Literature is forever transforming. A new literary age is new precisely because its important writers do things differently from their predecessors. Thus, it could be said that almost all significant literature is in some sense innovative or experimental at its inception but inevitably becomes, over time, conventional. Regarding long fiction, however, the situation is a bit more complex.
It is apparent that, four centuries after Miguel de Cervantes wrote what is generally recognized the first important novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), readers have come to accept a certain type of long fiction as most conventional and to regard significant departures from this type as experimental. This most conventional variety is the novel of realism as practiced by nineteenth century giants such as Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.
The first task in surveying contemporary experiments in long fiction, therefore, is to determine what “conventional” means in reference to the novel of realism. Most nineteenth century novelists considered fiction to be an imitative form; that is, it presents in words a representation of reality. The underlying assumption of these writers and their readers was that there is a shared single reality, perceived by all—unless they are mad, ill, or hallucinatory—in a similar way. This reality is largely external and objectively verifiable. Time is orderly and moves forward. The novel that reflects this view of reality is equally orderly and accountable. The point of view is frequently, though not always, omniscient (all-knowing): The narrators understand all and tell their readers all they need to know to understand a given situation. The virtues of this variety of fiction are clarity of description and comprehensiveness of analysis.
After reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), one can be confident that he or she knows something about Emma Bovary’s home, village, and manner of dress; knows her history, her motivations, and the way she thought; and knows what others thought of her. Not knowing would be a gap in the record; not knowing would mean, according to standards against which readers have judged “conventional” novels, a failure of the author.