At Public Discourse, Mark Bauerlein argues that liberalism’s relativistic individualism has ruined the novel:
Apart from the truth or politics of that statement, its consequences for the novel are certain. A good plot needs conflict, an unsettled situation whose outcome we care about. For more than two centuries, the theme of “individual vs. society” provided a ready tension for it, as in Huck Finn’s personal feelings for Jim clashing with the norms of slave society, or Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening rebelling against patriarchal demands in turn-of-the-century Louisiana. The conflict worked precisely because the social side isn’t powerless and on occasion voices a legitimate criticism of the specific individual with whom we sympathize. Once all legitimacy lies on the individual side, once social institutions have no claim upon the one, tension dissipates and the novel reads like a chronicle of events in the life of _____, not a meaningful examination of human affairs in this or that setting.
I think this is correct, though I wonder if there is also something to be said about the novel being inherently individualistic and, therefore, particularly open to this overvaluing of the individual will–consider Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and any number of others. The individual is constrained in these novels, and yet that constraint is certainly less than in The Odyssey or King Lear.
Bauerlein notes that in Eugenide’s The Marriage Plot, one of the characters, Madeleine, who has struggled with the meaning of marriage and the nature of love, finds personal solace in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. So-called critical theory is often used in contemporary novels to make it seem that big ideas are being considered when they are simply being discussed. Bauerlein makes another point. Madeleine does gain some sort of insight from Barthes’ work, but it is not insight “about humanity at large.” It applies only to her and only on the basis of resonance. ”Once social institutions deteriorate,” he writes, “and people live contained by their own sole selves, relevance becomes the first measure of value.”
This is an excellent point, which makes me wonder: Where else has relevance become “the first measure of value”?