Dispatches | September 22, 2010

Yesterday, I came across a quick post on The Bark, the energetic blog of Willow Springs.  Kathryn Houghton posted briefly about Philip Pullman’s scathing response to the heavy usage of present tense narration in three of this year’s Man Booker’s Prize nominees.  Kathryn asked a pretty simple question: So what?

I started to write a response in the Comment section, realized I had to go to teach class, bolted, and have been chewing it over ever since.  Usage of the present tense can be found in literature going back to the Greeks; it’s not a brand new phenomenon that has recently been unearthed in the Nevada desert (though that would have been really cool).  But the present-tense has become more commonplace in short fiction over the last couple of decades and gained popularity in the novel.  If nothing else, it is certainly a trend, and when writing moves in a generally accepted direction, we should take notice.

In fact, others in the literary world already have.  Subtropics, the literary journal out of the University of Florida run by the writer David Leavitt, has this on their submission page:

A preponderance of the stories coming our way are written in first-person present tense; we are starting to grow weary of this perspective. Please keep this in mind.

That’s been up there for at least two years now.  Why do we see so many of these present tense stories, and why are they making magazine editors cautious?

Let’s first get this out: it does matter.  In literature, form and meaning are intertwined, and the choices a writer makes are significant.  Everything in a story is the writer’s decision; nothing is preordained.  A story’s setting, point of view, protagonist’s gender, narrative voice, and any number of other nuts and bolts (or bricks and mortars) of a strong story should be chosen with deliberate intent.  All of it matters.

So it would be nice to be able to safely assume that present-tense, then, is a choice.  But in the present-tense stories coming across my desk, it rarely feels that way.  Instead, it often feels like a short cut.

In the fiction writing classes I’ve taught, present tense seems to be the default when the story lacks narrative drive.  Present tense, my students say, creates immediacy, makes the action more visceral, keeps the reader in the moment, and add tension because the narrator does not know how her/his story will end.

All true perhaps, but more often than not, present tense feels gimmicky.  Take the last example of the narrator’s knowledge of the story’s events: the idea is irrelevant in the third person (the third person narrator of course knows how things end) and second person is often nothing more than first person weakly disguised.  In the first person point-of-view, a character that knows the outcome has an amazing strength to focus on things that seemed irrelevant in the moment, but with hindsight, are quite significant.  Great memoirs seem built, at least in part, on this idea.  Instead, a present tense story makes me feel as if I’m reading a play.  And, fiction isn’t a screenplay: writing for the stage or film is an entirely different form, one that is interpreted by the actors and director, with minimal prose other than stage direction.  Why would fiction want to replicate this?

Present-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made.  It flattens the story.  It flattens emotional and narrative distance and lacks the sense of shadowing, the illumination and darkening of a character’s world that strong narratives can create.  The narrative choice suggests that there is nothing to remember about the past (and the past, to badly paraphrase Faulkner, isn’t ever really in the past) and nothing to expect of the future.  There’s a smoothness to this flattening of time and distance that leaves whatever has transpired before page one of the story as wholly irrelevant.

Further, the present tense restricts the narration and, consequently, the writer.  This restriction is deliberate, I’d argue, constipation from tackling bigger and broader events by eliminating the possibility of there being anything else that the characters (and, consequently, the narrator or the writer) must be conscious of other than the Here and Now.  Opening up the story to the past takes courage and confidence, a writer’s willingness to chisel back into the past for the bones of the story.

Perhaps it’s indicative of our modern lives.  As Americans, we love saying “That’s history”, a ridiculous dismissal of knowledge and tradition because as an American, we know what we know, and don’t need all those books and all that schoolin’ (or something like that).  This modern age-ism also highlights what might be the biggest influence on writing: the silver screen, which might be one reason why the present tense has become the popular default.  Films taught us how to quick grasp shifts in time and place, leaping from one character to another, one era to another, experience non-linear events rapidly, and encouraged us to demand media to entertain us rather than engage us.

Can present-tense stories work?  Of course, they can.  The Missouri Review has published plenty of them.  Good editors can’t be dismissive of a story (or poem or essay) because of some preconceived notion of what stories should do or must do.  Breaking expectations is one of the aims of good art.  But when we choose a form, we must choose wisely.  Otherwise: well, here’s your silver screen moment.

(We really aren’t obsessed with Indiana Jones.  Honest!  We just dig his hat.)

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review