But both men acted as if its use should be, if not abolished, severely curtailed.Laura Miller, covering the controversy for Salon, writes: What reason is it that writers give for opting for the present tense?Hensher went so far as to write an op-ed—in the present tense—complaining the present tense was “everywhere, like Japanese Knotweed.” His complaint is at least among the most generous I’ve come across—it acknowledges some historical examples of the present tense like Dickens’s , as well as that it is used in both English lyric poetry and the vernacular, as well as in journalism and screenplay treatments.
Present tense gives the illusion of being hands-off: just tracking, like a camera.
(A camera itself, of course, gives the illusion that it records “reality.”) Sometimes it’s a way of pretending the writer is on an equal level with/equal footing with the character(s)—just a bunch of us hangin’ out, moving through “real” time. If something is going on moment-to-moment and not assessed with a narrative fix or grip on it, the writer is pretending not to know (or truly doesn’t; how various writers create first drafts varies, of course) how things will unfold, so the writer and the reader are at least temporarily aligned, as they are engaged in speculation about the future.
We should pause to offer a little pity to Jay Mc Inerney.
To the extent that the anti-present-tense crowd views it as a recent fad, usually the first damning thing they can say about it is that Jay Mc Inerney used it in a novel set in New York’s nightlife scene—a novel that everyone still knows, also. As for the idea women are responsible for the increase, well, the pity I extend there is toward Gass (who would likely never accept it).
Many said they didn’t, which certainly encourages one theory—that the present tense may be the current preferred mode of the self-taught writer.
Regardless, here are a few approaches and theories on usage.I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. Reading the Gass essay is like finding the source code for so many contemporary complaints about literature (dating, yes, to 28 years ago).As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face—and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. As Laura Miller notes in that same coverage, William Gass wrote in 1987 on what seemed to him to be the alarming increase in the Present Tense suggesting it was in some way related to the increase in women writers. He begins with a deliberately bad story told stagily in the present tense—as if performing it badly is a way to prove it doesn’t work—then goes on to praise Katherine Anne Porter’s “Under the Flowering Judas Tree” as a good example.According to Hensher, they’ve been assured by “creative writing tutors” that it will make their writing “more vivid” and immediate.Philip Pullman—author of the bestselling series of young-adult novels “His Dark Materials”—also jumped into the fray in the pages of , blaming an aversion to the past tense on the “timorous uncertainty” of “sensitive and artistic storytellers” afraid of the “politically dodgy” implications of seeming to know too much about their own story: “Who are we to say this happened and then that happened?In 2010, the novelist Philip Hensher complained that half of that year’s Man Booker nominees were novels written in the present tense.He insulted the choice, dismissing it as only fashionable.But like other carped-about trends (minimalism, incest as a plot point, short stories ending in an “epiphany,” etc.), the present tense is only one among any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers, usually because they’ve seen other, more talented writers use them to advantage.The problem lies less with the tool than with the workman.But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense.They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time.