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).

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Comments:

# posted by Anonymous Mojo
Either I'm completely indiscriminate (i.e., a slut) or I simply don't care, but...

...not only do I not mind what tense a book's written in, it's a miracle if I even notice for a few pages.

Now, if the author is ham-handed about [fill in whatever my hot buttons are], it might give me another reason to hammer that author.
9/20/2010 11:41 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I think the present tense stuff is a product of MFA programs in Creative Writing. I say that because I was in a writing group once where one of the members--a product of such a program--informed us that writing in the past perfect ("had written") was TOO tacky to be believed.

I went along with this for awhile--mostly because I'm a big advocate of getting rid of words. I still hold to the no-adverb rule (mostly); it's way more fun to come up with strong verbs.

And then one day, while writing one of those "person talking about their past but the whole book is already in past tense" scenes, I realized how stupid the "no past perfect" rule was.

Instead of creating smooth writing, my avoidance of the past perfect was creating, well, the ham-handed writing Mojo referred to.

So I gave it up. And now I use past perfect when I need to. (Although I would argue that it is better to put back flashes at the front of the book and avoid the story within the story anyway. Has anyone ever read Conan Doyle and gone, "Good grief! This is all exposition! It isn't even Watson speaking! It's Watson reporting someone else's words about something that happened to that someone else two years ago!!" What those 19th century writers could get away with: *sigh*.)
9/20/2010 7:29 PM
 

# posted by Anonymous Mojo
I must confess: I have and do and will use all of them, in all permutations. (Oh, except second person, which I find uninteresting.) And I mix them up.

There is often an element of, "I haven't done a story THIS WAY before. Can I? I don't know--let's see!" involved, but mostly the story tells me how it wants to be told, so I tell it that way.

I'm a visual reader/writer. I like the immediacy of a camera lens that present tense [FIRST PERSON YET!!!] gives me.
9/20/2010 11:04 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Joe
Second person is the second worse form of writing. Second person present tense is the worse. I won't read either.

Screenplays are generally written in present tense.

I'm struggling to come up with a book I've read that was written in the present tense. I'm sure there's one, but can't think of it.

And if God didn't intend for us to use adverbs, He wouldn't have allowed them to be invented.

(Of course, I find Pullman's writing pretentious and boring in the extreme, so his writing criticism amuses me, but I don't take it very seriously.)
9/21/2010 8:36 AM
 

# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
@Joe:

(Of course, I find Pullman's writing pretentious and boring in the extreme, so his writing criticism amuses me, but I don't take it very seriously.)

I haven't read him. Yet. But I've beta-read a couple of manuscripts by people who take his writing advice VERY. SERIOUSLY., going so far as to say, "I write just like Pullman" and/or "...just like Pullman says to," and... the results weren't pretty.

So I should probably read him before passing judgment on HIS writing, but you know, whenever I read of his universal do's and don'ts (uttered with such godlike finality) I roll my eyes, chuckle a little, and go about my business.

Hell, I never even heard of the guy until his movie came out and the religious right got all het up about it.
9/21/2010 6:48 PM