A somewhat mediocre article from the Los Angeles Times (one of my favourite publications, if it goes without saying) manages to accidentally stumble across an interesting point:
Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” and Wharton’s “House of Mirth” showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing… This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. “
To some extent, I tend to think that the present age does bear greater comparison with much of the Victorian period than with the first half of the twentieth century. In both cases, rapid technological change has helped to drive forward economic and social change. In both cases, the impact of economic growth was greater social inequality the two nations are increasingly divergent once more. Instead of the cataclysmic disruptions that dominated the first half of the twentieth century, social forces are at play that could theoretically be documented by modern writers in the same way that they were documented by Dickens and Eliot.
However, it nonetheless remains the case that any return to realist fiction seems unlikely at best; if there is a dominand force in modern literature it is probably magical realism. The realist novel rested on a numner of shared assumptions relating to social homogeneity rather than post-traditional individualism, and relating to notions of progress through commerce and science rather than scepticism with which both of those continue to be viewed. If I were to speculate as to the greatest modern writer, I would put the name of JG Ballard forward. His fractured, episodic narratives represent in many respects a return to the type of narrative that existed before nineteenth century realist fiction and suggests a route beyond it.