photo by Anders Engelbøl
by Juliet West
There’s been a fascinating discussion in the British broadsheets recently over the use of the present tense in fiction. The author Philip Hensher complained that writers are ‘following fashion blindly’ in choosing the present tense. Philip Pullman went further and condemned the approach as ‘silly affectation.’ Extreme views, but there’s surely room for measured debate around this issue.
When I began writing fiction, I was wary of using the present tense. Stories were something that happened in the past, right? Admittedly, I’d read some wonderful present-tense fiction. But I would always experience a vague mental lurch when alighting on the ‘is’ or the ‘says’ or the ‘I am’ in the first paragraph. Ah, my brain would tell me. Present tense. That’s okay – it’ll be fine. Usually it was fine. If the writing was good, it was good, regardless of tense. But still, there was that initial lurch.
I started entering short story competitions, with zero success. Then I began to notice that many of the prize-winning stories were written in the present tense. Of course there were exceptions, but present-tense narrative was a definite trend. A couple of years ago I decided to experiment with this trend, and my luck started to change. In the past eighteen months I’ve had several stories placed in competitions or accepted for publication, and each one is written in the present tense.
Perhaps it sounds like I’ve been somehow dishonest in my writing – employing a literary device in order to get results, even if this might go against my creative gut instinct. This isn’t the case. I’m proud of those stories, and the standard arguments for using this style – immediacy, vividness, energy – definitely apply. The present tense can, undoubtedly, spark a story into life.
But … is it possible that writers now feel obliged to use the present tense, whether or not they think it’s right for the story? Does past tense equal dinosaur?
The true question must be: what is lost by writing in the present tense? Perhaps this quest for immediacy restricts the opportunity for rich and reflective short fiction – the kind of writing which has a very deep resonance, which brands itself onto your consciousness. As an experiment, I jotted down a list of short stories by contemporary writers which have made a profound impression on me (authors included Helen Simpson, Colm Toibin, Annie Proulx). I went back to those stories, and I found that all but one used the past tense.
This might prove nothing other than the fact I have a subconscious preference for past-tense stories. And clearly it would be ludicrous to suggest that present-tense fiction is inherently incapable of delivering resonance. But I would question the tendency to use this device as a default setting. Brain lurch can be a good thing, but it can also become tiresome.
What am I doing right now? I’m wondering whether my latest competition entry will impress the judges. It’s a short story, written in the past tense. Wish me luck.