Is there such a thing as ‘progress’ in literature? Now there’s a can of worms. Can you say, for example, that good books today are necessarily ‘better’ than Moll Flanders, or Pride & Prejudice, or Beowulf? Still, there is something slightly quaint about old narratives. There’s at least a bit of awareness, reading them, that you’re in a museum, part of which has to do with contents of the writer’s toolkit, the set of literary techniques that gets added to over the centuries by the giants upon whose shoulders we dwarves get to stand.
Imagine, if you dare, Jane Austin with interior monologue, full-blown stream of consciousness, at her disposal. Would her novels have been better, or just different?
At the risk of incurring the enmity of Jane Austin fans everywhere, I would have to answer ‘maybe,’ and at the same time, ‘yes and no.’
Have we gotten better, somehow, at doing whatever it is that literature is supposed to do? In the case of physics, for example, you could say without too much fear of contradiction that physicists do a better, or at least more accurate, job of describing the nature of the universe now than they did two thousand years ago. Are modern writers better at describing human nature than ancient ones? After all, we’ve got the lessons of modern psychology at our fingertips. We’ve got stream of consciousness.
Like physicists, we have accumulated some nifty tools over the centuries. Sometimes, having better tools just makes it easier to do bad work.