Saturday, September 18, 2010

Present Rules

Sometimes when you're writing you just think: for God's sake, will people stop talking about how to do it! Because a) as Charlie Brooker has recently indicated, sometimes thinking about it too much it is just not conducive to actually doing it which can require huge dollops of intuition rather than intellect and b) because too often the talk implies rules and too many rules end up in proscription, and another thing you need in huge dollops is confidence and a sense of freedom. And before you object that there are rules and that writing is a craft as much as an art, with techniques to be learnt: I know, I know: I agree!! But the way I see it is that you learn the rules so well you take them for granted, in fact can start to break them, and after that what every writer, however experienced, really needs, are (mainly psychic) stratagems for freeing up their imagination and achieving originality in their writing.

And there's a third problem, c), with all this rule-bound chatter, especially when it's indulged in by well-known writers: what they're often doing is simply banging the drum for their own kind of writing and (by implication) denigrating other modes of writing from a standpoint which is hardly impartial (though too often taken as such).

When the news broke last week that Philip Pullman had condemned the current use of the present tense in novels, my stomach gave a lurch, I can tell you, as I'm using the present tense in my WIP, though not exclusively. I was tempted to join the debate and point out some of the subtle and wholly dynamic uses to which the present tense can be put in novels (and which as far as I could see were being overlooked), but, putting my duty to my work first, I decided to refrain from analysis and preserve the more intuitive frame of mind I needed for the writing, and to keep up my confidence in what I was doing by tuning out the critical voices.

Just as well: in today's Guardian Philip Pullman is at pains to explain that the reports had oversimplified his remarks. And in spite of myself I did read his article, and here are my pathetically writing-immersed responses:

He does begin by admitting that he said that 'the present tense in fiction has been getting more and more common in fiction, and I didn't like it.' (Stomach wrench from me.) But then he goes on to say: 'Like any other literary effect, the present tense is an expressive device; but expression works by contrast'. (Me: Yess! That's how I'm using it: as a contrast! Phew.) Pullman goes on to quote from a present-tense passage in Jane Eyre, which he says 'works beautifully because it emerges from the context of a narrative told in the past tense' and 'conveys as nothing else could the pressure of her feelings as she recalls the intensity of that summer evening.' (Me: yes, exactly: this is one of the best ways we can write about both intensity of feeling and memory. By this point in the article I'm feeling affirmed...)

But what happens then? Pullman goes on the attack. What he's attacking are novels written entirely in the present tense, which he compares with the (also reprehensible) increasing use of the hand-held camera. He says, 'I want all the young present-tense storytellers ... to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective.' He understands why so many don't: the postmodern (though he doesn't call it that) concern with lack of certainty, with the worry 'Who are we to say that this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn't ... there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial.' But while he understands it, he doesn't accept it: he calls it 'an abdication of narrative responsibility' and states that 'the storyteller ... should take charge of the story and not feel shifty about it.'

Well, my response to that is to wonder: isn't it an abdication of authorial responsibility NOT to want to address those uncertainties? And isn't Pullman just saying he doesn't like writing that's not like his own? And what's he doing making proscriptive rules for those who don't write as he does? And I'm trying really hard not to let it knock me off balance, as I'm writing about those very uncertainties...
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