Sunday, 13 January 2013

Rebecca's Musings: TENSE FEELINGS


I've been wondering, lately, why I dislike novels written in the present tense. There was a big fashion for these some years ago - every other book you picked up seemed to be written in the present. But for me this doesn't work, and to try to discover why I've been thinking about the times we use the present tense in real life.
   We use it on the phone - 'I'm busy right now' or 'I'm on the train' - and sometimes to lend immediacy to a story in a colloquial way: 'She says she wants a sandwich so I go to the breadbin - no bread! What am I like!'
   What may seem at first glance to be the present tense in a statement like 'I'm just going to the shops' is actually a loose form of the future tense.
   Then there are situations which resemble fiction just a little more. The running commentary, for instance:
   Detective, looking through binoculars and reporting back: 'The man in the brown jacket is approaching the car. He's joined by the man in the grey suit.'
   Sports commentator on radio: 'He's powering over the pitch, but here comes Taylor to tackle him and - Oh, he's down!'
   Voiceover in a travelogue: 'And as the sun sinks slowly in the West, this sleepy mediterranean island shuts down for the night.'
   All these examples relate to speech, to telling a story to someone else whether they are actually present or not. In fiction, dialogue is also mostly in the present tense, as in real life. It is when narrative is also written in the present tense that I find it so unsettling.
   The effect is of a story unfolding as you read, and you could argue that this gives the story more immediacy. It turns the reader into a voyeur, peeping over the author's shoulder and witnessing the scene. But there is also a sense of not knowing quite where the story is going. Of course, as a reader you don't know this when the story is in the past tense either, but at least you feel that the author already knows the outcome and you are in safe hands.
   With the present tense, something experimental and haphazard is suggested as if the writer began with an idea and developed it at random, not knowing where it would end up. Sometimes this is literally true of the creative process, regardless of tense, but on the whole it is not a method of writing to be recommended and I regard it with suspicion.
   I am suspicious, too, of the author's motives in choosing the present tense: are they just trying to be different, fashionable, 'poetic'? I am all for the 'unreliable narrator' as a device, but don't want to feel that the author is unreliable too. Is it simply an affectation that comes between me and the story, making it hard for me to suspend my disbelief because I am all too aware of the writer and his or her craft?
   After helping to judge thousands of entries in writing competitions, the sight of yet another poorly-written and ill-conceived story in the present tense would make me shudder. It is as if budding writers use it like fairy dust, believing it will transform their humdrum narrative into 'literature.'
   Or is it simply that I am too hooked on the narrative past tense to accept something different? From childhood on, I can't recall encountering any books written in the present. I used to read a lot of plays and, of course, stage directions are always in the present. Likewise journalistic articles can be mostly in the present tense, as if the writer is presenting their opinion directly to the reader. But, for me, the novel has to be exceptional to work in the present tense (and I'm sure 'Hunger Games' shapes up). But since I don't generally feel comfortable with it as a reader, I doubt I will ever use the present tense myself for a work of fiction.


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