Monday, June 11, 2012

Using Present Tense

So, I started reading Philippa Gregory's latest, The Lady of the Rivers.  Something about the way it's written is bugging me a little.  It's in present tense.  Is it me, or is there very little point in writing a historical fiction novel in present tense?  We know these events took place in the past.  It feels a little disingenuous to think using present tense will make the past come alive.  Isn't that what good writing and research are for?

So I started wondering....what's the point of using present tense in fiction?  Is there one at all?  I'm not convinced there is.

The first book I read that used present tense was Anita Shreve's Fortune's Rocks.  This, too, was a historical.  It weirded me out at the time, but I realized the present tense did force me to slow down as I read.  Maybe this was the point.  Maybe it had nothing to do with it.  I remain unsure.

My mentor professor always discouraged the use of present tense as an MFA program affectation.  I tend to agree.  Here's the logic:  using present tense draws the reader in more deeply, creating a sense of increased intimacy and timeliness for the characters.  I'm gonna call bullshit on this one.  If you're a good writer, you can do all of this in past tense.  You do not need to warp the space/time continuum and pretend that each sentence is happening right now.  I don't think it increases intimacy.  I think it creates awkward phrasing and draws attention to itself needlessly.

Here's an example from the Gregory book:
The girl looks steadily at all of us and gives a nod of her head to each.  As she looks at me I feel a little tap-tap for my attention, as palpable as the brush of a fingertip on the nape of my neck, a whisper of magic. I wonder if standing behind her there are indeed two accompanying angels, as she claims, and it is their presence that I sense.
The prose feels clunky to me.  If I'm reading a 400+ page historical novel, chances are I'm okay with being told events happen in the past.  Chances are, I'm already interested in the personages featured in the novel.
Just for kicks, I'm going to rewrite it in past tense, below:
The girl looked steadily at all of us and gave a nod of her head to each.  As she looked at me I felt a little tap-tap for my attention, as palpable as the brush of a fingertip on the nape of my neck, a whisper of magic.  I wondered if standing behind her there were indeed two accompanying angels, as she claimed, and it was their presence that I sensed.
Overall, I'm giving the nod to the past tense.

Laura Miller, writing for, quotes several established writers (Bill Gass, Phillip Pullman, Phillip Hensher) as being against present tense storytelling because it hints at a sort of lack of nerve, lack of confidence, or possibly aping of a literary trend.  I agree.  Miller cites Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as a present-tense novel that works, but fails to ask the question:  wouldn't it have worked just as well in past tense, too?  It's the characterization of Cromwell that's brilliant, and characterization happens in past tense as well as present tense.

I just don't think I can be convinced that present tense adds something that would be irrevocably lost if it were taken away.  Miller cites The Hunger Games as being acceptable, if not better, in present tense in order to increase suspense.  But it's written in first person.  Um, hello?  The person telling the story needs to be alive to keep telling the story, whether it's in past or present tense.  So this doesn't work for me, either.

None of the reasons for present tense hold weight.  But I'm curious what *you guys* think.

Have any of you written in present tense?  Why did you make the decision?  Did it help the story?   Convince me!  Astound me with your brilliance!