September 20, 2010
Consign the present to the past
Philip Pullman (and Philip Hensher, though I don't know him) made some lit crit headlines by criticizing the Booker Prize for including novels written in present tense (half of them, in fact). This may sound like a pretty arcane complaint, but I'm with Pullman (and Hensher) 100 percent on this.
To my mind [the present tense in narrative fiction] drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?
Pullman twists the knife by adding, "I just don't read present-tense novels any more. It's a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy." YES! I'm not the only one who can't stand the present (tense). Here's a prediction for the future: write fiction in the present tense and I will not read it.
To be sure, the present tense can be effective in storytelling when used sparingly. A you-are-there action sequence here, some stream-of-consciousness musings there. But like the shakey-cam in movies, it's easily overused and becomes an headache-inducing triumph of form over substance.
Like the second person. Jay McInerney wrote a whole book in the second person: Bright Lights, Big City. It's a literary stunt worth reading just to watch him pull it off. And now that McInerney's done it, NOBODY EVER NEEDS TO DO IT AGAIN! That's how I feel about the present tense.
Philip Hensher compares the present tense to kudzu grass, and he's right there too. Worse than novels written in the present tense are documentaries narrated in the present tense. HISTORICAL documentaries! About stuff that happened IN THE PAST! That means it's NOT happening IN THE PRESENT!
How freaking pretentious can you get? STOP IT. It's as annoying as WRITING IN ALL CAPS! And that means you, PBS. You're just giving me more reasons not to give you money (in the present and future tenses).