All present and accounted for

Well, I didn’t know it was a stupid trend.

The prevalence of the historic present tense is but one symptom of an itch for formal trickery that has been evident in British fiction for a couple of decades. It belongs with multiple narrators, fragmented or reversed chronology, inadequate or inarticulate narrators, and all the other tricks of the trade. It might or might not be a passing fad, it can certainly be used thoughtlessly, but it is a form of narration that has been employed with great intelligence in some of the best novels of recent years.

But now I think about it…



My current novel (the PhD project) alternates between first person and third person, present tense. Kind of like Bleak House. Yet not.

But by the time it’s finished, present tense will be horribly passe. Or perhaps it already is. On the up-side, maybe that means it could swing back into fashion by the time anybody reads my attempt.

Philip Pullman hates the historical present:

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.

I don’t think I’m guilty of the crimes he describes. (Also, I’m already old – though I was perversely pleased to learn I’m still younger than enfant terrible Jonathan Franzen.)

I haven’t used it before, and it seemed to me the natural and perfect way to convey action – swordfights, arguments, and looking in through a lamplit window into the life of the first person narrator. The third person view contradicts the first person a few times. She’s talking it up, as she (Mademoiselle Maupin) is wont to do, but we see it differently. I’ve got a complex structure built around the idea, aligned with the five act structure of one of her operas.

“Writing is vivid if it is vivid,” says Philip Hensher, quite rightly. “A shift of tense won’t do that for you.”

I didn’t know it was going to blow up into a major debate. Or, perhaps worse, be done to death. See, there’s another reason to read all those Booker nominees.

Anyway, it’s tedious. Now I have to think about what to do.

I hate that.

What do you think?

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