Talking Tense

About WritingWhy do so few fiction-writing handbooks even mention tense, let alone treat it in depth? One exception is Samuel R Delany’s About Writing (2005). An expert on technique, he talks tense to an interviewer. ‘The simple present has only a single, distanced tone’ in his opinion. But ditto, past tense used by those asleep to its scope. And why not use both? Back in the mid-19th century, we find the popular Dickens employing present tense at strategic points. And by the late 20th century, with conventions changing exponentially, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is so inventive, who cares about tense switches? Yet, compare its first and last sentences:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.

And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

I forget when I first read a novel written in present tense, or its title. Yet I know the experience excited me. It still can. If some of my favourite fictions stick to past tense, they push other envelopes. And some of my favourites use present at least part of the time. According to Delany, it’s ‘purely artificial’. With fiction, though, what isn’t? In theory, nothing but past tense would work for, say, memoir. Yet the present narration (with past flashbacks) of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) is one of its least radical features. (Unlike hordes that have followed suit, often with a feeling of: If I could relive this now, here’s how I’d do it.)

For novelists whose plot reveals itself as they type, the story (before any edits) may be unfolding in the present – as for readers who identify with characters. Present tense mimics the immediacy of film or TV. One reason TV viewing tends to feel so much more passive than reading is that, unless you resort to pause or rewind, the medium drags you forward, thwarting reflection. And the sense conveyed by present tense that the action’s happening as you read generates suspense: what happens next?

I’ve noticed that readers who hate present tense, and many do, tend to be older – as if their habituation to past tense was entrenched before present begins to infiltrate literature. As if it’s an irritant to their sensibilities. (Perhaps not unlike pre-distressed denim to mine? In a culture where each fad is geared to wear out by the time the next comes around, the irony of new clothes that look ripe for use as paint rags seems lost on most buyers. Is our decadence part of our blind spot?)

Delany complains that ‘circa seventy percent of all literary fiction submissions are written in the present tense’, and ‘Today, the present tense has become the easy sign of the literary.’ Since then (1998), for many, it’s become automatic. But the web equalises all content time-wise (if not in other ways that count) – whatever you can define in search-engine-friendly terms is here now.

Delany again: ‘When, as an artist, you’re doing what most other artists are doing, chances run high you’re doing something wrong.’ Agreed – or why value originality? But some of what even groundbreaking artists do gets taken for granted. No doubt resistance reared its head when painters first ditched wood panels for canvas. Maybe present tense is turning into the new background?

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