Is fiction changing, for better or worse?
Of course fiction is changing, as any art form does. I think of fiction as a series of ever-expanding balloons in an infinite bubble of experience; many writers have the literary lung capacity to continue to fill them, though not all do.
What is a novel's purpose, then? Jane Smiley references their ability to provide an exercise in "freedom and empathy," Thomas Glave sees them as opportunities "to experience other people's stories," William Deresiewicz recognizes them as compilations of "the atlas of private experience," and Robin Sloan sees them as cultural time capsules. However you want to put it, novels push the envelope of our thoughts in directions that no other media can.
"This may not be the best of times for fiction, but it isn’t the worst, either," claims William Deresiewicz. Perhaps we are in the middle of fiction's stagnation into mediocrity, but I am sure it is neither the first nor the last time this has occured. Is it because the rising generations have shorter attention spans, as many have referenced? I doubt it, as I have seen very little evidence of this besides sabre-rattling. Perhaps it has more to do with the recent downturn in the economy and the general depressed nature of current events; this leaves little room in our brains for new ways of thinking (and, as Matt de la Pena says, we are "terrified of sadness and self-reflection, and we actively avoid ideas that challenge"), so we gravitate towards the easy and the comforting. Thus, those who control what's available to read, in the interest of staying in business, play the industry conservative and publish novels that break little ground because that is what we are saying we want. This is much like Hollywood and television producing fewer films that break the mold with polarizing things like interracial relationships and homosexual characters when times are tough.
Can we actively break this stagnation, then? (Should we? Is consciously changing the direction of an art akin to censorship?) James Gunn advocates science fiction's place as a genre for expanding the mind, seemingly at the exclusion of everything else. Even as a fan of sci-fi, I was caught trying to wrap my head around exclusionary mind expansion. Still, a more moderate position in the same vein could be that, during times of mainstream stagnation of the novel, looking towards the fringe, the "new weird" (see Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville), the areas that are not traditionally as constrained, could lead to a revivification of the novel and the expansion of those balloons.
If we are indeed experiencing a stagnation.