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...


Claire King said...

The novel I spent the last year writing and which is now being read by an agent (please, please love it) is in present tense too. So I also had the stomach lurch. But now I've decided to take all this discussion as interesting opinions and move on.
I also blogged about it, with some great discussion in the comments

Adrian Slatcher said...

Any idea about what books he's talking about? Doesn't he write children's books?

Kathleen Jones said...

I hadn't read Pullman's article, since I've only just returned from New Zealand. It gave me a lurch too, as I've just published a biography written in the present tense (Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, Penguin) and am expecting some flak for doing so. But the PT gives you a sense of immediacy nothing else does - the sense of a life lived moment by moment. It's a wonderful tool. Yes, too much of it makes me feel nauseous becuase it can make a mediocre work 'seem' more literary than it is AND a lot of writers seem to be using it (including me) but surely every story demands to be told in its own voice and in its own way and if that way is the PT then who is Philip Pullman to object!

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head when you said Pullman was (basically) saying he doesn't like writing that isn't like his own. I call shenanigans on the whole topic.

First - it's your story, you write it as you see fit.

Second - there is a reason we teach writing in the present tense - mostly to avoid the passive voice. While it is not always the case, the passive voice can weaken a narrative - though it is sometimes necessary, usually for matters of convenience.

I sometimes shake my head at it because it can be used to tell stories in the 'And then this happened and then that happened' style - not always terrible, but not terrible dynamic or interesting, either.

Finally, just as you point out, writing is a craft as well as art, and it pays to learn the craft so you can discard it completely, when you find your voice. An old professor of mine once told me: there are no rules in a knife fight.

Alice Turing said...

My novel is written entirely in the present tense. I've never studied creative writing or even English literature (beyond O level, 25 years ago) and my only reason for doing it was that it felt right. When I started telling that story, it wanted to be told in the present tense. I tried switching to the past, and it felt wrong. So I went back to the present. Other stuff I have written has been mostly in the past tense. My first novel was written partly in the future tense!

It is surprisingly easy to discuss both the past and the future when writing in the present tense, and also to get a wide range on other places and characters.

A novel is such a very complex thing that blanket rules such as banning the wholesale use of a particular tense are just a bit daft. And are never objective, and always based on personal prejudice.

I'll be really interested to see what you think of my use of present tense!

My personal bug bear is when people inadvertently slip out of the tense they are using, rather than changing tense on purpose. It drives me mad. Another thing I hate is the fact that all documentaries now seem to be narrated in the present tense. "Mr Pasteur is applying chemical C to see what happens. It will be many years before he discovers Penicillin. His wife will die."

Documentaries are nearly always about things that happened in the past. There's nothing wrong with that, and the past tense was designed for the purpose of describing such things. So why not bloody use it!

But, you know. Pot, kettle. I have developed this prejudice, and I must deal with it. And it probably is just fashion.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

trying again... Pretending uncertainty as to what happened is as much an authorial act as asserting certainty. It's what Trollope does when he tells us he can't show us a bishop's enthronement because he doesn't know the procedure. He means he'd find out soon enough if he thought we wanted to read it, which he doesn't. We don't know what Heathcliff was doing for 4 years. Emily does, but doesn't want us to, so she takes refuge in the voice of Nelly, who doesn't know either. If authors were to aim for this wider temporal perspective there's be no such thing as first person narration or character voice, just omniscient and reliable narrators. Not a plan...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Good points, all.

Good post, Claire - I'll go back and look the comments.

BR: No, annoyingly he doesn't name particular books - so he can't be contradicted via chapter and verse. And yes, good point re kids' books: children do like a sense of authority in story-telling. Pointless to apply that to books for adults.

Kathleen: very much look forward to reading your book!

Alice: ditto, though I have already dipped in and it's got loads of energy and a sense of great intrigue which are clearly facilitated by the use of the present tense.

Dijeratic: interesting what you say about reason for teaching present tense. It does avoid the passive as you say.

Elizabeth Baines said...
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Elizabeth Baines said...

Spot on, Sheenagh. (So sorry, I called you Sheila: I've deleted that!)

One thing that characterises this debate is a great lack of subtlety and a failure to acknowledge the variations of so-called 'present tense'.(Eg: He seems to be objecting to the use of historic present in current novels, yet the example he uses from Jane Eyre is something more subtle in that it's a recreation of a memory, memory being ever-present and constantly relived.)

Nicola Morgan said...

My most recent novel, WASTED, is present tense, and has had a very lovely response, including from reviewers I hugely respect. It's certainly something that should only be used when it should be used, but isn't that the same for anything in writing? I couldn't care one jot what generalisations PP or anyone else wish to make about the present or any other tense: I care only whether they think it works for this book or that book. Suck it and see.

I did start writing my WIP in the present tense - I think it had become a habit after the last one - and it didn't work. So I stopped. Duh. End of.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Exactly: it's whether any technique/mode works in any particular situation

Keren David said...

I have been surprised by these people who talk about novels written 'entirely in the present tense.' Can someone give me an example? Surely even if a book is written mostly in the present tense there is room for some past tense passages as well?
Anyway, having written two books in first person present tense, I had no idea I was being trendy. It suited my purposes and I enjoyed it. Up to readers to say if it worked or not, but I hope they will read my books before condemning them on the basis of tense alone.

Jane Eagland said...

Hello, Elizabeth! We met earlier this year in Liverpool...

I've just been alerted to your blogpost by Adele Geras.

I agree with you - that opinions such as that expressed by Philip P just show people's preferences but that it can be unnerving.

My first novel is present tense and that was deliberate because the narrator is shut up in a lunatic asylum and I wanted to create claustrophobia rather than a 'wider perspective' and also immediacy. If I'd chosen the past tense the reader would know that the narrator reached a position of being able to lack back on what happened whereas I wanted the sense that neither she nor the reader knows what's going to happen next.

I agree with you entirely that after a certain point 'stratagems for freeing up the imagination' are what's needed not 'rules'. And yes it's hard enough to keep up one's confidence without people pontificating on what we're 'supposed' to be doing.

Hope you're now immersed 'in the zone' and free of lurches!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Keren: Yes, it's frustrating not to have examples, and I can't think of any entirely present-tense novels myself. Sounds as though your novels are working with readers whatever anyone says!

Jane: how lovely to be in touch again! PT is clearly the perfect mode for your novel! (And thanks, yes, I'm in the zone again!)

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, a novel written entirely in the present tense would be bizarre. But I agree with you, Elizabeth, about addressing uncertainties too. I found your posting very interesting and helpful.
Certainty is, of course, alluring -viz the appeal of fundamentalist religion to many people. But often dangerous. I see my job as a writer to show people the uncertainties of what they think they know, to make them think. The device of the all-powerful, all-knowing external narrator, who has access to the insides of everyone's heads, is as unrealistic as it comes, though oddly enough, conventionally-inclined readers often find it reassuring and realistic. But then, there are people who think Dickens, because nineteenth century, is a realist writer, whereas I see him as a great surrealist.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'm sure I can imagine a novel written entirely in the present tense that ISN'T bizarre, though, Lisa (even if I can't think of one that already is.)

I entirely agree about Dickens - but then I'm not sure about that term 'realist' in the first place....

Dan Holloway said...

To answer the specific question asked, I had understood that Pulman (and Henscher, poor chap - he must be feeling rather aggrieved that everyone's bashing on the other Philip) was talking specifically (but as illustrative of the general rule) about the present tense novels on the Booker shortlist.

Which raises another question - what the debate as originally posed - was actually about was fads in judging - the fact that judging panels are leaping on bandwagons in an effort to be cool and relevant. That's a very strong argument (judges should judge on what they make of a book, not what they perceive will make a trendy shortlist - and there's an even deeper question about the ability of a judge to extricate their perecptions from fads and fashions ingrained in a society of which they are part). It has been transformed into an argument about how we shouldwrite. And as such has become an extraordinarily weak (and somewhat uninteresting) debate.

Elizabeth Baines said...
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Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan: Pullman begins his Guardian article by saying that he had NOT been discussing the present-tense books on the Booker shortlist specifically (as he had been reported as doing), going on to say:

'I hadn't done that because I hadn't read the books. I'm quite prepared to believe that each of the listed novels that's told in the present tense is a miracle of literary art. What I did say, in an email to the Telegraph journalist who asked me about it, was that the use of the present tense in fiction had been getting more and more common, and I didn't like it.'

And it is Pullman who, in this article, turns the argument into one about what we should be writing:

'I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.'

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I went back to read what Philip Hensher said. And I like it... because if Im honest, some of the present tense stuff in stream of consciousness style I've written is my own least favourite. This is Hensher:

"The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”
The present tense is the voice of the very informal anecdote – “So I say to him, who do you think you’re talking to, and he looks at me and says…” It is the way we tell jokes – try to start a joke, “A man walked into a bar,” and see what a strain it quickly becomes. But in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality – the opposite of vividness."

I think he explains well why it feels poor. Unoriginal. Unvivid. Boring, in the end. None of the writers in this thread write like that, so they can relax!! I can however nod my head, and see a few of my own pieces held up for scrutiny. Do they pass? Probably not. Could they be edited, made better? probably, yes.

I think thats all they mean.

Elizabeth Baines said...

V, I think that present tense, like any literary device, can be used in many different ways - as Nicola implies above, it can be dull, boring, clumsy, cliched, brilliant, innovative, clever or moving (see my later post for a link to John Mullan's article on this). Hensher's comments as you quote them do seem to be more nuanced than Pullman's, and he seems to be saying that present tense can more readily (than past tense) lend a spurious artfulness to essentially dull prose, and that this is why it's become fashionable.

On the other hand, I wish I knew which rash of novels he's referring to that use this mode so dully: is he referring to published novels or unpublished ones? I note that Pullman refers to creative writing courses as the main culprit, and dijeratic above mentions using the present tense as a device to teach avoidance of the passive (which would seem to indicate that the present tense has fewer pitfalls for dullness than the past tense!). I haven't come across any published ones myself - those I have read who use the present tense, such as John McGregor, do it brilliantly and for specific literary and thematic effect.

Hensher's mock-quote is interesting. It's not just a comment on the present tense but on a certain genre that creative writing teachers and mag editors are all too often swamped with - 'streetwise' and druggy and basically hugely dull and failed pastiches of Trainspotting. It seems a bit much to link the use of the present tense so graphically with this and by implication taint all uses of it. Hensher's statement that the present tense is the mode of the informal anecdote is true, but it's not its only use, as he's in danger of implying. In fact, Trainspotting deliberately employed this anecdotal use of the present tense for great literary effect, and it would be a pity if it were denigrated because of its inevitable army of poor imitators.

I note also that he's not just talking about these kinds of novels, as he refers to historical novels using the present tense (of which Wolf Hall is one). This whole debate, as I think I've indicated above, seems to overlook the fact that there are many subtle versions of the so-called 'present' tense, the simple historic present being the main one. I'm not a linguist, so I don't know the terminology, but I do know that there can be various ways of employing it to indicate many levels of intense experience and perception, including visions of the future and continuing memory as well as recreations of past events.