continuing with the thing below, there have been cases in which novels had some sort of practical effect. apparently goethe's sorrows of werther caused a little suicide outbreak among romantic-era boys. it's often said that uncle tom's cabin increased abolitionist sentiment in the northern us. other than that....
after a few such cases, the thing consists of vague yet implausible quasi-assertion: novels remake the human personality. novels invented empathy. now, if you think so, i want you to try to square up and notice that the human personality is hard as hell to remake. it cannot be done by laying in bed with a book, even if you seem to yourself to have been profoundly moved and come to some new insights. say you've read a hundred really fine novels in your reading life. i guess your personality's been reforged a hundred times. funny, but you seem more or less just the same as you did last year. i'm telling you that these claims are ridiculous, and a realistic assessment and defense of literature would be much more valuable than a raft of hyperjive, and much less discrediting to its proponents.
the greatest literary novels of the twentieth century had a small, ephemeral effect on a tiny percentage of the population. ulysses remade nothing and no one, except the world of upper-end novel writing and publishing. why you want to pretend otherwise, and why people nod along as you do: really i have no idea. try to say what's true because issuing these giant gaseous clouds of hooey discredits your rationality, self-examination, and claim to be in contact with reality.
i'd say the same about the crazed shit people used to say about painting: oh, "picasso remade the visible world". not. at. all. you might squint funny coming out of the picasso blockbuster; but that's all over by the time you get to the wine bar. maybe these crazed claims are strategies to increase funding. maybe they're intended to get billionaires to make grants, by making what is happening in the arts venue seem superincredibly important, indeed to make it seem like god. i love paintings. i go to museums and look at them. and the visible world ticks on just as it did before. that's not under my control, or matisse's, or even all of ours together. the way the world looks is the world's doing.
as to the idea that fiction is the repository of cultural memory, or its essence or something: think about what you just said, ok? because that means our cultural memory is fictional. i'm not saying our 'cultural memory' is not fictional, but of course then its not memory at all, but fantasy. plus the novel is not to a significant extent even the source of our memorious fantasies. but it's still a good thing to write and read good novels, alright? just not the thing you appear to think it is.