Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Thoughts: Tense

No, I'm not particularly tense right now - in fact, I'm quite relaxed, since I had a bit of time off over the last few days in order to entertain my parents around the city (note that now they're gone, back in Michigan, which might have something to do with my relaxed state!). Rather, I'm talking about the sort of tense we learned about back in school, grammatical tense, signalling past, present or future.

Found via Liz on Twitter yesterday, a few authors in the UK are apparently in a snit over stories in the present tense being nominated for the Booker Prize. One of those authors should be familiar to most fans of MG and YA novels - Philip Pullman, of His Dark Materials and the Sally Lockhart series (Ruby in the Smoke). Says Pullman:

"This wretched fad has been spreading more and more widely. I can’t see the appeal at all. To my mind it drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?"
He added: "I just don’t read present-tense novels any more. It’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy."
My immediate response: if using present tense narrows an author's options, isn't it all the more remarkable that she or he is able to craft a story worthy of the Booker Prize? Three of the six authors nominated for this year's prize wrote in present tense, the others in past tense.

I agree that books can often fall into a bandwagon approach - after all, paranormal romance wasn't big in the YA market until a certain Twilight made it big, and the dystopian trend has been fueled greatly by the massive success of The Hunger Games. And critiquing the shortlist for an award (or even the final choice(s)) is totally fair game. But dismissing the validity of the prize simply over the tenses used in the nominated titles seems downright silly!

I like present tense. I don't know if it makes a story more vivid (which is what Philip Hensher in the Telegraph piece thinks is motivating these authors), but for me it does add an element of unpredictability. Theoretically, Katniss could have died at any point in The Hunger Games without damaging our suspension of disbelief - the story is written as if we're experiencing it along with Katniss, so she could have dropped dead at any time. If it were written in past tense, then we'd know she lived through the story, unless Collins was going to slip us an Angel!Katniss at the end.

And as a writer, I have to say I think the present tense is a bit more difficult to write in than past tense, but I don't feel limited by that, or at least not in a bad way. The novel I'm endlessly working on (the zombie novel my Twitter followers may see me mention occasionally) is written in present tense, and every once in awhile I find I need to go and re-write a paragraph because I slipped into past tense. But just because past tense is more common doesn't mean it's necessarily any more or less "affected" than present tense!

Are you turned off by present versus past tense? Or are the two Philips engaging in a bit of "if I don't like it, no one should!" bullying?
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