Sunday, October 03, 2010

More on the 'Present'

A letter from Peter McDonald in yesterday's Guardian articulates some of the issues that have lain pretty well unstirred in the recent debate about the use of 'present tense' in novels. (I can't find it online, so no link I'm afraid.)

'Why is so much literary talk in the English-speaking world so facile and unambitious?' he begins by asking, and points out that while John Mullan ostensibly took issue with Philip Pullman's objections to the current uses of PT, Mullan nevertheless concurred that it's 'an evasion of narrative responsibility'. McDonald remarks of this: 'It is difficult to imagine a more finely balanced blend of late-Victorian aestheticism and moralism... We are back in the gas-lit critical climate of the 1980s.'

He goes on:
Compare all this with what Roland Barthes wrote about narrative time in the late 1940s... He saw the present as a way of escaping the easy sense-making allure of traditional past tense modes... [The past tense] constitutes a direct affront to the "unreal time of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels".
I think that's the whole point: that fiction is released from worldly time, and that to talk in terms of 'present' and 'past' tenses in fiction can be reductive and beside the point.

Ironically, in view of the fact that he writes fantasy novels, Pullman's comments do seem to stem from an outdated sense of there always being a real, true story behind all the other possible stories, the one for which the author 'takes narrative responsibility', a sense which is closely linked to the realist concept of the story as fact. As Barthes pointed out, the traditional use of the past tense is that which can best create this illusion, the sense that what we are reading here is the authoritative version. (Perhaps it's significant that Pullman writes for children.)

Personally, I'm interested in fictions that challenge this notion of narrative authority, and try to write them, and quite frankly find unauthorative narratives that don't. As Pullman himself acknowledged, there are many versions of the past, and therefore of any story, located in the different perceptions and memories of those who experienced it. Each of those persons has their own (often very different) 'past tense' story, after all, and novels can be great at showing up their contingency - just look at past-tense first-person multiviewpoint novels or a past-tense intimate third novel like The Corrections.

As for the 'present' tense: Vanessa Gebbie explains in the comments thread on my previous post that Philip Hensher objects to the use of the 'casual anecdote' mode of present tense in contemporary novels. In fact this precise mode was used brilliantly in Trainspotting, but the voice was that of a narrator not the author; far from abdicating narrative responsibility, via this voice the author was portraying and anatomizing the particular social and psychic (and thus temporal) entrapment of his characters. No doubt there is an army of poor imitators, but I can't say I've come across many published ones. Furthermore, the 'present' tense can be used in other sophisticated ways. I'm not a linguist so I don't know the terms, but I can imagine that linguists describe the various uses as distinct tenses in themselves (rather than the simple/simplistic 'present'). The 'casual anecdote' mode is only one form of the historic present in which it's unequivocally acknowledged that the events being described happened in the past (for the characters) but they are related in the present tense in a way that 're-lives' them and thus makes them especially vivid. But there are subtle ways in which you can use it - to show that such 're-creation' can be suspect, for instance. Present-tense portrayal of memory is even less simply 'historic', creating a more continuous temporal reality, since memories are indeed 'present', always with us, even while the events memorized are 'past', in fact continuously recreating the past (Pullman himself refers to an especially vivid instance of this use in Jane Eyre). Not to mention the possible use of the present tense to describe either an unavoidable or a putative future ('We go to the train at four-thirty' or 'we watch the sea swallow the continent') ('future present'?).

In other words, the ways to which such modes can be put are the ways that novels can free us from the straitjacket of obvious 'fact' and bring us onto the more magical and dynamic levels of possibility...


Dan Holloway said...

I do fear that your use of Barthes is very telling. I have recently read this year's titles from the marvellous Peirene Press, none of which could be said to be unchallenging in their narrative voice. I do fear that the English literary establishment will end up talking itself into some kind of whirlpool, blackholish introspective mess.

As writers what we need to carry on doing waht we do, and ignore critical trends, from whatever direction we come. Of course tis brings troubles for those of us who ever want to earn a crust from writing, but we have to choose where we nail our colours.

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating stuff, Elizabeth. I think skillful uses of tenses, weaving them into each other within the same narrative, makes for especially compelling storytelling. Dropping into the present tense for a paragraph or two can be an incredibly revealing device - especially when it is done subtly enough so that the reader is barely aware of it. As writers we should all be working on our craft so that we can use such techniques more and more skillfully, don't you think?

fiona glass said...

What a fascinating article, thanks for posting! I'd only been talking to a writer friend about fads and fashions in writing and the way they can suddenly change - and here's another example!

I always think it's a shame when anyone (be it publisher, editor, agent or another writer) tries to straitjacket writers into one particular style or trend. You must not use adverbs. You must not use adjectives. You must not use second person point of view. You must not use present tense. And yet many, many wonderful books and stories have been written that contain all those supposed 'faults', and yet are classics in their own right...