A Tense Debate

There’s an interesting post by Richard Lea on the Guardian books blog about Philip Pullman’s recently reported comments about the growing use of the present tense in novels — reflected by half the Man Booker shortlist being written in the present.

Pullman is reported to have said the use of present tense is becoming a cliché, adding ‘it’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy’. Hensher apparently said ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won’t do that for you…What was once a rare, interesting effect is starting to become utterly conventional….[The present tense] is everywhere in the English novel, like Japanese knotweed.’

The novelists on the City University course had a varied approach to tenses and there was considerable experimentation by some people about whether past or present suited their novels. There were some examples of using both tenses — for example, present for the main story and past to denote flashbacks. The present tense certainly gives immediacy to a piece of writing — the Guardian blog suggests that its increased use might reflect our 24-hour news culture and the cultural impact of immediate informational gratification via the internet. Perhaps. The present tense seemed to work very effectively for two or three people when reading their pieces at our end of course event. (Another piece that made a big impression on agents avoided the simple past tense and used the past perfect, past continuous and past conditional.)

I doubt whether the present tense is as prevalent as reported, although the more ‘literary’ the aspirations of the writer, perhaps the more likely they are to experiment — maybe in a few years the past tense will be the daring, radical choice? As might be inferred from the example above, the past tense offers a writer far more variations in its use — although one of the missions of creative writing courses seems be to make to make the passivity of the past continuous tense almost as endangered as the adverb (and using less of both is usually the best policy). Good use of the present tense requires skill on the part of the writer. I was at a Q&A with a commissioning editor (of genre fiction) when she was asked what mistakes writers should avoid — ‘First person present’ she said as she received a lot of it and it was, in her opinion, almost impossible to pull off.

I’ve experimented with writing pieces in the present tense and enjoyed the effect — and I’ve also had my work re-written by someone else in the present tense and thought that had improved it. However, I’m quite happy to write my novel in the past tense, even if it reduces my chances of winning the Man Booker!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *