Friday, April 1, 2011
PAST TENSE OR PRESENT TENSE?
I’ve been reading some interesting blogs and newsletters on the pros and cons of casting novels in either present or past tense so I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts of my own.
PRESENT OR PAST TENSE: To be… or I have been…
I have a strong instinct against present tense. Maybe it’s not an instinct so much as it is a feeling (or maybe a bias?) garnered from sixty-plus years of reading fiction and experiencing the vast majority of that canon as work cast in past tense. I try not to get set in my ways—it’s a decided curse if you teach writing not to be aware that writing tastes, usages and customs change all the time, and if I plan to remain au courant, I had best be aware of the cutting edge of all of that. However, I suspect my dislike and distrust of present tense stems from deeper roots than just the fact that most of the novels I’ve experienced were written that way.
I have a suspicion that my bias may have a more rational cause. That it might be that just as basic story structure—that “beginning, middle and end” thingy—is ingrained in us as writers for a simple reason—it’s the “natural” way of telling stories. That, as storytellers we know that the story we are telling has already happened and the listener or reader knows that as well, makes it logical to acknowledge that fact and tell our stories as they happened… sometime before the telling. So why not tell it that way? As something that’s already taken place. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean—everybody gathered around the campfire listening knows the tale isn’t taking place at that moment, right?
Another factor that enters into my own prejudice against present tense is that we almost never saw it until about 15-20 years ago. And, then, it began to spring up. Almost exclusively with beginning writers. It became obvious that it was a ploy intended to show the writer’s “originality.” Unfortunately, in most cases, it was the only thing on the page that was original. The story itself usually wasn’t. In talking to students who submitted present tense stories, most admitted they used it to “stand out” or “look different.” To which I replied, “Perhaps if you wrote an original story and used original language, that might work better. That’s kind of what most gatekeepers are looking for instead of tricks or variances from the customary.” Most accepted that advice. Some didn’t.
A fact that many who employ present tense with the idea that it will make their manuscript stand out and look “different” is that folks have been doing so for at least a couple of decades now. It’s no longer “different” in the eyes of most gatekeepers. To some—if not many—instead of looking unique, it looks more like an act of pretentiousness and from one who doesn’t know the history of novels. Present tense isn’t new at all. Fairly old stuff.
And, while there are of course, successful books written in present tense, there aren’t a lot. The percentage of published present tense novels in relationship to past tense novels is fairly small. Actually, infintestimal. There might be a reason for that…
The thing is, after untold thousands of novels, most written in past tense, past tense is now considered the “present tense” of a story. It’s how we perceive it when we encounter it. It has to do with that “suspension of disbelief” we talk about. We just “feel” like we’re in the story as it’s occurring.
The reason given by most who write in present tense is that it’s more immediate. On the surface, that seems to make sense. However, if you look at that concept a bit more closely, it falls apart. As readers, we’re logical people for the most part. That means that when we open a novel, we at least subconsciously observe a few things. For one, it’s in print. That means it isn’t happening at the present moment. To a logical person that kind of says that the author must think we’re kind of slow not to notice that. That indicates that perhaps the author is trying to trick or manipulate us into thinking it’s happening now. Which, is the crux of the problem, I think. A halfway astute reader knows the story isn’t happening in present time, so seeing one written as if it was kind of forcefully tells us the writer wants us to think that it is. Which, if this is the writer’s motivation, is a form of authorial manipulation. I think that the demographics of the majority of readers of present tense books that are successful will prove to be younger readers. Readers who haven’t read a great number of books yet in their lifetimes. I know this to be the case of a great many of the writers in my classes who attempt present tense. Usually, they turn out to be the least well-read of the students in the class. Please know that I’m not stating this as an absolute—I’m not. Once in awhile, an older person or even a younger person who has read a respectable number of quality books attempts present tense. But, more often than not, it’s the less well-read person who does so. If this is true, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a less intelligent readership at all. It may just be that the reader who doesn’t object to present tense narratives just hasn’t developed a bias against them. Perhaps it’s just that they’re more open-minded.
I’d love to hear how others view present-tense novels.