Saturday, October 2, 2010

Present Tense

Judges for the Man Booker, Britain's prestigious literary prize, have been arguing over its short list. Not only over which books to nominate -- that's normal for any juried award. These judges are arguing over the novels' conceptions of time. Three of the six are written in present tense, which at least one judge finds "faddish."

Is it? If a fad is a short-lived popular craze, then no. Some fiction has been written in present tense for at least thirty years now. And some people have always disliked it -- I remember Gene Wolfe telling me once that he would immediately stop reading any story in present tense. (It's possible he has changed his mind since then). More and more fiction uses present tense, including Suzanne Collins' enormously successful HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Why?

The classic argument is that present tense gives more immediacy, the illusion that story events are happening right now, rather than being recounted after they're long over. I'm not sure that's true, because I'm not sure readers even notice tense any more. I'm trying to remember what tense my own six award-winning stories are told in, and I can only recall two of them (one in present, one in past). And I wrote them!

Give me some help here -- do you notice present tense? Does it distract you? Enhance the story? Does it seem more "modern and fresh"? Do you loathe it? For short stories? For novels?


Barbara Webb said...

I think this is one of those good writing trumps all situations. In general, I don't like present tense if I notice it as I'm reading. But a lot of times, I don't notice it. If I'm pulled out of the story for some reason, then I can get annoyed by the fact it's in present tense. But thinking back now, the last two Kindle samples I just read yesterday, I can't remember if they were in present or past or not.

TheOFloinn said...

Flynn thinks it over. He extends his fingers to type.

It depends (he writes), because English tenses are not French. The fad, if fad it be, gets rolling when certain French authors use the simple past tense rather than the literary historical past tense. Sacre bleu! The translator wonders - what English tense carries the same frisson to English readers?
+ + +
If we were to have imagined that all English literature had been written in the perfect tenses, then we would have become accustomed to the rhythms of the accomplished past. Flynn had pondered this, as well, inasmuch as he had long been ponderous and had been feeling tense about the whole issue.
+ + +
Quickly, he resorts to a copy of Gorky that lies conveniently nearby. Do Russian authors employ the perfective or imperfective aspect when they write? The first sentence is verbed ехали, which is the imperfective past tense, followed by умерр и лежал, also in the imperfective. This is enough to decide him. Gorky is employing a past tense that is not perfected.

(The sentence reads: "A few days after my father is dying, grandma and mother were leaving by ship, in a small cabin; my new-born brother Maxim has died and was lying on a table in the corner, wrapped in white." So we know we are in for another of those cheery, uplifting Russian novellas. I mean, dude, he starts with the tragedies.)
+ + +
But Flynn has wondered whether ехали were best translated by "were leaving" or by the simple English past "left." It denotes a leaving in the past, but a leaving that has not yet been perfected from the point of view of the narrator -- not yet over-and-done with. The English past-progressive had seemed to him appropriate. The imperfective has told us the story is in the past, but we have been with the narrator in the past somehow in the reading of it.
+ + +
But we digress.
+ + +
The translator of the radical French text so unexpectedly in the simple past tense realizes that English texts are already written in the simple past tense. "Once upon a time..." That's all the reader need know. Therefore, to achieve the same frisson he sets the translation in the English present! Zut, alors!

But since it is French, and therefore Intellectual, the present tense is then copied by others. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. Sometimes it seems seamless; and sometimes it seems unseemly.
+ + +
It is a dark and stormy night...
It was a dark and stormy night...
It had been a dark and stormy night...

Kendall said...

I don't think it's a fad, though it's sometimes pretentious. I hate it. I notice it and find it terribly distracting; I usually can't read books in present tense because of that. I have a slightly higher tolerance for certain types of short stories in present tense, but usually don't like it much there, either. But for a novel--YIPES!

The classic argument that it gives the story more immediacy is B.S., IMHO. I recall one SF author's excuse was that by writing in present tense, you would be wondering if the protag might die--it's all unknown because the protag's not telling you the story after the fact! Well, no. With past tense, I still don't know if you'll kill off the protag. What makes me think you probably won't is that, well, it's the proag! ;-) But I'm not tricked by the tense. I don't read a book thinking, "Someone is talking to me right now." Supposedly some folks actually fall into that way of thinking--I can't understand it.

We all know we're reading a book; we don't need present tense to pretend there's something else going on. Surely no one thinks, "ZOMG, someone's telling me this RIGHT NOW!" So it's not really achieving anything magical...just annoying

In short, I hate present tense and find it just kicks me out of the story. Sorry to rant. ;-)

qiihoskeh said...

Present and/or future tense is just a gimmick. On occasion it's appropriate, as with Spider Robinson's "Chronic Offender".

I could think up other gimmicks -- like having all the sentences contrary-to-fact (would, could, should, might've).

Orion said...

It does seem a little bit faddish. If it is otherwise well-written prose, it doesn't bother me if it is done in the present tense. I happen to think it works better for short stories that are trying for an edgy, angsty feel. But I just finished reading "The Hunger Games" and the author handled it so deftly that I never really noticed.

You are giving up a lot as the author by choosing this tense. I notice that all of this present tense stuff is first-person POV. It is possible in theory to write in the present tense using a third-person POV (or even one with multiple POVs and the occasional touch of omniscient narrator), but I'm unable to call to mind any real-world examples. Does anyone know of any?

The current upswing in the present tense in modern fiction may be do as much to a subconscious wish to avoid what are now considered difficult tense choices as anything else. The past tenses, especially in the subjunctive and condition moods, are decaying rapidly in spoken American English and merging with each other or falling out of use. It has been a long time since I've meet anyone under the age of 30 who really understood these things, let alone used a subjunctive verb form in a natural conversation. If you cast your story in the present tense, you never have to worry about niceties like, is it "If I was..." or "If I were...", or is the past particle of "to go" "gone" or "went"? (Yes, I hear sentences "I had went to the store" all the time nowadays, and it makes me cringe). The average young American is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with tense and mood subtleties, often confuses the subjunctive with the past, and has very little feel for the difference between the simple past, the present perfect, and the past perfect.

Even those writers who do grasp the subtleties of tense and mood must realize at some level that they are writing for an audience that largely does not, and this may also contribute to the present-tense craze.

Nancy Kress said...

I think you're right, Orion -- present tense is usually in first person and, now that I think about it, all my present-tense work has been present tense.
I am trying very hard to preserve the subjunctive. I think I'm losing that fight.
Mike, you brought back all the horrors of fourth-year French translation in high school. Thanks, pal!

TheOFloinn said...

Mike, you brought back all the horrors of fourth-year French translation in high school. Thanks, pal!

Nichevo, gospozha.
+ + +
It occurs to me that I wrote the stories "Southern Strategy" and "Quaestiones super caelo et mundo" in present tense and third person.

I don't know why. I sat down to write them and that's just the way they came out. "Quaestiones..." has been used in a psychology class and can be found on the university's website, here: so that one may judge such things.

In both cases, the POV is actually omniscient, so that may have something to do with it. In The January Dancer, the story-telling scenes in the Bar are present tense, but the episodes the scarred man tells are in past tense.
+ + +
Correction: in my previous comment I misspelled умер as умерр. Sorry.

qiihoskeh said...

"And It Comes Out Here" by Lester del Rey will use mostly 2nd person future when you read it.

Dave Creek said...

I think you should write a story in a way that feels "natural." Heck, Robert Silverberg wrote a marvelous story, "Sundance," that was partially in second person.

That said, I published a story, "Pathways," in ANALOG a number of years ago in which a critical action scene switched from past to present tense, then back again afterwards. And I didn't even realize I'd done it until after the fact.

When I used to read that kind of thing by other writers ("I didn't even know I'd done it") I thought they were fibbing. I guess not. The mind pulls us in unexpected directions.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I like my Uncle Carl. I like him a lot. But last week, we were in a bar, sharing a pitcher of lager, and watching a ball game. An outfielder misplayed a fly ball. Carl said, "Oh, man, he should have had that."

And I hadda say, "Carl, it only =looks= easy. You and I could not do what these guys do in a million and two years."

And I think that's true of writing, singing, playing an instrument, acting, painting, sculpting...

At a high level, creatives make it look effortless.

It's not.

I wonder if these famous judges have published any fiction.

The only sf critics I have any respect for are Blish, for his Heinlein book, and Spider Robinson, for his reviews in ANALOG, many a year ago.

They know how =hard= it is.

Joel Bass said...

It doesn't bother me, but I don't see a lot of reason to do it, most of the time. I've read books that have used it well - Neal Stephson's "Snow Crash" used it to exhilarating effect, making any subsequent books I read seem dreadfully slow. That said, a lot of other thrilling books have been written in past tense, and I doubt present tense would have improved them.

I will say that present tense has one thing going for it: it's the way a lot of people tell stories. "So I go to the barbershop and there's this guy there with the biggest eyebrows I've ever seen..." I'm not sure it makes stories better, but the present tense definitely has a natural and ancient precedent in the oral tradition, which makes it seem less like a fad.

Kendall said...

@Joel: Interesting comments; most people I know don't talk like that in present tense; they'd say "So I went to the barber and there was this guy there..." etc.

So I would argue the reverse of you in your last paragraph.... ;-) I suspect there's some regional, cultural, and/or class differences in how people talk about past events (but I'm not sure I'd cast it as "oral tradition" so much as "people talk differently"???).

Kikurukina Bal Des'cagel said...

I'm currently having this debate with myself right now. I will always immediately notice a present tense story. I don't mind them, but it does get awkward. I tend to think that the statements become blunt and too much to the point when it is present tense and I get turned away.