Friday, September 17, 2010

Reading in the now

by Lauren

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?


  1. I write YA, and I think many younger readers don't have this same problem. Yes, I've read present tense books I felt weren't written well, and I cannot wrap my brain around 3rd person present, but I think 1st can be done masterfully, as Suzanne Collins has done in the Hunger Games.

    If I recall correctly, The Time Traveler's Wife was written in first, and plenty of people put up with that long enough to read it. Even Dickens used the device on occasion. I don't know if I would go so far to call it gimmicky. It serves a purpose that past tense just can't.

    I'll have to read Room, this is the third time today I've heard it recommended.

  2. This is extracted from the article in the Guardian:
    So when Philip Pullman is "scathing" about the Man Booker prize, branding the present-tense narration of three books on the shortlist as a "silly affectation" which "does nothing but annoy", it's tempting to suggest that he might as well complain about the preponderance of novels with an odd number of words in the title, or with bluish-green covers.

    It doesn't suggest the author of the article is in sympathy with the complainer, and I am personally left with the feeling that's how professional columnists stay in business -- they have to propose something as controversial in order to stimulate an argument that bears and promotes their name.

    In reference to the issue: like always, if it works for the writer, then use it. Don't use it because it's popular. Don't refrain from using it because it's unpopular.

  3. I absolutely cannot stand books written in present tense. It annoys me like nothing else, even if the premise is really interesting.

  4. I think it's interesting that so many people care so much. I rarely notice whether a book is past or present tense, unless there is some awkward wording or time issue or something. Maybe because I come from screenwriting, present tense seems natural to me? Not sure, but tense doesn't bother me either way. It definitely wouldn't stop me from reading a book.

  5. I'm in the camp that doesn't think a technique should never be used. Like you, I think if it's not used well, it's the fault of the technician. What we have here is an issue of personal taste, and someone trying to make a universal proclamation based upon his own. If I remember correctly, THE NAME OF THE WIND used present tense very well to frame the story, and then the majority of it was written in past since it was basically an extended flashback.

    I've got friends who won't read first person, either, just because they don't like it. But most of them will admit that occasionally first person works better than third. Sometimes it's the same with present and past tense.

    He'd have loved Nathan's post yesterday. Future second-person is the tense of the future!

  6. I just blogged about this a few weeks ago. I read books in the present tense, but it's like hearing nails on a chalkboard. None of those books will be on my favourites list (or re-read list) for that reason, and I only put up with it in the first place if it's a decent story. In my opinion (take it for what it's worth ;)) Personally, I don't think any book can be better in the present tense, because from a traditional story-telling point of view, it's unnatural.

    I know that some people feel like it lends itself to a sense of immediacy, and maybe if I wasn't so annoyed by it, I would be one of them. *shrugs* As it stands, however, it only leaves me feeling "meh" about some books that I would otherwise have loved with a capital L.

  7. Oops, I meant "It's my opinion..." Hehe, don't comment when your kids are talking to you...

  8. I have great admiration for any writer who can write present tense well. Any time I have ever tried it, I've gotten jangled up in trying to figure out when to use present and when to use past. Writing in past tense is certainly easier.

    Sometimes I wonder if the writers who lash out against certain techniques are projecting their own inability to master them.

    When I read Hunger Games I was thrown for a moment by the use of present tense, but only because of how often I hear people say that they hate it. Personally, I could care less about the techniques used. If a story is engaging, I don't notice the technique because I'm too engrossed in the book.

  9. I personally don't notice present tense if it's done well. It took me quite a while to realize that the Hunger Games was in present tense, for example.

    I blogged about this very topic several weeks ago, because I had also noticed that it seems to be on the rise, especially in YA books. Some people said they hated it, most said if it was done well they didn't mind.

    I wonder if it is more prevelant in YA because young people are so used to blogs and the like that they read in present tense quite frequently?

  10. I didn't think present tense would be such a big deal for some people, and quite frankly, I don't understand what the big deal is. I understand that some people may not like it, and that's fine, we all have our opinions. But I don't think it's something to huff and puff about--not that you're huffin' and puffin', just sayin'-- especially if a story works better that way. And some just do. Besides, authors are diverse and books should be as well. If we all wrote what we knew for a fact everyone wanted to read, we'd all quit our day jobs and hence forth!

    I personally think that present tense can work in some cases if written well. And in all honesty, I don't think about it as I am reading. It seems a bit nitpicky, and I am the most nitpicky person there is. But, things like that don't bother me. I don't read to pick a book a part or get hung up on past/present, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person; I read to enjoy the story and explore different ways of writing.

    I'd never close a book that said 'I am...' instead of 'I was...' or 'I did...' Look at The Hunger Games, a well written novel with critical and commercial acclaim, told in present tense. And The Hunger Games isn't the only one, but the most often mentioned.

    What may work for one may not work for the other, and that's why there are so many books written by so many different kinds of people. If someone doesn't pick a book I recommend because it's written in 1st person present tense, I'd say I'm sorry they missed out on a great read.

  11. I'm surprised so many people care so much about tense, to be honest. It's hardly even something I notice. A good story is a good story regardless of past tense or present tense.

    To me, choosing what you read based on the tense is akin to choosing based on the cover. Sure, you might avoid books you don't like that way, but you might also miss out on some really great reading, and there's no guarantee that because you like the tense (or the cover) that the story inside will be worth the effort.

  12. Hunger Games is the only time it's worked for me, but it still came with a price. Other books in present tense just felt gimmicky and really took me out of the story.

    And I disagree that not reading a book because of tense is akin to not reading it because of a cover. Authors have very little to do with their cover. They have everything to do with the choice of tense, and frankly, using 1st person present automatically makes me a little wary. It takes an incredible amount of skill to make it work and very few stories call for it anyway. I'll still read to a point, but if you want me to finish it and like it, dang, you better be good. I just think most writers, particularly debut, are better off with past tense. Why shoot yourself in the foot?

  13. Perhaps I'm not analytical, perhaps I'm not a thinking or perceptive reader, but it's just dawned on me, half way through Hilary Mantel's Wolfe Hall, that it's written in the present tense. Ms Mantel seems to have done okay, a Booker and close to an Orange etc., etc.
    I think the suggestion not to use the present tense is an absolute nonsense.