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Present Tense Novels

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Ludmilla
Bibliophile
Location: Georgia USA

Present Tense Novels

Postby Ludmilla » Wed September 15th, 2010, 1:21 pm

Over the weekend, The Telegraph published this article about novels written in the present tense (specifically addressing those on the Man Booker shortlist) which created a brouhaha when author, Philip Pullman, was quoted:

This wretched fad has been spreading more and more widely. I can’t see the appeal at all. To my mind it drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?


So… how do you feel about novels written in the present tense, particularly historical novels written in the present tense? Do you like them, eschew them, or do you find your mileage varies?

I think for me it depends on how it’s handled by the author, and whether it suits the subject matter. I won't categorically reject a book because it has been written in the present tense, but it needs to come across in a way that doesn't feel too self-conscious or intrusive to me. Some authors can pull it off better than others. I know I've knocked down novels a notch in my rating when I've found it too distracting. Other times, it hasn't bothered me at all... sort of faded into the background as the story comes alive.

Ash
Bibliomaniac
Location: Arizona, USA

Postby Ash » Wed September 15th, 2010, 1:30 pm

I agree; like anything else including dialects and magic realism, using present tense depends on the writer. I think Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall is an excellent example of when its done right. In this case it brings an immediacy to the story, and puts Cromwell front and center, and puts the reader right into his head. Other times it is irritating and its use makes no sense.

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Michy
Bibliophile
Location: California

Postby Michy » Wed September 15th, 2010, 2:26 pm

I don't like it. For no reason that I can specifically pinpoint other than, I just don't like it. :) I have only finished a couple of books written in the present tense, and it grated on my nerves all the way through like fingernails scraped on a chalkboard. (does anyone even have chalkboards anymore? :p )

I think maybe the reason I don't like it (I'm trying to psychoanalyze, here) is that it sounds too "conversational," and not in a good way -- like a group of teenagers talking in Valley Girl. Then again, perhaps it is just a matter of getting accustomed to it, I don't know. That is, maybe if I read enough books I would get used to it, but that probably won't happen, because if I pick up a book and see it's written in the present tense, I will more than likely set it right back down again.

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LoveHistory
Bibliomaniac
Location: Wisconsin, USA
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Postby LoveHistory » Wed September 15th, 2010, 2:36 pm

Right off the bat I'd say I would probably dislike them in general, but if anyone can recommend an author or two who can make it work, I'd be willing to give them a try.

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sweetpotatoboy
Bibliophile
Location: London, UK

Postby sweetpotatoboy » Wed September 15th, 2010, 3:10 pm

Personally, I don't quite buy the line that using present tense gives immediacy to a story - which is presumably what most writers would want to achieve, and the best succeed in doing so without resorting to the present tense.

I agree it worked in Wolf Hall to a degree - or maybe it was simply that the whole 'he' pronoun issue was even more annoying so one soon stopped being peeved at the present tense. I think I found that using the present tense removed a sense of time from the piece. With everything happening now, I felt a lack of movement from start to finish and therefore it lost some 'arc' for me.

The normal way for a writer to bring their main character to the fore is to use the first person. I'm not sure why Mantel didn't do that given that there was hardly a scene in which Cromwell wasn't present.

M.M. Bennetts

Postby M.M. Bennetts » Wed September 15th, 2010, 4:17 pm

I've only read one book--and this was in manuscript form, it was also a contemporary setting, so that may have helped--where it didn't drive me absolutely balmy. It always sounds so 'false matey' to me. Like some drunk in a pub I don't want to know. Hence I was delighted when Pullman sounded off about it.

It also, just as Pullman said, severely reduces one's vocabulary. You might write, "he looks at me, I look at him..." and it's just about believable (though as a previous writer said, sounds like teenager text speak) but try that with an expanded vocabulary, "he quizzes me, I regard him..." and you sound like some 1920's Soviet anti-aristocracy propaganda film.

So maybe it's part of the whole dumbing down, stripping down to its supposed essential ingredients--plot, not much description, if any, cartoon characters--modern concept of the novel which so many young writers are encouraged to write...I don't know. But I don't like it, no...

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Miss Moppet
Bibliophile
Location: North London
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Postby Miss Moppet » Wed September 15th, 2010, 6:01 pm

It tends to put me off reading the book. I'm not crazy about it because I find that far from drawing me into the story, it distances me from it and it's a barrier I have to get over before I can start enjoying the book.

Having said that, there are present-tense novels I have enjoyed - The Nanny Diaries and The Boleyn Inheritance among them. And although I had many problems with The Help, the present-tense narrative wasn't one of them.

Oh, wait, maybe it was. I remember that when part of the narrative went into past tense, I felt suddenly very disorientated. I had to read a couple of pages over to sort out what happened in the past and what was happening now.

I like the French way which is to use the past historic and shift into present tense when things get exciting - Dickens did this too but it's tough to make work in English.

It's ironic that all these Booker novels are written in present tense because I think it works best for chicklit, which tends to deal with the here and now.

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Misfit
Bibliomaniac
Location: Seattle, WA

Postby Misfit » Wed September 15th, 2010, 6:18 pm

I don't care for it and find it quite distracting. It took me a while with Wolf Hall but I did get used to it there. Part of Russian Winter (the segments in the past) is present tense. It worked well enough, although I think the author slipped her tense on a few occasions.
At home with a good book and the cat...
...is the only place I want to be

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Libby
Avid Reader
Location: Lancashire
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Postby Libby » Wed September 15th, 2010, 6:59 pm

I enjoyed Wolf Hall and after the first few pages became so immersed in the story that I didn't notice the tense - and I think that is the test. If any tense is doing its job it shouldn't be noticeable. Once it becomes annoying then it isn't working. So I suppose it's a mixture of whether the author can handle tense appropriately and how engaging the actual story is.
By Loyalty Bound - the story of the mistress of Richard III.

http://www.elizabethashworth.com

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Kveto from Prague
Compulsive Reader
Location: Prague, Bohemia

Postby Kveto from Prague » Wed September 15th, 2010, 8:02 pm

"Ludmilla" wrote:Over the weekend, The Telegraph published this article about novels written in the present tense (specifically addressing those on the Man Booker shortlist) which created a brouhaha when author, Philip Pullman, was quoted:



So… how do you feel about novels written in the present tense, particularly historical novels written in the present tense? Do you like them, eschew them, or do you find your mileage varies?

I think for me it depends on how it’s handled by the author, and whether it suits the subject matter. I won't categorically reject a book because it has been written in the present tense, but it needs to come across in a way that doesn't feel too self-conscious or intrusive to me. Some authors can pull it off better than others. I know I've knocked down novels a notch in my rating when I've found it too distracting. Other times, it hasn't bothered me at all... sort of faded into the background as the story comes alive.



As a confessed grammar nerd, I just have to point out that English does not have a lot of tenses, only two, past and present. Which is fine cause most languages only have three (past, present and future) and there is no future tense in English. You can't have more than three tenses. What this person is talking about with past perfect, imperfect, continuous/progressive, perfect progressive, etc. are all aspects, not tenses. technically there is no "present perfect tense". there is "present tense, perfect aspect"

So technically, changing the tense you are writing in, in no way limits the amount of aspects available. e.g "I was walking" (past progressive) vs "I am walking" (present progressive) or "I had walked..." (past perfect) vs "I have walked..." (present perfect).

So the idea that its limiting an author holds no water. Now the fact that most authors who tell stories in the present tense tend to stick to just plain old present simple "I walk" rather than using a variety of aspects is probably what the person is trying to complain about.


Sorry for that :-)


For my answer to the question, I probably havent read enough books in present tense to judge. the only books ive read which were written in present were the old 2nd person "choose your own adventure" style books. In those the reader pretended to be a character and was able to make choices about where the story would lead. in those cases, telling the story in present tense made sense. "You walk down the corridor when suddenly you see a monster."

However, telling a story in historical fiction, it really only makes sense to use the past tense. In HF everything we read is set in the past so the past tense seems the logical choice.


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