Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Little Tense

I've been thinking about this issue of tense ever Liza posted last week. As Liza said, Philip Pullman's--whose Golden Compass is a formative book for me--essay against the use of the present tense in the Guardian got widely circulated among writing types. Pullman writes:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

The whole essay is worth a read, and I'd be interested to know your reaction. (Somewhere, there is irony in Pullman's avowed atheism and his narrative predilections, but I haven't finished all my coffee yet.)

The whole thing started when the writer Philip Hensher wrote a similar essay in the Telegraph because half the Booker finalists were present tense books. Hensher blames creative writing teachers for the trend, as they are the font of all evil. He says writers use it in pursuit of vividness, but "in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality--the opposite of vividness."

Sure. It can. The trick of course, as with any choice in writing, is not to do it badly. (Thank you. You can all acknowledge me in your books.) Laura Miller says as much in her response at Salon. (You may have to click through a pop-up ad for a Last of the Mohicans deluxe DVD, sending you into an instant state of temporal discombobulation. I am here to assure you that it will be all right.) "The present tense is one of any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers," she writes. "The problem lies less with the tool than the workman."

For children's book writers, the immediacy granted in present tense is no small thing. In young adult fiction past tense gives you a narrator who is telling events from some future position in time and thus must have perspective on these events--whatever growth they experience in the novel will have already taken place. The present tense allows a narrator with no perspective, one who is exactly as evolved as the main character. Present tense has particular use in dystopian fiction--in which the characters can only live in the present, in which there's no guarantee there will be a future to narrate from. (The best example is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the book I will not shut up about. It's "more interested in the possibilities of language," in Hensher's words, than any book I've read in a long time.)

There are fads in narrative, but also fads in what's considered the proper way to tell a story. Someday I'm going to get hopped up on Theraflu and come on here and rant about the opposition to point of view switches and intrusive narrators. I don't see the good in limiting the tools in your narrative workbench; the point is the mechanisms of narrative--point of view, tense, syntax--are a conscious choice, with meaning for and effect on the story. Choose consciously, wisely--and if anyone complains blame your writing teacher.


  1. I look forward to the Theraflu rant, Anne!

    "Conscious choice" is the key phrase I think. I think there's a fair amount of following literary fashion involved in the way various narrative mechanisms are used, present tense a prime example.

  2. Oh, me again. Bear with me. This coming January we're focusing on character during the Hamline MFA residency. Then, I think, we do plot during the summer residency. It would be interesting to have a discussion about the effect tense has on both character and plot (or structure, which I think should be the focus as I believe plot is only a subset of structure but don't get me started).

  3. Well said, Anne. And I must say I'm presently tense about the game tonight.

  4. I've been called a font of all evil, which I always take as a compliment. But a really nasty font is Comic Sans MS. I can barely type its loathsome name before turning my eyes away.

  5. I recently read The Hunger Games, and had issues from the start. I also read Pullman's essay on first person present tense and agreed with it. I liked the plot of Hunger Games, but struggled through the tense. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to know what happened next. But because of the way she wrote it, I had to force myself to read the entire book. Maybe it would have come across better, if I'd been hopped up on Theraflu... although I think Alka-Seltzer cold tabs do the trick. :)

  6. Writing present tense to infer there may not be a future to write from is "kinda neat."
    I've only tried it a few times especially to imitate the voice of Stephanie Plum. I wonder if anyone knows if the first present tense stories were detective stories. I wonder if it's historically the way writers decided to make it sound like a thriller.
    And can anyone explain what happens when you take the nouns out of present tense? I tried this in a poem that a lot of people really liked and even talked about putting on a t-shirt. But the tense is confusing.
    For example, "I get up and eat a bagle." This is present tense and first person.
    Then there is,"Get up and eat a bagel." It sounds like a to do list. This kind of phrase can be directed at the person speaking because they are writing to themselves at some point in the future. Or it can be directed to someone else. So although it is present tense it can act in other ways. This is called direct address right? or imperative? I'm a little behind on terms.