Monday, 20 September 2010

The present tense


The fact that Philip Pullman said scathing things recently about about the Man Booker prize caught my eye today. It seems he thinks the present-tense narration of books on the shortlist is a "silly affectation" which "does nothing but annoy." A literary agent thinks she might add “no present tense novels” to her web page.
There is a lot of present tense about these days. Philip Hensher, writing in the Telegraph, suggests its an old trick spawned by creative-course writing to make a novel more lively, though he adds that writing is either vivid or not, and using the present tense won’t achieve it for you if everything else is wrong.
Maybe because I read hsitorical novels, I’ve noticed a lot of present tense in the last few years. I’d read the first sentences, and check further in to see if more of the writing was in the dreaded present tense. Now there are so many if I continued, I’d have little to read.

To me the present tense becomes a strain on the senses when used throughout, and I long for a good plunge into the past tenses of which we have several. They give English a remarkable flexibility and can indicate fine distinctions of both time and action, so why the current rush to limit a writer?

People claim the present tense bring out the author’s true voice, and while I wouldn’t claim it never happens, it certainly doesn’t happen for everyone. Why would using a different tense change a person’s writing style? I’d think it more likely to limit and confine it.
Is it because it more closely replicates dialogue? That doesn’t necessarily mean it is a style we want to read in great chunks. That’s when it can become tiresome.
Is it a case of blindly following publishing fashion? There are so many rules that come down to us these days about how authors should write to achieve publication. I’m not sure where they originate, but the urge to omit passive and past tenses is starting to overtake use of correct grammar. Sentences have been contorted to avoid uses the dreaded words for some time, but now they’re becoming incorrect. If a writer cannot write correct grammar, then what hope do we have?

I wonder if it has to do with all these social networks around us, where incomprehensible unstructured messages zoom around the world so fast it makes you dizzy to think about it. Many people who inhabit the world of forums and fanzines are either struggling with a foreign language, cannot type or they have no idea of correct English usage. While they might be applauded for their attempts to communicate in spite of everything, it reminds me of the eighties dictum that articles for the American market had to take into account the language restrictions of a whole range of non-English speakers, and a vocabulary of less than 300 words was ideal. Mobile phones and PCs mean once relatively private thoughts become fodder for the world at the click of a button. Why wait to check a spelling or ensure the correct tense? Get in fast before someone else says it and the moment has gone.
As Henshaw says, As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

6 comments:

Vicky said...

I think there are times when using the present tense can be appropriate. I'm reading a historical right now written in the first person where I feel like I'm right there experiencing the narrators feelings with her. True, skilled deep 3rd person POV can give the same effect, but you know, right now I feel like that's as much a current fad as writing in the present tense. I think the author has to make a judgment call as to her purpose and then trust her instinct as a writer and go from there.

Jen Black said...

Written in the first person and present tense? Initially I like it, but after a while it begins to irritate, even slow the narrative down for me. One POV can be a hindrance, too. Multiple POV can be so exhilerating - but some people hate that. Vive la difference.

translation service said...

People claim the present tense bring out the author’s true voice, and while they wouldn’t claim it never happens, it certainly doesn’t happen for everyone.people always have live in the present if they have to progress.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

I picked up The Hunger Games about five times and put it down each time, totally disgusted with the present tense. Then I read it for a book club, which meant I had to gut it out, and I loved it. The book, NOT the present tense. I ended up enjoying the book in spite of the tense.

It's really the only book I can think of, told in present tense, that I like. Usually, I hate it.

Great post, and great blog! I'm glad to have found you. :-)

Jen Black said...

Glad you found me, Nancy. I'll look out for the Hunger Games now you've mentioned it.

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