It seems to me that fight scenes used to be vague descriptions of the chaos happening around a major character or characters, who were often more interested in accomplishing something within the context of the fight rather than winning the fight itself. Even 30 years ago, I remember reading Terry Brooks's excellent Wishsong of Shannara. I love that book and adored the character of Garet Jax. In the climactic scene for that character, Garet Jax battles a demon. The fight starts, Terry cuts away, and we come back to see the result. Not the fight, but the result. This is tradition. Go back to Homer and Virgil--they don't describe the fights in actual terms, but in symbolic and grand gestures.
So why did it change? Partly, I think it's got to do with the amazing choreography in movies like The Princess Bride.
I think Mr. Salvatore overstates the case a bit, but he does have a point. Take, for example, this famous fight by Dumas, in which D’Artagnan first draws sword alongside the three musketeers:
This contest at length exhausted Jussac’s patience. Furious at being held in check by one whom he had considered a boy, he became warm and began to make mistakes. D’Artagnan, who though wanting in practice had a sound theory, redoubled his agility. Jussac, anxious to put an end to this, springing forward, aimed a terrible thrust at his adversary, but the latter parried it; and while Jussac was recovering himself, glided like a serpent beneath his blade, and passed his sword through his body.
Jussac fell like a dead mass.
It’s not quite the cut-away that Mr. Salvatore describes, but neither is it the detailed recitation of every thrust and parry, every feint and stratagem, every step of the “dance” as Mr. Salvatore calls it. Here's an example of a more modern fight scene from the novel Tiassa by Steven Brust, a noted fan of Dumas' rather droll style:
I pulled a knife from each boot and tossed them underhanded at the two in front of me--one missed, the other poked a guy in the side; both of them flinched. I drew my blade and slashed the nearest, ruining his pretty face, which gave me time to skewer the other in the middle of his body. He dropped his lepip and doubled over; must have gotten a good spot. I slashed at the first again, but missed as he fell backward.
I took the opportunity to turn around, which was just as well; one of them had gotten past Loiosh and was coming at me. I didn't like the idea of his heavy lepip against my little rapier, so I pulled three shuriken from inside my cloak and sent them in his direction. One shuriken scratched his forehead, one missed, and the last almost clipped Loiosh's wing where he was tagging around the other one's head.
And I’m willing to go along with his thesis blaming the movies. Consider this flash of blades, the ring of steel-on-steel, but it’s not easy to tell what’s going on, or why Captain Blood won the fight. A few years later, we get the same duo dueling in "The Adventures of Robin Hood".
(Seriously, follow the links. It's fun stuff. I'd have embedded, but apparently it was disabled for both of them.)
Again, the swift and ringing swordplay is difficult to follow with the eye, but in the end, it’s clear what happened: the fiendish Sir Guy cheated, drawing his dagger to get a sneak-attack on poor Robin, and, thus proving his villainy beyond any shadow of doubt, was slain!
Now, compare that to this:
Aragorn gets a brief burst of flashing blade near the end, but for the most part, this fight is all about special moves and impacts. This is a post Rocky IV/Die Hard movie, where the hero takes a pounding, but stays on his feet to win in the end. The hero proves his right to victory by sheer stubborn endurance.
And notice how slow and big the moves are. Even with the editing to add a sense of speed and danger, it’s easy to see what each of them is doing with their weapon, what part of the body they’re aiming for, the results of every swing and thrust. It’s all about the big moves, the sudden reversals, the equipment, and the moments of impact.
The comparison to D&D style combat is obvious. TSR-era D&D has its 10 second and 1 minute combat rounds, the action is vague with the clash of steel, and the sudden end to the fight. One moment, both combatants are fighting to their utmost; the next, one of them is dead.
Meanwhile, 4e is about the slow whittling of resources: healing surges, daily powers, action points; special individual moves like “Fury of the Sirocco” and “Cloud of Steel.” There are even mid-fight transformations to the combat in the form of the “blooded” status. The fights are less climaxes to slowly rising action and more events in and of themselves, sometimes with nary a preamble.
I don’t expect 5e to do much to reverse this trend, but it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. The 4e/”modern” style combat requires more time, more resource tracking, and more granularity to pull off. The reward is really detailed combats. Getting the latter without the former would be an interesting trick to pull off.