Welcome to the newest writing fad, present tense. Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are two prime examples and both were acclaimed best sellers. To my mind it’s Twitter in novel form, books for the attention deficit, a gimmick for a generation of readers who’ve lost the ability to concentrate. It comes across as writing for children; See Jane ran. See Spot run. I did this in first grade. It takes on a quality of stream of consciousness as well, which can really be annoying. In first person form, such as Miller’s, I admit it can be effective in appealing to young readers, but in third person form such as Mantel’s, it sounds ludicrous, like stilted medieval language, which may have been her intent. Here are some other thoughts on the subject.
This from Writer’s Digest contributor Brian Klems:
Recently, I asked one of my talented undergraduate students why she wrote all of her stories in the present tense. “Isn’t that the way fiction’s supposed to be written now?” she said, then added, “The past tense makes a story seem kind of ‘19th-century,’ don’t you think?” Why, I wondered, did a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction suddenly lose favor? What made the past tense passé? And why was the present tense now omnipresent? Read More
The statement from Klem’s student is extremely sad. In a way, it’s a young writer’s version of Leon Trotsky’s admonition to those who weren’t ready to boldly follow him into the Worker’s Paradise of Soviet Russia: “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!”
Thus a new generation of writers are consigning Frank Herbert, Irwin Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and every writer of value to the dustbin of history for sounding “kind of 19th-century.”
Thoughts from a Writer’s Forum:
Problem is, first person present tense can feel like someone is doing a running commentary on everything they do, which can feel pretty artificial and actually undermine the immediacy one wants to achieve with present tense, reason being that commenting already involves a certain level of detachment of the commenter and a certain regard towards an audience. You are either caught up in the moment or commenting on it. There’s a natural gulf between narrating I and experiencing I, at least if the experience is properly engaging. Using past tense acknowledges that and can actually feel more natural. Read More
This trendy trend is rapidly taking over popular fiction. In 2009 present tense was addressed in the Precise Edit’s Blog for its shortcomings and the reasons for its limited usage. How times have changed in only six years:
Most fiction authors write in the past tense. They tell readers what happened. This is as if the author says, “I see the events in my mind, and I’m writing about what I saw.” Very few fictional books are written in the present tense. One reason for this is that writing in the present tense provides serious challenges to the author: maintaining perspective, introducing prior events, and filtering the stream of consciousness. Read More
When the literary historians of the year 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction,” and since then, it’s appeared with even greater frequency. Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers. Read More
So that’s about it. I’m just a grumpy old hedgehog. Nothing more need be said.