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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Present Tense

Now that we’ve got Southern Girl and her cousin Country Girl out of the way, there’s another pet peeve–present tense–I’ve got to tackle before we get deeper into discussions of major Newbery contenders.

While present tense will probably have no bearing on whether a book receives Newbery consideration, it is nevertheless bad writing, and 90% of the writers who use it can’t pull it off.

Indeed, there are present tense narratives in the canon and I’m sure there will be others, perhaps even this very year as both REVOLUTION and WEST OF THE MOON, for example, are written in present tense.

Don’t tell me that present tense narrative doesn’t bother you, or list books where it’s used successfully, tell me why a book that is written in present tense is better than if it had been written in past tense.  And while your formulating your arguments consider these points.

  • Present tense calls attention to itself in a way that past tense does not, and that is not a good thing, especially when writers can’t keep their tenses consistent (because even present tense writing uses past tense for things that happened  . . . in the past).  I just want to read your book, and become immersed in it.  I don’t want to have to mentally edit your book.  That was your editor’s job.  Bad editor.  *finger wag*
  • Present tense does not lend your book a sense of immediacy.  If you use it as a flourish here or there then, yes, the contrast does lend it that sense, but when used throughout your novel it just becomes the new normal.  It’s better suited for poetry, picture books, or short stories than for a novel.
  • While people use present tense quite naturally when telling stories orally, those stories don’t tend to run on for hours and hours the way that a novel does.  So, it really doesn’t come across as natural the way it does in everyday speech.
  • Present tense doesn’t make your character’s voice unique.  For one thing, everybody is doing it now.  Try doing something truly unique, like having your character speak in all caps.  For another thing, it doesn’t differentiate characters’ voices (in a novel with multiple narrators) quite as well as . . . um, actually, differentiating the voices.  Ditto for using shifting tenses in alternating past/present narratives.
  • First person requires a willing suspension of disbelief that third person doesn’t require, so be very careful, dear author, when you combine first person and present tense because you’re setting the bar very high.  At it’s worst, it just becomes a rambling monologue chock full of random, irrelevant details.

So tell me again what’s so wonderful about present tense?

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I’m about to dash off to a hectic day at school so will have to wait to answer this properly. I do tend to find present tense grating for all the reasons you give, but sometimes it works. One of the most masterful uses of it is by the adult writer Hilary Mantel in her two Cromwell novels. She uses it so that we are absolutely IN the man’s head. In Wolf Hall she makes it even more intense by using mostly pronouns as if we are indeed looking out through his eyes all the time. It. is. happening. now. I have to return to look at West of the Moon as I do remember having my knee-jerk negative reaction initially when seeing it was present tense and then just letting go and going with the book. Must reread it to articulate why it works.

    FYI: A bit of relevant name dropping— I was visiting with Philip Pullman (as you know he’s a friend) and was telling him about my love of Wolf Hall and he said wouldn’t read it because he refuses to read anything in present tense. He did say his wife had read the book and liked it:) I know he has written about this and will look later to see where and what.

    • I am an unredeemable lurker, but maybe you refer to this?

      http://www.theguardian.com/global/2010/sep/18/philip-pullman-author-present-tense

      One excerpt of Pullman’s frequently delicious style:

      “I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”

      • Thanks! I also would say this is exactly why it works well in Mantel’s books. She wants us to have that claustrophobic viewpoint.

        Pullman is a big fan of the third person omniscient narrator and writes a lot about why.

  2. I hate it, too. I hate it because it doesn’t promise the reader anything. If you begin a story, “Claudia is standing at the window watching a blue car drive down the road,” I’m immediately irritated: why should I care if some stupid woman is driving a blue car down the road? Why is that worthy of my attention and my valuable time? That’s not a STORY. But if you begin, “Claudia was standing at the window watching a blue car drive down the road,” that’s a different kettle of fish, because to me, there’s an implied WHEN going on there. It tells me that there’s a narrator who has chosen that moment because Claudia’s action is going to have consequences; there’s either something special about the time (the last moment before Claudia experiences a change in her life) or something significant about the advent of the blue car.

    I’m a little like Philip Pullman (oh, if this were not the only way!) in that I resist novels written in the present tense, and I’ve probably missed some book novels that way. I neglected to read WOLF HALL for the same reason he did. I am rendered most infuriate when someone defends present tense to me by saying, “It makes it more like a movie.” Why, for the love of Mike, should a book be more like a movie? I think it would be better if movies were more like books.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, every now and then there’s a good reason to write in present tense, and COUNTDOWN, for example, benefited from it. Wiles’ uses of the present tense promoted the feeling that the reader was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that unimaginable devastation was at hand. I don’t think the book would have been as gripping if it had been written in the past tense; we could have relaxed, knowing that the disaster had been averted.

    Present tense can (VERY OCCASIONALLY) be used deftly with direct address, as in THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. It is at its weakest in action-packed scenes “Ursula swings the battle-axe at me. I shriek and retreat to the wall. This is a mistake because now I am cornered. Ursula takes another swing.” Why is the narrator TALKING at a time like this, let alone writing?

  3. Jonathan,

    I am at school so I cannot answer this properly but I can say that almost all (if not everyone) of your arguments about 1st person can be turned around for 3rd person (didactic, too telling…).

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Ed, I look forward to your comments, but in point of fact this post isn’t about first person vs. third person, but rather about present tense vs. past tense. I did introduce first person in my last point, but I never said anything about being didactic or telling. I said that first person, generally speaking, requires a greater suspension of belief.

  4. Benji Martin says:

    Did anyone else notice how Revolution switched tense and perspective randomly for like two chapters in the book? That bothered me a little bit.

  5. I SO agree with you, Jonathan! Thank you for articulating the reasons why. I *don’t* really agree that the arguments can be used for 3rd person. Third person just doesn’t call attention to itself like first person does. We *know* you aren’t speaking right now. We’re reading your words in a book, for goodness sake!

    Now, if the characters quote a letter, that’s different. Or an epistolary novel is okay. In nonfiction, it’s okay, when talking about current issues and events. But in a novel, it has to be *really* good to overcome that awkwardness. I have put back books in the past myself because they’re in present tense.

  6. Add me to the list of those who wholly dislike the use of present tense. Once I figured out that “The Grand Plan to Fix Everything” was written to resemble a movie script, I accepted that conceit, but still would have liked it better without the present tense.

  7. I agree! I agree! I agree! YA is saturated with present tense narration, and it drives me nuts. I would hate for it to creep in and take over children’s lit, too.

  8. I’m not a big fan of it, but right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (granted, not a children’s or YA title) and it really does work (so far) for this novel. I do feel like I’m in the characters’ heads, feeling what they’re feeling, as the narrative continues. The characters’ uniqueness does not come solely from the use of present tense, but the addition of first-person narration does, in this case, situate readers directly into the characters’ ethos. Not all authors are successful in this regard – it takes a deft hand.

    For what it’s worth, though, after about 20 pages or so of present tense, I stopped noticing it as something “other” in terms of narrative technique. However, I’m not sure the text would have the same effect on me if it were not in first person present. I think that, in this case, it would be a different book.

  9. The use of the present tense is a device, and as a device it has its uses, primarily providing a sense of immediacy. When done well, it gives the reader a cinematic experience–these events are unfolding right here, right now. Reader and narrator are in the same boat. When done well, it can be engrossing, even thrilling.

    My problem with the use of the present tense is that it’s ubiquitous, and for the most part it’s not being used as a device, to render a certain effect, it’s just the default mode.

    I will say I’ve wondered if the present tense’s current popularity has something to do with how quickly things become obsolete these days–our phones, our tablets, our celebrities (some of them, anyway). Maybe writers are drawn to the present tense as a hedge against their stories seeming irrelevant or too old fashioned in a few year’s time. A story told in present tense is always happening right now, forever.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    I can think of a couple of other genres where present tense does not call attention to itself but are longer form than the ones Jonathan mentioned: plays or any similar genre that could be staged (“Good masters, sweet ladies! I am Giles the beggar”) and graphic novels (“I can use my own crazy technology–the phonic ear–to turn myself into a superhero”).

    I’m not sure why the use of present tense seems relatively innocuous in these genres but more obtrusive in novels. When reading a play, for example, it doesn’t matter that stage directions are in present tense. But what is essentially different about reading dialogue and stage directions in a play vs. reading a novel?

    I do think the act of storytelling lends itself to past tense. (I disagree that the use of present tense is more natural in oral storytelling). And I do think there is strong pressure for novels to be stories. To work in the present tense would require changing traditional author/narrator – reader dynamics into something less story-like and something more “live” – people have already commented on direct address, imitating cinema, interior monologue, etc.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      The stage directions in a play don’t bother me because they disappear when you experience the plays they were intended to be.

      I never said present tense was more natural for oral storytelling, only that it is more prevalent–although we have many authors who would seemingly change that.

  11. It struck me reading these comments that when I was growing up everything was in 3rd person past tense and any other way was practically unheard of. I think that kind of hegemony was kind of stifling, actually. It’s time-honored, yes, for fiction, but times change.
    Speaking as a writer I have used both past and present, 3rd and 1st person, depending on what the story needs. To me, being able to tell a story in both past and present is part of layering the story. There is a fascination for me in the gap between now and then, how something is experienced in the present and then re-told and shaped. I wouldn’t like to be shoved back into the 3rd person past box.
    However, is it way overused today? YES. I think people think it’s EASY. It often comes across as sort of mindless, incoherent and dumbed-down. It also leads to a slangy style, full of witty observations and pop-culture references, that too often passes for “voice.”
    Ursula, I think you make a good point about action scenes. Present tense suits books that are about character, that want to create an impression of everyday life (think Ulysses.) Action and fast-paced scenes written in first person are terrible.

  12. I have definitely either put down or skimmed through a LOT of YA fiction recently because it was written in first person present tense and bothered me so much.

    Does anyone know if any of the Newbery canon is written in present tense? Outside of Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, as Leonard already pointed out.

  13. I agree it takes skill to pull off present tense. Yet, even more annoying is when people use it’s incorrectly (to show possession) in a blog post! Psst…next to last sentence.

  14. Sheila Welch says:

    Excellent topic! It’s too late for me to write a post tonight but I agree with what LCanon wrote above. “There is a fascination for me in the gap between now and then, how something is experienced in the present and then re-told and shaped. I wouldn’t like to be shoved back into the 3rd person past box.
    “However, is it way overused today? YES. I think people think it’s EASY.”

  15. Has anyone read NEST by Esther Ehrlich? It is written in the first person present tense. Currently reading it and enjoying it.

    • I really liked Nest, though the present tense threw me off the tiniest bit at first as I wasn’t expecting it. (I’d never read historical fiction in present tense that I could remember when I picked it up.) I thought it did present tense, among other difficult things, very well.

  16. Patrick Ness says:

    Forgive me, but this sounds a lot like trying to declare a personal pet peeve as writing law. The great thing about writing, of course, is that there no laws, only recommendations. Present tense in an MG or YA can very easily be the moment by moment existence of a young person’s actual experience, one without decades of hindsight. It’s why I often use it: for the sense of a future not yet realised, of evanescence as it’s approached.

    The problems you list aren’t problems with present tense; they’re problems of bad writing, much like how some people rail against adverbs. Nothing intrinsically wrong with an adverb, only how you use it. Ditto present tense.

    My main philosophy of writing it that no one – no one, even for the best of reasons – tells me what I can or can’t do. That decision is 100% mine. My job then is to prove to you I made the right choice. But that’s every writers job, every page. I’ll use present tense, I’ll use past tense. Nothing “wrong” with either, and I pull my hair out at the suggestion there is. It’s why writing is so terrifying and not for the faint of heart. Just my 2 cents (or 2p) as we sat here.

    Cheers, Patrick Ness

    • Andrew Karre says:

      Perfect rebuttal.

    • Hear, hear.

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      Well, I certainly think it’s something more than a pet peeve, but less than a writing law. Understandably, writers would chafe at being told what they can and cannot do, but I think it’s quite interesting that so many writers acknowledge there is lots of bad writing with present tense, but nobody thinks they themselves are part of the problem. Everybody’s part of the 10% who use it correctly! :-(

      Just because you can justify a decision as a writer doesn’t mean that it’s not bad writing. For example, in this excerpt I have chosen to write my novel in all caps because my narrator is not only narcisstic, but also likes to speak very loud, often over the top of people.

      IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE AGE OF WISDOM, IT WAS THE AGE OF FOOLISHNESS, IT WAS THE EPOCH OF BELIEF, IT WAS THE EPOCH OF INCREDULITY, IT WAS THE SEASON OF LIGHT, IT WAS THE SEASON OF DARK . . .

      In this excerpt, I’ve decided that my narrator speaks in a halting, hesitant manner–which I have chosen to reflect by inserting random apostrophes and n-dashes in the narrative to capture that effect.

      It w’as th’e b’e’st o-f ti’me’s, ‘it w’as the wo’rst o’f ti’m’es, ‘it w’a-s t’he ag’e of w-is’do’m, it w’as th’e a’ge o’f foo-li’shnes’s, it w’as the ep-och of belief, it was the ep-och of inc-red-uli-ty, it wa-s the season o-f Lig-ht, it wa’s th’e s’eason of D’arkn’e-ss . . .

      Even though I have justified both of my stylistic choices–too bad you can’t read my whole novel just to see how brilliant my technique is–I would argue that this is still bad writing. While the content of my novel remains unchanged from the original–

      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . .

      –my stylistic choices are so distracting that they dilute the power of what it is that I’m trying to say. Hence, bad writing.

      I like present tense as much as anybody and can quote numerous examples where it’s used effectively, but I also agree with Frances above when she says that it’s quickly becoming the default mode in writing for children and young adults. If it’s not used with purpose–and used effectively without being distracting–then it’s a detrimental stylistic effect.

      • I feel like you’re misrepresenting what Mr. Ness said in your reply to him.

        He never said that the writer’s job was to justify the writing decision. He said the writer’s job was to prove to the reader he’d made the right choice. That’s a very different hurdle to clear.

      • Which is to say nothing of the fact that the examples here, if they can truly be called examples, are based on what is arguably the most familiar prose in the English language. Obviously altering that text in any way–especially the exaggeratedly ridiculous ones here–will make it sound inane. This isn’t a real response to Ness’s rebuttal at all.

      • Andrew Karre says:

        Shouldn’t the thesis of your complaint be “authors should be coherent, deliberate, and interesting in the choices they make about voice and tense”? Less polmical, to be sure, but more defensible and I think closer to what we–critiques, editors, and creators–would all like to see in the world.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        1. Emily: As for justifying vs. proving, I kind of feel like we’re splitting hairs here. Obviously, I justified my reasons for an all caps narrative and an apostrophe/n-dash laden narrative, but if you had gotten to read the entire thing, you would have been able to weigh the merits of the voice on its own–which I think is what Patrick is arguing for.

        2. Steve: I think you’re missing the point of the exercise which is that regardless of whatever stylistic effect one chooses to use on a given piece of writing (whether it’s well known or obscure), the other literary elements still have to carry their load. The success or failure of a present tense narrative has as much to do with the skill of the author in the creation of the total narrative as it does with the inherent stylistic quality of a single literary choice.

        3. Andrew: I guess I could be less polemical, but then this blog wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, would it? 😉 You’ll have to be forgive my grumpiness, but it’s a pent up frustration that’s been building for years, and if I didn’t have to read so much for professional commitments, then it probably wouldn’t bother me nearly so much.

    • Well-argued. Also, the “not what we’re used to” argument seems a bit thin to me. I am not put off or bothered by present tense.

    • I completely agree with this.

      I also think there is something in present-tense narration that goes against the idea of mastery (or a master narrative) itself. Part of this comes through the character’s relationship to the future: she isn’t telling the story from a point in the future where she’s achieved an authoritative perspective. In some stories this can relate to an ending that is literally ambiguous: I always think of M T Anderson’s Thirsty, which ends in a moment where the narrator does not, and cannot, know what happens next. That’s the point. If written in the past tense, this story simply wouldn’t work. When and where would the narrator be writing from?

      I think also, though, that the device can work metaphorically. Particularly in stories that are about that process of becoming, the present tense evokes this larger uncertainty about the future. Going further, maybe there is a kind of artifice in past-tense narration as well, with its suggestion that we ever reach a pinnacle where we can draw the past together into some objective meaning… or that an adult narrator can stand beside child characters and give ultimate authority to their words. I also have a sneaking suspicion that it’s writers who fall outside dominant narratives who use present tense most, but I have no data to back that up. My own observation is that it’s used more often by women.

      I agree with Philip Nell that really all of it’s artifice in the end– and it’s not a question of imposing absolute, authoritative rules on narrative, but of whether each story succeeds in allowing the reader in. I do also think part of the success of that entry depends on the prejudices of the reader.

      • I think this is a brilliant analysis of how present tense can be used, why it might be used and what its effects might be. Moreover, I have no doubt that M.T. Anderson has made his choices very consciously, as have authors like Patrick Ness, Deborah Wiles, and Esther Erhlich. Any writer worth his or her salt is always going to ask what serves the narrative best and will write accordingly. They’re going to measure the effects of their choices, as well as the benefits and limitations.

        But when it seems like half of the books I pick up at the library for my children, from chapter books to YA novels, use the present tense, it gives me pause. Is present tense really the best choice for every other book that’s published? Maybe one could argue that yes, today’s young readers come to literature the same way they come to movies, TV, and computer games, expecting the immediate, visceral experience those media provide, and the present tense best serves the purpose of engaging them. Might could be, but I’d still argue it doesn’t always serve the story being told as well as other choices might.

        (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve written a novel in present tense. I liked the sense of momentum it gave the story. Also, it was YA, and thus I was legally obligated to do so.)

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Patrick wrote–

        “Present tense in an MG or YA can very easily be the moment by moment existence of a young person’s actual experience, one without decades of hindsight. It’s why I often use it: for the sense of a future not yet realised, of evanescence as it’s approached.”

        Sarah wrote–

        “I also think there is something in present-tense narration that goes against the idea of mastery (or a master narrative) itself. Part of this comes through the character’s relationship to the future: she isn’t telling the story from a point in the future where she’s achieved an authoritative perspective.”

        Patrick and Sara have both spoken quite eloquently to this point, but this is the problem: there exists a cognitive dissonance between the character/narrator (who is reporting events as they happen in the present) and the author who is shaping and editing and predetermining the narrative at the same time. Nobody wants to read either a chronology of everything that a character did or said or an intimate stream of consciousness peek into their thoughts. Authors edit out much of the stuff that happens to their characters, showing us those incidents that build plot, character, setting, theme, and style. To have a character not only narrate in present tense, but have the ability to edit their reality into a coherent narrative on the fly . . . Really? Can’t you all see the puppet strings dangling all over the place?

    • I don’t know you, Patrick Ness, but I love you.

      Thank you for saying it better than I ever could. Plus, I would say it in present tense.

    • Blythe Woolston says:

      Thank you, Patrick Ness.

      As for the matter of coherent narrative: Present tense can evoke the process of sifting through experience and making sense of the world quite powerfully. This can be particularly important in open-ended stories. So I see the present tense as an instrument for engaging readers as agents in the process of story making. It certainly isn’t the only way, but it is a way.
      Finally, if “editing” of events is artificial in the present, it is equally artificial in the past. Fiction is artifice.

    • Well said, ayuh.

    • Well said, Patrick Ness!

  17. Tatum Flynn says:

    Language evolves.

    In the Satyricon, perhaps the first ever novel, the main character complains about the corruption of Roman literary taste and blames it on the Greeks: “That inflated magniloquence has infected every aspiring writer like a pestilential breeze.”

    Plus ca change :)

  18. Patrick Ness– forgive me!

  19. I’ve only used present tense once in a novel, ICEFALL, and it was for a very specific reason. I knew from the beginning that story needed a pervasive claustrophobia, and I decided to layer that negative pressure at the prose level. There is no more claustrophobic a point of view than 1st person, present-tense. In that POV there is no other space for the reader to stretch into beyond the narrator’s mind in the immediate moment of telling. As a secondary benefit, the present-tense also set the main narrative apart from the past-tense, interstitial vignettes, which ultimately met up with the present-tense as well. Readers can decide for themselves if the book feels claustrophobic, but if it does, I think it has a lot to do with the unconscious effect of the POV choice I made from the beginning. I did so with intent, according to what the story needed.

    • I agree with Matt. My only novel in present tense (I think) is Book of a Thousand Days. It’s in diary form so it has to be, but I chose to do it in diary because I needed it to feel immediate, close, claustrophobic at times. Diary is a challenging form that I wouldn’t rush to do again. Third person is much easier, lets in more air. But in the right circumstance, I think 1st person can absolutely be the right choice. I think it was the right choice for Icefall. And I thought Libba Bray used it well in A Great and Terrible Beauty.

      • Ha! I hadn’t even realized that one of my all-time favorite books (Book of a Thousand Days) is in present tense! But with the diary form, it’s completely natural.

      • One thing I like about how Shannon writes Book of a Thousand Days is that you can tell when the writer gets a chance to write in her diary. She talks about grabbing the chance to write down what happened. There’s no pretense that she’s writing in the middle of the action.

  20. But I hit you with the Calvinball. You have to put the flag back and sing the “I’m Very Sorry” song.

    (In other words, go ahead and make up your rules, and I’ll make up mine.)

  21. Matthew J Kirby says:

    Ack, they both went through! Feel free to delete one, Jonathan. 😉

  22. Sure, there is absolutely cognitive dissonance. People don’t generally narrate their lives as they happen, and first-person present requires a strange negotiation of the gap between experience and articulation. Both can’t really happen simultaneously, and sometimes (when not done well) this is both apparent and jarring. I certainly agree that there are examples where the present tense *isn’t* done well, or where it doesn’t seem like a considered choice.

    I think the question people are asking is how this differs from any other element of fiction. People can’t usually see into the heads of others and, for most, memory doesn’t at all work the way it does in past-tense first person. What about the cognitive dissonce of an adult writing from the perspective of a child? Or writing as someone from another century? Or through the eyes of someone who lives in a place with dragons and trolls? Fiction means using forms that evoke our ways of experiencing the world; it’s not a concrete reflection of reality. I’d say, in fact, that metaphor relies on cognitive dissonance. I agree wholeheartedly with others that what you’re arguing against is ill-conceived or poorly executed writing, not a particular form. Or, for the importance of personal taste.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Sarah, I think you’re conflating lots of (related) issues in your second paragraph. I’m going to save the whole first person vs. third person debate for another day, but I think this falls along the lines of willing suspension of disbelief more than cognitive dissonance.

      Earlier you wrote: “She isn’t telling the story from a point in the future where she’s achieved an authoritative perspective.” The problem is that the very act of storytelling depends on an authoritative perspective. We rely on storytellers to create order from the chaos. And if you’re in a first person narrative then it is ostensibly that first person narrator who is bringing order to the chaos, but first person present tense breaks that magic spell of first person by putting the author forward as the real storyteller, and this tension exists regardless of how well the author writes. Now some people say that that doesn’t bother them. Fine. You have just cited a whole list of things that don’t bother people when they read fiction, and clearly there is a subjective element involved, but I think there is also an objective element–which is what I am arguing for in this discussion.

      • Sorry– it seemed to me that you were using “cognitive dissonance” to refer to something closer to irony, so I used it that way as well. (I still read what you’ve written as a discussion of the effects of a kind of irony.)

        “…[T]he very act of storytelling depends on an authoritative perspective.”
        I think this would come as a surprise to a great many writers and readers. For me personally, I read much of modern fiction (and older writing, too) as an engagement with the limits of that authority, and in many cases a subversion of the very formulation you outline here. (I think of Woolf, Borges, Calvino, Joyce, Lispector, Rushdie, authors who employ multiple perspectives–and even multiple authors, authors who write through unreliable narrators, authors who write as cockroaches, authors who refract classic stories, authors who embrace ambiguity and resist closure, surrealists, authors like Walter Dean Myers and others who play with form and intersperse elements from outside the main narration…) In so many ways, authors are engaging with the illusion of authority in narrative, either seeking at some level to enhabit it, or actively working against or outside of it. For some, I also think finding forms of authority in fiction can itself be subversive. (I think of someone like Morrison, who–in my one reading– both writes with authority and also plays outside the dominant conventions of what that authority might look like.) I know that in my own writing, I’m consciously looking for ways to undermine certain kinds of mastery– I’ve spoken with many other writers who feel they are doing the same. Of course, this always comes up against the irony that in most cases it *is* one author and their one perspective that’s forming a coherent story. But many writers play with this irony and tension, and its effects. I do agree that this can feel destabilizing or uncomfortable for the reader (also intentional) and this is not to everyone’s taste.

        To me, it seems as if on the one hand you’re talking about ways certain forms can become conventions or even cliches– and here I agree. Yesterday’s subversive elements can become tomorrow’s dominant narratives, depending on how they’re used. On the other hand, though, , it seems as though you’re also talking about ways the unconventional can upset the familiar workings of fiction… and that this is upsetting. To which I say, maybe that’s part of the aim.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Of course, this always comes up against the irony that in most cases it *is* one author and their one perspective that’s forming a coherent story.

        Most cases? Isn’t the author always responsible for the story?

        Still thinking about your second paragraph . . .

      • Most cases= some novels are written by more than one person.

  23. I don’t think “cognitive dissonance” means what you think it does, but never mind — I know what you’re trying to say. If so-and-so is telling the story in real time, it’s hard to come up with a feasible explanation for a text’s existence, let alone its coherence. But even books that have narrative self-justifications, like The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye, have a gap between text and feasibility. No high school English paper is going to be 100+ pages long and recall dialogue and descriptions as vividly as Ponyboy does. The Catcher in the Rye is obviously the work of a mature writer, not a sixteen year old. If every book was the recollections of a grown child with a photographic memory, or a diary recovered from an ice-locked ship in Antarctica, you would be equally exasperated. I would just say that readers get what writers are doing because the convention is there, and they don’t have to question it any more than they have to wonder why all the guys with cameras are present in a historical epic.

    I could draw up a list of prevailing problems with novels in third-person, omniscient, past-tense: intrusive narration, the creeping-in of adult sensibilities what is supposed to be experienced through the eyes of a child, the encroachment of didactic observation, even condescension — all very familiar to readers of 19th Century children’s book, and not completely absent from current children’s books.

    My first book is in present tense, and I can tell you I had no naïve notions of gaining immediacy, uniqueness, or a better voice merely by writing in the present tense. The present tense just worked better for me with that book. So when you ask me to, “tell [you] why a book that is written in present tense is better than if it had been written in past tense,” I can only say that the book would probably not exist in the third person. It’s in the present tense because that is how it arrived on the page. No doubt all present-tense books now crossing your text represent similar decisions made by many different writers, at many different times. They were alone with their manuscripts, making decisions that felt right on a gut level, and entertaining no fanciful ideas that present tense alone would save a manuscript from mediocrity. In their defense, none of them knew there would be an usually high number of present-tense books read all at the same time by a beleaguered librarian.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Oh, I think cognitive dissonance means exactly what I think it means. It’s a psychology term that I have appropriated here for this discussion, and I figured most people would be able to make the leap, but just in case . . . Wikipedia: In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

      So here are I am saying that the mental stress is caused in the reader when the first person narrator purports to be the storyteller, but when the author continues to function in a very noticeable way as the storyteller, too. When I read your book, I don’t want to be thinking about who the storyteller is, I just want to enjoy the story, perhaps even forgetting that I am reading a story altogether.

      Again, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE OUTSIDERS are both first person and I’m more than willing to have a conversation about first person vs. third person, but the latter requires a greater suspension of disbelief as you have rightly noted.

      Well, there’s not really much I can say to argue against your Muse who delivered your story to the page, is there? :-(

      • Jennifer Laughran says:

        Hey, I get having pet peeves*… I have them too.

        But this is just a trolling post meant to get a bunch of writers worked up, right?

        * (I mean I don’t CALL them “pet peeves” because, as I’m sure you’ll agree, hackneyed clichés like “pet peeve” and “hackneyed cliché” are just BAD WRITING!)

  24. *Ulp, I meant to say the book would not exist in the past tense.

  25. I haven’t read through all the comments, but there’s a lot of: ‘it’s ubiquitous’, ‘everyone writes it just because it’s popular’, ‘it works in XXX, but not in general’, ‘I only liked when so-and-so did it’. The arguments against present tense sound like the arguments against YA in general, or anything that is currently popular. I have no problem with people who don’t like present tense (or YA, or iPhones), but the leap from ‘I don’t like’ to ‘it’s bad in general’ is seen all over the place in literature, and doesn’t do much to enlighten or promote discussion (but it does rile people up, so good job if that’s your goal :)).

    If you want to say that too many stories are being written in present tense when it doesn’t serve the story, or most writer’s lack the skill to effectively pull of present tense, that’s your opinion and you’re welcome to express it (I agree on a lot of the problems you point out with present tense). Saying that present tense is bad writing, but then admitting the exceptions where it works and is good writing, kind of destroys the principle you’re fighting for.

  26. But Jonathan, to say “when I read your book, I don’t want to be thinking about who the storyteller is, I just want to enjoy the story, perhaps even forgetting that I am reading a story altogether” tells us more about what you like as a reader than it does point to any aesthetic rightness of the past tense. Sometimes a book wants us to keep remembering it’s a book, using various techniques to remind us of its artifice. That said, I do find that present-tense YA narratives these days more often smell more of the creative-writing program than is probably good for them.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Roger, can you think of such a book offhand? I started EGG & SPOON on the plane yesterday, and it’s early days yet, but just in the first 20 pages Maguire dips in and out of various modes of narration for precisely this effect, that is, to remind us this is a story. Others?

  27. I have long acknowledged that I have a bias against present tense writing. A book has to be extra good to pull it off for me. Maybe this has to do with being old (50) and having gotten used to reading books with past tense, so the present tense calls attention to itself?

    But I think it also has to do with experience. In my experience, I’ve read more badly written present tense books than I have well-written ones. Or at least badly written ones where I’ve *noticed* the tense at all! (And I realize that’s a biggie.) This is similar to my experience with self-published books. Yes, I’ve read several well-written ones. But the majority of the ones I read are not very good, so I tend to approach them with a bias against them. If I’m on an award committee (like the Cybils), it’s good to notice my bias and determine if it’s warranted or not in this case. Of course, if I’m not on a committee, I can just give in to my bias and set the book aside until I’m feeling more tolerant.

  28. As someone who’s written in both third person and first person, in present and past, I have to admit I find all of the blanket statements a bit silly. There is no universally superior choice, and insisting that there is only establishes how firmly entrenched in the current narrative box one is.

    Third person, past tense is the most invisible choice because it has the oldest pedigree — therefore, for no inherent reason, it is more likely to go unnoticed. It’s precisely the same mechanism that means a reader will not remark on a teenaged narrator named “Summer” but notices one named “Flower.”

    It’s not because third person past is any less of a gimmick than first person past or first person present; I don’t consider any of them gimmicks. And it’s certainly not a reason to choose it — we writers should persist with a technique only because it has been done so often that it is invisible? Is that the gargling sound of innovation dying in the corner I hear? Ah. Yes. I see that tradition is strangling it. Spit glistens on tradition’s tasteful shoes.

    The blog post asks writers to defend their use of present tense over any other. It’s a silly assignment: a teacher asking young Maggie Stiefvater why she begins sentences in her novels with “And” and why she insists on using sentence fragments. There are far better thought exercises to improve the storytelling of this young generation of uppity grammar abusers.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      While I agree that there is some truth to what you say about its pedigree making third person more invisible, I’ll also say that it’s not only that, but also the fact that most present tense really isn’t exclusively present tense: it segues to past tense to talk about things that happened in the past. It’s the constant flipping back and forth that makes it not invisible.

      • It does — but so does past tense when it moves into dialogue. A reader who understands that as the basis for the text doesn’t notice it (just as we don’t find quotation marks to indicate dialog even remotely distracting, because of long familiarity). Hence: invisible.

        We use language in present tense every day. As you pointed out, story-telling in present tense is common in the oral tradition and it’s illogical to assume that won’t transfer to a novel form. It’s a painfully narrow view of oral story-telling to say “those stories don’t tend to run on for hours and hours the way that a novel does.” In the story-telling traditions I grew up with, it did. In many cultures, it still does. Present tense in that contexts is the standard, so: invisible.

        I mentioned the article on twitter, and readers couldn’t even remember which of my novels was in present. Invisible.

        Come, Jonathan. Take my hand. Let us climb out of the box together. The view up here is sparkly, unforgettable, and strangely free-form.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Oh, you make it sound so irresistible. I’m almost there. :-)

  29. Leonard Kim says:

    I am currently reading JASPER JONES, and finding myself stumbling over the prose. After reading Jonathan’s post, I tried mentally editing to past tense while reading, and I do feel that I would enjoy the book more had it been written that way. (There are a few sections of JASPER JONES in past tense, and they feel so much better.) So I am sympathetic to the idea that for traditional narratives (i.e., not plays, poems, diaries, interior monologues, experimental writing, etc.) there may be something inherently problematic about the use of present tense beyond author skill, subjective taste, or unfamiliarity.

    In everyday usage, I believe most of us when “narrating” the present naturally tend toward the present progressive. (“I am commenting on this blog” not “I comment on this blog.”) So I think there is an argument that the use of present tense for this kind of writing is “unnatural” at some level and reading it requires a kind of suspension of disbelief (maybe not the same suspension of disbelief Jonathan mentioned.) I think the present tense is actually quite static, catching in amber things that just “are” rather than “are happening.” Going back to JASPER JONES, the parts where the present tense seemed most natural to me were statements of belief, observation, and description (e.g., “What kind of lousy world is this?”) I’d hazard a guess that a present tense book that is predominantly characters’ statements of “this is the way I see the world” (See? Present tense just fine!) would seem more likely to succeed than a book which strings a bunch of “this happens” “this happens” “this happens” (e.g., pulling from JJ at random, “We walk into the house. He looks at me strangely. I can’t quite place his expression.”)

    I guess this is the same thing Ursula wrote above.

    When I read a story in past tense, I pull those characters and events into my present. I experience them come alive now and immediately, re-created every time they are read. This comes naturally to me, like memory. But I am having a heck of a time trying to figure out just what I am doing reading the present tense. I don’t think it’s because I’m a hidebound traditionalist.

    Of course, a book written in the present progressive would be awful :)

  30. No comment except that I want to go on record and say that FINALLY someone has written a great piece on present tense. There is absolutely too much of it out there today, especially in the YA market.

  31. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    One of the things that has made this a challenging discussion is that, despite the fact that many of us have referenced various books, we don’t have a common piece of text before us that we can look at and discuss whether it works or not. I deliberately didn’t introduce this topic with any samples from the books published this year for the simple reason that it’s going to be entirely irrelevant in the Newbery discussions since many of the contending books that we are apt to discuss here–not just WEST OF THE MOON and REVOLUTION, but also BROWN GIRL DREAMING, RAIN REIGN, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH, and others–use present tense very well and/or have a number of other strengths that would mitigate any peccadilloes, real or perceived, that a book might have.

    I’ve been thinking long and hard about your arguments and counter arguments, and I’d like to qualify my position–or at the very least restate it. You are right that there is nothing inherently wrong with present tense narration and it was deliberately inflammatory of me to suggest otherwise. Sorry, guys. :-( What I should have said is that there is that it takes a greater degree of skill to pull if off effectively, a position that I’m sure some of you will still disagree with. Of course, I’m being subjective here. I obviously don’t get as much mileage out of this stylistic effect as many other readers do. I also think I’m being objective, too, but I’m unwilling to parade out pieces of text to prove my point, especially as the discussion seems to have wound its course. We may revisit it at some point in the future. Or not. In any case, I hope that we’ll continue to think these questions as we read the contenders.

    • I nearly wept with gratitude reading Mr. Hunt’s original post. He speaks the truth: Present tense is more difficult to pull off and has to be better written to work. (PLEASE note that I am NOT saying it should ‘never’ be done. I get mail….) What I have found over the years as a writer (who has written in present tense), a reader (currently digging out from under the 400+ books submitted for the Kirkus Prize), and a teacher (of countless writing workshops) is that most writers simply do not understand why it is more difficult–*and neither do many editors*.

      After repeatedly hearing things like, “But for me it’s easier, not harder!” “But it came to me that way,” “But I wanted a feeling of immediacy,” I was feeling pretty worn out. It became clear to me that people who respond in these ways don’t want to know.

      So heartfelt thanks for this post. Now If only lots and lots of editors would read it….

      Cheers to all,
      Linda Sue

  32. Just two things to comment on this:
    1–Happy to see someone else talking about how difficult it is to make present tense “work” in a narrative…I’m constantly having to defend my bias against present tense to other youth services librarians, and this is my fallback position. If it’s done well (I could point to many books where this is the case–Mantel’s WOLF HALL being #1), it does provide a sense of immediacy and intense narrative drive, and when combined with 1st person, that claustrophobic sensation to which so many previous commenters have pointed. When it’s done poorly (too many YA books to count), it’s jarring and frustrating to read. Cognitive dissonance, indeed.
    2–The fangirl in me has been flipping out reading these comments–Patrick Ness, Maggie Stiefvater, Sharon Creech, Shannon Hale, and others! Exciting to see the thoughtful conversations happening between authors and readers.

  33. “Memory is a hardware store where writers try to help themselves to something for free until all of the suffering falls on their heads because they pulled the bottommost plank out of the pile first. So now I garb myself in delicate absentmindedness and no one can ask anything of me now, I’m dreaming, or temporarily dead at the moment.”
    Her Not All Her by Robert Walser.

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