I hate novels written in the present tense. In fact, I simply don’t read them any more. I open the book, whether print or a digital sample chapter, and if it’s in the present tense, that’s it. I don’t buy it.
Why do authors do it? It was experimental about fifty years ago and, as intellectual fashions do, it’s dribbled down to hit the mainstream, and now permeates every corner of literary output. Thrillers, women’s fiction, historicals (spare me hundreds of historical words written in the present) – you name it, there it is, that damned present tense limping its way through endless pages.
Of course, historians use it, mostly when speaking. (It is, after all, the ‘historic present.’)
Richard’s cavalry attacks on the left front…
At this time, Egypt is causing trouble. Agrippa warns Caesar…
Well, if they must, they must, and it’s a kind of professional kink rather than pseudo-literary aspiration, but even so, it irritates me.
However, I just found one answer to the question: Why do novelists do it? The answer: Because it’s easy. It’s lazy writing and, as I know from my own experience, we authors love lazy.
How do I know this? I’m writing a series of blogs about the time I spent in India as a child, over at my other persona, Elizabeth Edmondson. This draws on memory, on visual images of long ago, and I want to recapture the sense of immediacy and wonder of childhood. So I wrote it in the present tense, re-living the memories.
A doddle. A flow of words, the easiest writing ever.
Ha, I thought. Maybe there is some reason for the present tense. Maybe, in a narrative like this, it works. It certainly works for me, I could write thousands of words a day like this. And it reads okay. Sort of. Like a child, I told myself. So I sent it off to the person who, out of the kindness of her heart and a love of writing, comments on my work before it bursts on to an unsuspecting world. She’s young, savvy and has a merciless eye for language.
‘Fuggedaboutit’, was her response. ‘How could you think this works? It doesn’t. No, it isn’t immediate. It isn’t anything. Put it into a proper tense, or I don’t want to read any more.’
I took her advice. No problem, it wouldn’t take a moment to switch is to was and arrive to arrived. Easy peasy.
I couldn’t do it like that, because when I did, the flatness of the writing jumped out at me. I had to rewrite. And revise. I added colour that was missing, the pace changed. It was much, much better.
I’m not alone in my dislike of the present tense in novels. Philip Pullman is scathing about the vogue for writing in the present tense. He refuses to read it. And he’s right. It has become a cliché, and a cliché that ruins what otherwise might be a good story.
Don’t do it, is my advice. How can any writer deprive her/himself of one of the greatest strengths and glories of the English language, viz verbs, in all their complexity and subtlety, in all their forms and tenses?
The English verb has grown and flourished into a wonderful creature. Honour its flexibility and variety, and Just Say No when a siren voice whispers, Write in the present tense, how immediate, how literary, how easy…
T S Eliot, Burnt Norton