Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974). Although I have read other of Stone's books, this was the first time I had read this novel, the one that essentially put Stone on the literary map to begin with. I have had a mixed reaction to his other books: I liked A Flag for Sunrise and Outerbridge Reach, disliked both Children of Light and Damascus Gate so much I couldn't finish either. I was able to complete Dog Soldiers, but not without some undesired labor.
The novel narrates a heroin smuggling effort gone disastrously awry, but the story itself is fairly obviously the vehicle for an expose of sorts of the state of American society in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In other words, it is an explicit attempt to be "relevant," to use fiction as a way of critiquing culture. And it is precisely this approach that makes the novel difficult to read now as a work of literature rather than as just a cultural artifact from the period. I would argue that in striving to be relevant, Stone actually created a work destined to seem irrelevant.
The novel does enact an interesting switch in character identification. One expects the smuggler, John Converse, to be the story's protagonist, but ultimately this role is given to the man acting as courier, Ray Hicks, who bears the brunt of the danger and the decadence that has overtaken American society--at least the slice of society the novel portrays, the drug scene, the counterculture--and whose plight seems most compelling. Converse turns out to be a very bland character, as does his wife, who runs off with Hicks only to become hooked on the dope they're trying to sell. Hicks and the wife are pursued by a trio of perfunctorily portrayed crooked cops, and wind up in the desert domain of an equally stereotypical countercultural guru gone to seed. The problem, then, is that all of the characters are assigned a particular role to play in the social picture Stone wants to paint, and, especially now, this makes the novel a less than inspired performance in purely literary terms. Even Hicks comes to seem just the sacrificial lamb the novel needs to make its cultural drama complete.
Further, because the novel's message must take precedence over its methods--otherwise the cultural analysis is blunted--it is presented through highly conventional, or at least very familiar, means. Stone uses a stripped-down version of the "scenic method," in which the narrative voice simply moves the characters around, sets the scenes, occasionally provides some further description. A premium is placed on dialogue, which is deliberately "pungent" and "gritty," an attempt to capture the countercultural patter of the time. One might have accepted this technique readily enough seventy-five years ago, but by now it all seems, at least to this reader, more an effort to duplicate the effects of film, to compete with movies by using the narrative conventions film has assimilated to itself. There are very few episodes in the book, in fact, that could not be transferred directly to film (a movie was made of the book, retitled Who'll Stop the Rain), and frankly the same thing is true of the other Stone novels I have read. He uses this narrative method skillfully enough, but I don't think that novels can become more "relevant" by doing the sorts of things that movies can arguably do better.
If one test of "literature" is that it stands up over time--even a relatively short amount of time--I for one don't believe a novel like Dog Soldiers can accomplish the task. Not that current events and the cultural climate in which one lives should play no role in literary fiction. It is hardly possible to ignore either of these. But I have always found the effort to simply "capture" these events and this climate in fiction beside the point and anyway doomed to make such fiction seem dated in the long run. (This is why Jonathan Franzen's lament over the demise of "social fiction" left me cold.) Better to focus on those things only fiction can do--or unquestionably does better--and to struggle to make the form "relevant" by creating a readership for it based on its strengths rather than the pretense it can compete with movies and the other popular arts.