Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Present tense: this wretched fad

I've talked before about present tense being over-used and misused in contemporary fiction:

These days it seems fashionable for beginners, especially in the YA and literary genres (oh, yes, litfic is a genre), to write their first novel in present tense. They are setting themselves up for a very hard time. Present tense is devilishly difficult. Present tense does not make the text more immediate--just the opposite, in fact. Present tense is the language of dreams and jokes, not realistic fiction.
Yes, I used present tense in one of Slow River's narrative strands. I did it to a purpose. [...] Present tense for the distant, only half-remembered childhood narrative. Past tense for the narrative present. Present tense is dreamlike, unrealistic, unmoored. Past tense is hard, solid--concrete.

Part of a master's expertise (a master of any trade) is knowing the right tool for the job. A gardener understands that you don't use a chainsaw to prune the roses, you use secateurs. (Actually, anyone with roses knows that.) Some novelists these days seem to be acting like beginners; they seem ignorant of their choices. They're picking up the literary equivalent of secateurs to cut down trees. I am mystified by this behaviour.

I'm not the only one. A few weeks ago, blogger and editor, Moonrat, explained that "present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason." She lays out her reasoning here. If you're a writer, please read it. You'll learn a lot.

And now, over at the Telegraph, Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher have weighed in on the issue, criticising the Booker shortlist for its inclusion of so many novels written in present tense. Pullman says, "This wretched fad has been spreading more and more widely. I can’t see the appeal at all. To my mind it 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?"

A bit curmudgeonly, perhaps, but not wrong in essence.

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