I agree entirely with Morris Dickstein's assessment of American fiction in the 1960s:
. . .The dream of the Great American Novel disintegrated, as did the line between high art and other kinds of cultural performance, but the novels that continued to be written were some of the most staggeringly ambitious that America had produced. The second coming of modernism in American fiction, which Tom Wolfe deplores and misunderstands, may have narrowed the audience for the novel and limited its ability to deal with the immediate carnival aspect of contemporary fashion, but it gave the dream of the novelist a new kind of grandiosity and range . . . . (Gates of Eden)
"The second coming of modernism" is of course what came to be called postmodernism, but in many ways Dickstein's formulation is a better way of thinking about the "ambitious" books of the 1960s, since it does not tie them to the various philosophical positions usually ascribed to the "postmodern" but instead emphasizes the formal and stylistic adventurousness of the best fiction of the 1960s, the way it so clearly challenged the reinscribed realism of the 1950s (which tended to be of the Jamesian, "psychological" variety), a challenge that was actually given numerous names: "black humor," absurdism, "metafiction," etc. While some of these books were in fact quite popular (Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint), this was more the happy reward of their literary ambitions, not the ambition to seek popularity. Dickstein is thus correct as well that in the long run the adventurous fiction of the 1960s "narrowed the audience for the novel" to those readers already disposed to the "literary" in fiction, who did not read novels for the kind of "entertainment" that could be found more abundantly in movies and television.
This is the audience current novelists have inherited, but one sees little evidence of the ambition leading, as Dickstein puts it later, to "the belief that old molds can be broken and recast, a sense that reality can be reshaped by the creative will." At best that fiction which gets called adventurous or unconventional simply repeats the moves already made by the mold-breaking writers of the 60s and 70s or retreats even further to a tepid kind of surrealism, while most current fiction settles for worn-out modes of domestic and psychological realism, or indeed concentrates on the "immediate carnival aspect of contemporary fashion." There are exceptions, of course, but those exercises of the "creative will" seem even more isolated when compared to the appearance of so many writers of "grandiosity and range" in the 1960s. At times it almost seems that the ambition of most new writers is simply to be published--a prerequisite to securing and then maintaining a position in the creative writing program--while for others the pinnacle of ambition is to have one's novel optioned to Hollywood. Far from embracing the smaller but more discerning audience left to us by writers of the 60s, which still allows for expanded creative freedom, many current writers look to abandon this audience altogether for some small sliver of the mass audience and its glitzier rewards.