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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.Elizabeth Mc Cracken: I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice.
He would seem to be aiming at writers like Colette, Anais Nin, Jean Rhys or Marguerite Duras (I’ll let you all decide which Anns he means).
But at least part of the popularity of the present tense in 1987 must have come from the work of men also—in particular, writers like Updike, his Rabbit novels all written in the present tense—beginning in 1960—and bestsellers.
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?
But either way, this, along with the previous complaints, really begs this question: What exactly are writing professors teaching about the present tense?
* * * * I approached a number of authors who teach or have taught writing to students at a variety of levels and asked how they taught the present tense.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?Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.” You might think that given half the novels on that year’s Booker long list were in the present tense, this could be proof the choice had some merit, but the verb tense was apparently so benighted Laura Miller takes on the role of defending it herself, concluding that the problem is with the writer who uses it, not inherently with the choice itself.Yes, young writers are prone to believing that techniques “calling attention to” the unreliability of storytelling itself are far more daring, innovative and interesting than they actually are.Ann Beattie: I suspect that it’s used so often, in part, because of things that unfold right before our eyes, or seem to—the obvious example being movies, when something happens, and happens, and continues to happen, until finally it has happened and then the movie ends.The experience of a movie is that you, and the movie, exist in the present tense, and that you are observing what is happening moment-to-moment.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.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).