I came across some interesting discussion in the Guardian on the use of present tense narration in novels. Apparently Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher aren’t crazy about it and are aggravated that it seems to be on the rise—and on the Booker shortlist. I’m not unsympathetic to their distaste for the technique, but it seems to me an exaggeration to say that it “does nothing but annoy.” It often does annoy, me at least, and clearly Misters Pullman and Hensher. But it also does other things, like create a feeling of immediacy and throw the reader slightly off balance. I think it’s a gimmick like any other (second person, foreign language words) that some authors use as a shortcut and few are skilled enough to employ well, but in the right hands, it’s not deadly or even distracting. I’m on record about my love of Emma Donoghue’s Room, and it’ll be Pullman’s loss if he doesn’t read it because he doesn’t like the tense. (If he already has and didn’t love it, well, I guess I won’t be matched up with him on that dating site.)
It’s easy to say that something is overused so no one should do it, but if a technique (or idea or what have you) has value, there’s no point in everyone abandoning it. Overused implies that there is an appropriate level of use, after all. It’s also easy to criticize a book that we don’t think works and blame the technique, but really, if it doesn’t work, shouldn’t we blame the technician? Room is a highly stylized novel to be sure, but the reason I rate it and Donoghue so highly is precisely because it’s stylized (noticeably, but not, I’d argue, distractingly) yet still compelling and riveting and funny and disturbing and sad and hopeful. I’d imagine the Booker committee felt likewise, about that and the other two present tense novels on the shortlist. I’m at least willing to give Tom McCarthy the benefit of the doubt here, because I loved Remainder, his previous book, and think he’s pretty talented.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, okay?