Saturday, 14 March 2009

Aagh, not the present tense...

Why do I get a feeling of lack of enthusiasm whenever I start to read a book written in the present tense? There seems to be more of it about these days.

I've struggled to work out its appeal for writers, and all I've come up with is that it gives a spurious significance to the mundane. So you get passages like:

She opens the steel-veneered cabinet door, and takes down the jar of instant coffee. Unscrewing the cap, she measures a spoonful of coffee granules into a mug. The kettle boils. Martha switches it off, and pours steaming water. She adds sugar and milk and stirs, wondering whether to give in to the temptation posed by the pristine packet of Hobnobs.

Gaah! Who cares? Why describe this boring stuff?

But apart from encouraging the sort of writing you might do as an exercise at a writers' class, there is, I think, another reason why my mind reels away from the present tense. The Janet and John series; frightfully dull books that children learned to read with in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Once you'd cracked Janet and John, you got on to the good stuff; what my daughter called 'chapter books' when she was small. Books that you read for pleasure, that were exciting and unpredictable.

And written in the past tense, like grown-up books.


  1. I'm with you on this one, that's for sure. I have no idea what the attraction or even the intended positive effect present tense is supposed to have when relating a story. It ain't happening now. It happened. That's why it can be told as a story. Even if the story is taking place in the future, it already happened. Really.

    Maybe writers who use this thinks it brings a sense of immediacy, a feeling that we are peering in a window and watching things as they unfold, but I can't recall a single instance where the effect it had on me was anything other than to make my eyes roll and reach for something else to read. Or maybe go pull weeds.

  2. How true - it has happened, of course, so it should be in the past tense. Now how can we convince everybody else?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Oops. Typos in previous post!

    I like the present tense, although I wasn't always fond of it. But have read some cracking books written that way. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, for example.

    It's also quite common in YA these days, and I've read a couple of YA books recently where it's used really well.

  5. Yes, HJ, I've read some good books - or the start of them - in present tense on Authonomy. Deep Water is one. But I'd like it even more in the past tense.

    I've never quite latched on to Penelope Lively, for the same reason.

  6. I agree.

    Somewhere I read that William Gibson's"Pattern Recognition" was a terrific read. I have read several others of Gibson's scifi stuff and liked it, so I picked up Pattern Recognition. It's written in present tense. I kept waiting for the story to get better because I'd read it was haunting. It is. I'm haunted by present tense nonsense.

  7. Yes, Norm, and I think the majority of readers feel the same.

    I read of one author whose publisher got her to rewrite her entire book in the past tense...