A Question of Style: Writing in the present tense

Phew, it’s been a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of first the Bailey’s Prize and then the Man Booker International Prize shortlists.  I’ve still got a pile of books from spring waiting to be written about, but I think the sensible thing might be to pause and catch my breath before I attempt to catch up with myself.

Or, maybe I should re-phrase that first sentence:

It is a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of the recent prize shortlists.

I’m afraid I still prefer my first version.  Even when blogging I can’t deny my bias against the past tense.  And things only get more dogmatic when it comes to my reading choices.  Writing in the first tense is one of those things that can move a book straight off the to-be-read pile.  I can’t describe how much I struggled with ‘Wolf Hall,’ but can vividly recall how I felt when I finally put my finger on what was bugging me so much about the lauded epic.

All this is by way of introduction, you see I really enjoyed my reading for the Man Booker International Prize, but I can’t quite get over the fact that three of the six books selected were written in the present tense.  ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ ‘The Unseen‘ and even my favourite ‘Fever Dream‘ all took me more or less off-guard.  I didn’t want to mention it in my reviews (because I realise not everyone gets as hung up on these issues as I do), but it has got me thinking about how I really feel about this stylistic choice.

The fact is, I find reading stories in the present tense an odd experience.  It jars me out of my comfort zone and the fact that it is uncommon for literary fiction means I end up reading more slowly as a result.  I don’t think all books can take this meditative pace, especially not compounded with the arch knowingness that seems to come with such a provocative choice on the part of the author.  On the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, some of my favourite novels use this style to magical effect.  In ‘The Night Circus‘ my favourite moments, the timeless passages in which we are invited into the circus itself, are all in the present tense.  In Italo Calvino’s ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ the present tense second person sections, all about the joys of reading, make me smile from ear to ear.  In ‘Fever Dream’ the delirious chronicling demands the immediacy of Amanda’s deeply personal present tense narration.

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I suppose the two factors here are intention and brevity.  It seems I can adore present tense narration for up to (but not over) 150 pages.  It has to be used to create a somewhat magical or out-of-body experience, with the awareness that this is an unusual literary choice and so only fit for very unusual books or topics.  The success of ‘Fever Dream’ however also shows that I should try not to be so restrictive in my acknowledged tastes.  I’m not sure I’m quite ready to try ‘Bringing up the Bodies,’ but will try to be more open-minded in the future when it comes to authors’ stylistic choices.  As a bit of honest soul-searching has shown, going beyond my comfort zone has already given me my top prize read of the year and possibly one of my favourite books from 2017.


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11 Responses to A Question of Style: Writing in the present tense

  1. FictionFan says:

    I feel much the same – in general, I really dislike the overuse of present tense, especially first person, but there are some occasions when I think it works. Unfortunately at the moment it’s a bandwagon so nearly everybody’s doing it, and I find it wearisome – authors who slavishly follow trends in style rarely have anything original to say. In my opinion, of course…

    • Trends are funny things – it’s hard to know the lag time between writing and publishing so I’m not always sure it’s writers following trends. I am sadly familiar with the resulting style fatigue for readers though!
      I think in general writers just seem to enjoy writing in the present tense far more than I relish reading in it and you’re right, it then makes me question the taste and originality of the culprit

  2. Generally I’m not a fan, I find it distancing as a reader. Which is strange really, because you’d think it would feel more immediate.

    But as you say, it can work in small patches and it can help distinguish between different parts of th story – I didn’t mind it in The Night Circus.

  3. I don’t have any prejudice against the style – in fact, if an author’s voice works for me, I don’t consciously notice this. Which probably means I notice the tense when the writing isn’t working. Loved The Night Circus. And also The Unseen, where I was taken into the immediacy of that alien world, both in time and space. A far Northern Archipelago early in the twentieth, feels more alien than a space-ship!

    • ‘The Unseen’ was an odd one for me – aside from the tense I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had felt more alien. The first casualty of my January nordic reading – the setting actually felt very familiar …

  4. I wrote a longish comment on how I don’t mind present tense – or past tense – it all depends on authorial skill. If I NOTICE, consciously notice, it probably means, whatever they are doing, isn’t working for me. However (a blessed relief, probably, for a hot and tired comment reader – it vanished. I probably pressed the wrong button. Loved The Night Circus and The Unseen though

    • Oh no! (And yet I’m pleased to learn that I’m not the only wordpresser who does this!)
      The NOTICE moment is often the worst; it’s the bit when something unnamed has been bugging me and then I pause and look at the sentences and realise every new present tense verb is going to announce itself like a klaxon horn. That’s my memory of ‘Woolf Hall’ anyway, my response was more restrained with ‘The Unseen’ and ‘The Night Circus’ never bugged me in the first place.

  5. Izzy says:

    Yes, it jars me as much as it does you, most of the time. Yet, there is one novel that is entirely written in the present tense, for such good reasons and to such brilliant effect (a novel I’ve already recommended you, by the way, and I wasn’t the only one), and that’s The History Man, by Malcolm Bradbury. It’s about a sociology lecturer, Howard Kirk, who believes that the self is an outmoded bourgeois concept. “By staying on the surface of behaviour and environment, the discourse of the novel imitates this bleak, anti-humanist philosophy of life in a way which seems to satirize it, yet gives the reader no privileged vantage-point from which to condemn or dismiss it” (I quoted David Lodge here, because, well, he says it so much better than I ever could !).

    • Mea culpa! I promise ‘The History Man’ is high on my to be read list (so many books, so little time). Having read your comment though, I no longer regret my delay. I think it was good for me to become suddenly open and accepting of present tense narratives before I started …

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