Every now and then a reader feels moved to write me to say something helpful like, “I could probably enjoy your books if they weren’t written in present tense.”
Well, okay. Thanks for the share.
I could respond by pointing out that two of my three series are, in fact, written in the old tried-and-true tense, which is to say past. But why confuse the issue? The issue is that this person can’t read/doesn’t enjoy narrative fiction in the present tense.
And my basic reaction is, so?
As someone who reads both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, dramatic and narrative writing, in both modern and archaic English–and manages to enjoy all of them–I have difficulty sympathizing with those who find a switch in tense to be an insurmountable obstacle. It seems to me it should be simply something one gets used to, as one gets used to a writer’s style or the fact that the last words in some lines of poetry rhyme. It’s not as though writing a paragraph in the present tense turns the text a bright, unappealing yellow and makes it leap and waver all over the page. If one were in a frame of mind to push the old envelope, one might even look for reasons to like present-tense storytelling.
I’m aware that past tense is traditional for narrative storytelling, and I think there were originally a couple of good reasons for that. First, back when we shared stories in the verbal tradition, as Homer did, the past tense told listeners immediately that the story they were about to hear was complete, that it had both a beginning and an end and that, God willing, if they sat there long enough they might be able to hear both of them.
Second, ancient narratives often told well-known tales of gods and heroines, and it was no secret that those stories had happened in the past, often the very remote past. Present tense would have been confusing.
Novels, when they finally arrived upon the scene, were usually told in past tense, although not those written in the once-very-popular epistolary form, in which the story is told through an exchange of letters (Pamela and Les Liaisons Dangereuses are well-known examples, but there were hundreds of them). Letters in such novels are written, as letters generally are, in the present tense.
Dickens opens Bleak House, possibly his greatest book, in a marvelously vivid present tense (my favorite opening paragraphs in literature), but when he changes over to the first-person perspective of the narrator, Esther Summerson, she’s telling a story with its roots in the past. From then on the novel is in past tense.
As are most novels. And I have no problem with that. My problem is with people who get all willieknocked when they brush up against a story told in the present tense.
Because, you know what? We live in the present tense. The things that happen to those we love take place in present tense. And to move away from life and into art, two of the storytelling forms we most enjoy–theater and film–are present-tense media. When a film or a play wants to move to past tense, it usually creates a framing device: a flashback, a memory, a dissolve through something someone is saying.
A framing device
We’re comfortable with the present tense in daily life, on TV, at sporting events, and in theaters. So what’s the big deal about finding it in printed narrative?
Actually, I think it’s just habit. It’s what we’re used to. To someone who has read hundreds of novels in past tense, the present tense, at first sight, just feels wrong.
But so what? For fifty years or so, audiences and even film professionals felt that gritty, realistic films were best shot in black and white. The Civil War was in black and white, the newsreels from both World Wars were in black and white. There was something trustworthy, something unglossy about it. No trickery involved. In black and white, you could believe your eyes. Black and white was real.
Except, of course, that the world isn’t in black and white, any more than it’s in past tense. It’s in color and it’s in present tense. As Orson Welles (who knew quite a lot about black and white) pointed out, it was a technological accident that black-and-white film came first and dominated the film industry long enough to train the audience’s eye to the point where it was seen as, somehow, “realistic.” If the first films had been in color, black-and-white either never would have been developed or would have been viewed as an amusing abstraction – maybe as a way to show us how aliens view the world.
There is no way in which the past tense is inherently superior to the present tense when used to tell a story. I use both and enjoy writing both. I read both and enjoy reading both. I think they have different strengths. If someone isn’t flexible enough to get used to it, he or she shouldn’t read it. But don’t fulminate about how it never works, or be prepared to argue with, among others, Dickens, John Updike, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Andre Dubus III, Walker Percy, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Lisa See, Ken, Kesey, Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, and hundreds of others who have created fine, even brilliant works of narrative fiction in the present tense.
Another promising novel ruined by the present tense
But whatever you do, don’t imitate the English lit-fic novelist and (naturally) professor of creative writing, Philip Hensher. Apparently put out by the commercial and aesthetic success of Hilary Mantle’s Wolf Hall (which is in present tense), Hensher ranted, “The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”
Well, clearly what’s wrong with this wretched little pastiche is the tense. Look here: “I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. On the television, the news was talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I said to my flatmate Baz.”
See? Makes all the difference.
Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing, no matter what the tense.