Quite aside from the basic and dull point that is made ad vomitum regarding “master-narratives”, one alternative way to regard the decline of “great works” is the fact that writers are coming to be regarded, and to regard themselves, as accidents. It is a fact of our social structures, in a two-fold manner.
Firstly, in the narrative perspective whereby our overview of history needs actors for reasons of identification, the great writer or their text can serve this function, as a cognitive anchor. It is a way to make history less autistic, less concerned with facts. That is the “history of literature” view, but it holds true in any field, whereby an -ism is deployed like a sheep dog to round up those pesky individuals with fancy notions of freedom and independence.
Evidently, a text can serve just this function, but with each repeated deployment it has become increasingly attenuated. It got to the point where Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory can, in its blurb, be referred to as his magnum opus. The fact that he did not complete it during his lifetime is related to the sapping of the ideal that such a book has, as much a result of an atmosphere where the fragment is fetishized (need one give examples?), as well as one in which we can witness its reactionary rejection (but this reaction is usually political in tone, thus Badiou’s elevation of the Event, which is a tellingly Maoist movement, but good god I digress…) . The point, again, is that not all great texts surpass everything by their contemporaries, and so some are chosen by default, simply as others will never be considered once this process has taken place.
The second manner is that whereby fame accrues more fame. Like any standing reserve in a structure (money, information, etc.), there is a network effect in evidence. Fame can cycle endlessly, as in Bataille’s “general economy” (which is in contrast to the “restricted economy” that we are led to understand is economics proper), and once the surplus standing reserve being left to pass down along the same well-worn channels of a text having a place in the canon, or of a thinker being a part of an -ism, until it this channel is blocked. The point is that now there are so many various opportunities, that it becomes a question as to whether there is sufficient force behind the flow to create more than a trickle of renown. We see this in the notion that there are “too many journals“, but as noted in this link, often these journals are no more than tags attached to articles.
This is not a jeremiad against change, and I find the point made by Jan Velterop in that link more helpful, as it allows us to view the old problem in a new light. People have complained about there being too many books since there were two books. What changes is the structure that governs and facilitates our access to and interactions with these works. Accordingly, we get fields (can I please call this the “sheepdog effect”?) of influence, counter-influence, rejection, interest, and all these interact with myriad others. Returning to Adorno for a moment, we can see an analogy of this where the punning title of his work gives us a Minima Moralia rather than the Magna Moralia of Aristotle, a collection of observations which can be fashioned into a constellation by our own effort to read him, as well as what we bring from our reading others. The age of the magnum opus had its dark counter-image in the dilettante, but our age needs to develop its alternative to this.