Tuesday, 26 July 2011

THE PRESENT TENSE by Eleanor Updale

THE PRESENT TENSE IS ALL VERY WELL IN FICTION, BUT IT HAS BECOME AN INFURIATING AFFECTATION AMONG ACADEMIC HISTORIANS

The other week, Sarah Dunant was on Radio 4's Open Book programme talking about why she writes her historical fiction in the present tense. She spoke of being attacked by a reader who accused her of not realising that history 'ought' to be written in the past tense. Of course, if the criticism was that dogmatic it was barmy, but I thought Sarah Dunant's robust advocacy of setting stories in an historic 'now' was over the top too.

We are all familiar with the argument. Hilary Mantel put it well when talking about Wolf Hall: "The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new just as it was, in every unfolding moment for the players." So the present tense does two things: it's a prophylactic for the author, preventing her from accidentally endowing her characters with foreknowledge of their fates; and it's a tool for pulling the reader into a more intimate relationship with those characters, and their particular 'now'.

I'm not sure that either argument is completely convincing. Of course, any writer of history (fiction or non-fiction) has to think herself into the actuality of the world she describes - not just to avoid imposing hindsight, but also to set the right framework of custom and values in which to depict motivation and action. But that process can, and self-evidently does, take place in the minds of good writers of history whether the final narrative is written in the present tense or not. There should be no obligation to 'show your working' (as our maths teachers used to say). The second point, which implies that readers somehow have difficulty fully relating to narratives written in the past tense, seems to me both patronising and mistaken.

I don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with writing in the present tense. If an author feels it is the right voice in which to speak her story, and it is done well as a piece of craftsmanship, it will work. But to imply that it is 'better' than writing in the past tense (that the past tense is somehow for wimps) is ridiculous. It's true that confining oneself to the present tense brings challenges that only an accomplished writer can overcome, not least because there are fewer shades available on the palette. It's harder to explore pasts within the past, and differentiating between near and far past events can lead to bizarre tangles of language. But giving oneself those problems doesn't automatically make one a better writer, even if successfully overcoming them is a sign of skill.

The past tense is, surely, the most common form for all story telling. How many of us, talking to our friends, or making up a tale for children at bedtime, instinctively launch into the historic present? How many novels set in 2011 use it? How many of us, as readers, really feel a difficulty getting under the skin of the characters in novels such as Birdsong or Regeneration because we are told that someone did or thought something, rather than that they are doing or are thinking, it?

Is it heretical to admit that I found the use of the historic present in Wolf Hall rather tiring? For me, it meant that Hilary Mantel was always there. Far from making my relationship with Thomas Cromwell more immediate, I never forgot that I was reading a piece of 'writing'. OK, it was very well done, but the present tense (along with the annoying 'He' thing) meant Wolf Hall wasn't my favourite read of that year. I can't help wondering whether I would have enjoyed it more with less authorial craft on show. But of course, it might not have got so much respect from the world of mainstream literary fiction had that been the case.

That's not to say that using the past tense guarantees success. You only have to look at one of the books that nestled alongside Wolf Hall on that Booker shortlist to see that. I thought AS Byatt's The Children's Book was one of the most dreary things I have ever read (despite being set in a period and social milieu with which I am usually fascinated). Would using the present tense have made it better? I find that very hard to imagine.

So, in the realm of historical fiction, I am happy to leave it up to authors to decide on their tense. However, I think it's worth reflecting on what the use of the historical present is doing to broader historical discourse. The present is rapidly becoming the default tense for professional historians, especially when they are wheeled out to address the general public. Am I the only one who is being driven bonkers by the its overuse in historical non-fiction? If you ever listen to 'In Our Time' or 'The Long View' (again on Radio 4) you will know what I mean. A recent 'Long View' programme was a comparison between the mission of HMS Challenger in the 1870s and the Space Shuttle today. The English language could automatically have provided the speakers with a handy tool for distinguishing one from the other in their conversation: HMS Challenger in the past / Space Shuttle in the present. But within moments of the opening of the programme we were sloshing around in the historical present. Talking about the 1870s, one expert said "The object is to find out..." and we were off - slipping in and out of the two tenses for the rest of the discussion, with the assembled academics depriving themselves of the ability to use the 'real' present tense with clarity.

Worse still, it's rare for all the speakers in a discussion to adopt the same approach. Even individual contributors slide around between the two tenses, often within seconds - sometimes in the same sentence. To me, it just sounds sloppy and inconsistent. If you haven't noticed this before, believe me you will now. I'm sorry but it's likely to drive you mad. Of course, it's usually possible to work out what the speaker really means. My point is that you shouldn't have to. We have a perfectly good set of grammatical norms which make instant clarity possible. This phoney quest for immediacy is creating ambivalence and linguistic ugliness where neither need exist.

And now this fashion for the historical present has started to infect the most serious academic lecturing and writing. Why do people do it? In part, the new academic grammar is the fruit of a laudable move to integrate historical study with other disciplines. This has vastly increased the range of topics deemed 'suitable' for historical examination, but it has brought with it the habits and jargon of the other schools. The use of the present tense has come largely from English Literature studies, until recently seen as the epicentre of cool in most universities. There, it has long been customary to discuss books, poems and plays in the language of the here and now. But those works of art do still exist. They have a life in our time. The past is different. William III is not riding in Richmond Park. Queen Victoria is not on holiday at Balmoral and for some of us, phrases such as 'In 1805, Nelson is onboard the Victory' will always jar. It's not just that it sounds grammatically wrong -- I think there's a case for saying that using the language of fiction actually undermines, rather than reinforces, the notion that the people under discussion were real.

While historical novelists may find it helpful to write as if they and their readers are at those places with them, I can't see any virtue in academics following suit. Yet in some quarters the present tense is becoming a marker of the new wave of interdisciplinary studies: a new convention, with the unspoken question 'Does my brain look big in this?' running as an undercurrent. There are some crusaders who think it 'brings history to life', but how stupid do they think their audience is? Surely students and readers can cope with the word 'was' without falling into a coma? I think their teachers are trying to solve a problem that doesn't, or shouldn't. exist. If they can't imagine themselves back into the past without constructing a new grammar (and a pretty clumsy one at that) they are in the wrong game.

For most of the academic present-tensers, the style is simply a craze. It just happens, at the moment, to to be fashionable to speak and write in this way. I bet that in years to come people will look back on our use of the historical present as just as much of a cultural affectation as the 'Forsooth Sir Godfrey!' style of novelists in the last century, or the Latinate obscurantism of Victorian text books.

So what's my message to writers of historical fiction? It's pretty simple, really, and relatively tolerant, I hope. Write in the present tense if you really think it suits your book. But don't do it just because other people are doing it, or look down your noses at those who choose to tell their stories, and discuss historical events, in the time-honoured way.

Eleanor Updale's latest book, Johnny Swanson, is set in 1929. Longlisted for the Carnegie medal, and shortlisted for the UKLA awards, it has just come out in paperback (David Fickling Books, £5.99 / $12.99 in hardback in the USA). It is written in the past tense.
www.eleanorupdale.com


12 comments:

Linda B-A said...

What a wonderfully thought-provoking post both from the point of view of reader and writer. To an extent I share your irritation with historians who will say, for instance, 'Napoleon is eating chicken before the Battle of Marengo'. I don't know how long this fashion for the present tense has been current but, you're right, it has become the default tense for historians. In fact, listening to Radio 4's IN OUR TIME a while ago I recall being surprised that someone was actually talking about the past in the past tense. Ironically, for a moment it also made me doubt the academic credentials of the speaker. I seem to have become used to it in the same way that hearing "awesome" and "cool" from the lips of an English person no longer jars the way is used to.

As for writing fiction in the present tense, I do love the cinematic immediacy that can be achieved, the moving forwards into an 'unknown' future. On the other hand, I do agree that it can be tiring to read over the course of a novel and can make you conscious of technique. Searching for a voice for my current novel I have lost count of the number of times I have rewritten the opening in the past then the present then the past again. Fascinating to read your arguments - for me it's a question of swings and roundabouts...

millicentb said...

Interesting post; but when you say that your latest book is written in the "past tense" don't you actually mean "past tenses"? There are at least five that I can think of.

adele said...

"More shades available in the palette!" EXACTLY! Hurray for you, Ellie and for articulating so much of what I've been thinking, only in a much better way and much more articulately. Fantastic post. I find myself irritated by the UBIQUITY of the historic present very often, if it's not done well. Only one thing to quarrel with in the whole piece. I LOVED Children's Hour, though I do concede it had far too many little 'lecturettes' in among the narrative.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, I feel too that you've articulated a lot of my reservations about the present tense. I've tried using it sometimes, and there are occasions when it feels right, but I usually find I run into trouble very quickly. And I am finding its use on, eg, In Our Time, slightly odd: it somehow doesn't feel more immediate to me: it just feels - odd! As you say, the past tense is the more natural story-telling tense: using the present reminds me of tasks I used to set when I was teaching - "Now, I want you to really imagine you were THERE, and write me a newspaper article..." (Groans...)

Leslie Wilson said...

I think it's the tyranny of the shoulds. Someone once asked me why I used contractions (he'd, wasn't, etc)in historical fiction because 'people didn't use them in conversation in history.' I referred this person to the works of Jane Austen. But one can see that quite a lot of people take that view, or maybe they feel that 'historical' is a place where people have to speak in a particular, elevated way, like the actors in ancient Greek plays, on their high boots (or was that the Romans?) Anyway, as you say, Eleanor, the acid test is whether it works. I did think it worked in Wolf Hall - and agreed with you totally about The Children's Book. I hauled my way through that doorstop - and I don't mind a book being long, as long as I'm enjoying reading it.
Personally, I have a suspicion if it works, it becomes invisible. But clearly, there are reasons for using it. I'm doing so in my current WIP - which is NOT a historical novel, though. I think I used it in Malefice part of the time, but would have to go and look, to check. Maybe I didn't. Fascinating post.

Shawn Robertson said...

When you find yourself noiticing the writing style more than the story, something is probably wrong with the writing style. No one speaks in the present except when deciding to about little issues. "I'm hungry. What are you doing for lunch?" Any time we relate a story, even if it took place 15 minutes ago, is in the past. It's the natural way for peopole to tell stories. Of course there are times to use present tense, but I think those should be limited to those instances where you are really trying to highlight a decision in the making.

Scarlett said...

Excellent post, Eleanor. I also found the use of present tense quite alienating in Wolf Hall - I wanted to read the story, not be constantly reminded that I was reading 'literary fiction'. I have occasionally used present tense for my own (modern) fiction and found that it just 'worked' for some short pieces, but as a reader, if it doesn't immediately draw me in, I put the book down.

Linda Sargent said...

Yes, it can so easily rob us of that all-important space between writer and reader. Often under-rated these days...

jongleuse said...

God yes, am reading Wolf Hall at the moment and finding it claustrophobic in the extreme.
I suppose, like the use of first-person, it does lend the immediacy and vitality so necessary to young-adult books and in the best hands is not necessarily intrusive. I liked Helen Dunmore's Ingo series which was present tense and Moira Young's Blood Red Road.

Emma Darwin said...

Yes, I do agree that I'm not mad about whole novels in present tense - it makes me feel as if I'm being tapped on the head with a teaspoon.

I do use it quite a lot in my own fiction, but always when I want to detach the narrative from a sense of the main story - something flashbacky, or dreamlike, or something else.

For the main workings of the chain of cause and effect which is storytelling, I think past tense has much greater fluency and flexibility. Past tense has the present build into it, so there's a sense of the pressure of the immediate past pushing events forwards. Present tense is goldfish time...

Bven if I agreed (which I don't) with Mantel that present tense gets rid of the sense of narrator, I wouldn't want to be doing that. I'm deeply and centrally interested in all my fiction the relationship of the narrator (who may or may not be a character) to the story they're telling. So the last thing I'm trying to shed is the sense that this story is a story. We're not in training for writing film scripts... and I do wonder if that's where some of the recent habit stems from: writers whose main training in narrative has actually come from film, where action of course is always in the present, in one sense.

And yes, it shouldn't be the default for history-writing. It isn't in academic history, as far as I can see, so I wonder if it's just one facet of the every more blurring across the fiction-non-fiction boundaries in genres such as life writing and creative non-fiction? Which is generally rather exciting, I find. But does result in some mis-judgements.

Katherine Roberts said...

There are no rules, only fashions...

With "I am the Great Horse" I used a mixture of present and past tense, because it felt too breathless to write an entire 150,000 word book using the present tense alone. (Anyway, it was written by a horse, and horses think differently from humans - that's my excuse!)

Anonymous said...

Listening to the radio alone in the house, you are left in a sinking despair of lonely frustration, railing impotently at the absurdity of the use of the present tense. And then you come across this article: it reminds you that you are not alone, that intelligent radio may still have a future and that others too have been driven mad by this childish affectation. Well done, Ellie!