TO BE OR TO HAVE BEEN, THAT IS THE QUESTION

Present_tense

Philip Pullman is beautiful when he’s angry! And two years ago, when journalists accused him of slamming the Booker Prize, he reared up on his eloquent high horse to correct the misconception. He was not, he made it clear, criticizing the list itself, he hadn’t even read the books on it. What he was dismayed by, what set his sensitive teeth on edge, was the fact that every book on the short list was written in the present tense. Here’s what he had to say about the increasing use of first-person, present tense in contemporary fiction: 

…if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

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. 

There’s a close parallel here with the increasing use of the hand-held camera in cinema. Just like the present tense, the hand-held camera is an expressive device whose expressive power is being drained away by making it the only way of shooting a film. And I dislike that too, you won’t be surprised to hear. I dislike it partly because it makes me feel sick, and partly because the camera never seems to be looking where I want to look, and partly because of the sheer monotony of texture that it brings, but mainly because of its falsehood. It seems to say: “We were there when these things happened. They were real. We didn’t have time to adjust the focus on that shot or swing round in time to see who said those words or keep the camera steady. It was all happening there right in front of us. It was all urgent and real.” 

Spurred by the gorgeous sound and persuasive rhetoric of Pullman’s ire, I took a look at my own “oeuvre.” It turns out I’ve written in future tense, present tense, and past; I’ve written in first person, second person, and third. But the only sustained first-person, present-tense narrative I’ve produced was set in the distant past! The Vanishing Point, a fictional account of the life of the Renaissance painter, Lavinia Fontana, flummoxed more than one critic because it described the past in the present tense. Not that I sat down and decided that was the right tool to bring a long-gone era closer to the reader, but it seems, in retrospect, that’s what my instinctual choice of present tense was about. And I have to add, it was a creative challenge to unfold something four hundred years old in the here and now! 

But I have not yet written a novel about contemporary characters in the present tense. Will I? Or is Pullman onto something with that camera analogy of his: while it would surely be easier to plow straight ahead with a handheld, the complexities of close-ups and distance shots, the thrill of adjusting focus to the past and even the future, of getting perspective by going omniscient – that, it seems to me, is what storytelling is all about. Is one of my literary (and pedagogical) idols right that choosing present tense would mean I was throwing up my authorial hands and insisting there is no story, that everything is actually unfolding as the reader turns the page? Might it, also, as Pullman suggests, be abdicating my responsibility as an artist—the responsibility to select, to tell as well as show, to expand and deepen, and yes, to edit? 

I don’t think so. I’ve read too many rich, compelling contemporary books in the present tense. And I believe the key is that most of them don’t insist on pushing this model to the point of the “claustrophobic” monotony to which Pullman objects. (Emma Donahue’s Room is an exception, and the claustrophobia there is an integral part of her character and his situation.) Of course, first-person, present-tense is wildly popular in our field, especially in YA novels. (Can you imagine The Hunger Games in the past tense?) And there’s no denying the charm of a first-person voice that grabs you and holds you for hundreds of pages. (Let me count the books from our own faculty and students that have achieved this wonder!)

So what’s the secret? How do these authors give their readers and themselves a break from the narrow confines of what Pullman hopes is a passing fad? When do they step out of the limitations of a single viewpoint and a straight-on-till-morning narrative? How do they allow their readers to know more, see further, than their characters? How do they use a hand-held camera when they need it, but switch to other techniques when their story, their truth, calls for it?

Food for thought. Good to chew on. And as always, where Pullman’s concerned, lots of room for loyal opposition! 

For those inclined, here’s his whole delicious rant: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/sep/18/philip-pullman-author-present-tense

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “TO BE OR TO HAVE BEEN, THAT IS THE QUESTION

  1. Kathi Appelt

    Louise, for me the issue of first person present tense isn’t so much the limited nature of it. I actually love the intimacy that it can invoke. Rather, it’s the difficulty of creating a solid, unique voice. Too often, especially I think with y.a. novels, the voices are so similar that they could be interchangeable. One snarky fifteen-year-old narrator sounds exactly like the next. Your Lavinia was distinctive, perhaps because she was from the distant past, but more likely because you spent a great deal of time and energy really bringing to life her Renaissance voice. She was like no other. Uma’s wonderful Dini doesn’t “sound” like anyone else in contemporary fiction–adult or otherwise. Too often, for me at least, the fppt voices sound just alike. Maybe this can be said of other points of view, but I think it’s particularly challenging when the narrator is whispering/shouting/screaming directly into your ear.

  2. Louise Hawes

    Hear, hear, Kathi! Angst and snarkiness have as many shapes and sounds as there are teenagers, but you wouldn’t know it from reading YA novels. My answer? Freewrite with your characters — not just your protagonist, but your supporting “cast” as well. In every scene, know what they want, what they fear, who they are. Leave their inner agendas tracked like desire lines across all the pages of your book.

  3. Sarah Ellis

    For another take on present tense see “Present Tensions, or It’s All Happening Now” by Deirdre F. Baker in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of the Hornbook Magazine.

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