Sunday 25 February 2018

First Person Present - and other presents!

There's little in the fiction world that generates more polarised views than this: past tense vs present tense fiction.

Recently I was in a Facebook Writers and Readers' Group, when one member asked if she was the only one who didn't get on with books written in the First Person Present.

I must say I don't mind what tense a book is written in as long as the writing is good and the book engaging. But present tense does lend a book immediacy. Now I get that it's not everyone's cuppa, that's fine.  But it's an opinion, a taste.  That's all.

However the discussion got quite heated, with one reader becoming quite dictatorial about it.  This veteran reader was doling out advice of 'stick to the past tense...unless you are...' (named authors I'd not heard of). As I say he was a seasoned reader but he had no time for seasoned authors who might not write in his preferred tense or genre.  He then went on to make some comment about 'alienating readers at your peril' but from his comments, I doubt that any of my books would have been of interest to him, since they employ the very devices he doesn't have time for.  I write literary fiction, not commercial fiction, and frequently employ present tense if the story demands it.  If you read and write in the literary tradition writing in the present tense is second nature.  

Another author also joined in the debate with the advice that 'writers should stick to the past tense'. Really?  I tried to debate this by arguing that there was no 'should' about it - that it's a personal preference for a particular narrative style but she wasn't having it at all. She justified her stance with 'Did Stephen King or J K Rowling use present tense?  I rest my case.'

Personally I've not read J K Rowling and although I'm sure her books have adult appeal too, they aren't really my bag.  At the same time I totally admire her success and her ability to tap into an archetype at the right time and turn it into a commercial success.  Kudos to her and anybody who has success on a mass scale.  But, not everyone is setting out to write books with mass commercial appeal. Many of us write niche.

The two reactions described above are by no means unusual. Some readers and authors demand tradition.  However this wasn't a present tense vs past tense debate at all.  It was a commercial vs literally fiction debate.  Literary fiction authors often use first person present.  The author in the above-mentioned debate went on to say how she does a blog on writing tips. This concerned me, that she is telling new authors how to write.

Of course there are rights and wrongs of writing. Some novice authors will often switch between present and past unknowingly. In another part of the discussion tense-switching among inexperienced writers came up, and yes, this is a fair criticism. Unwittingly slipping into past tense when writing a book in the present tense is a mistake of the inexperienced.  The key question is - was it intentional?  Many experienced authors switch tense as a device. Many write in past and present tense in the same book and it won't always be an obvious use of them either.  I have seen accomplished authors write about the recent past in past tense and the more distant past in the present tense. It works. I have seen accomplished authors, not only switch tenses purposefully to great effect, but also switch from first person to third and even to second in the same book.  This is a common narrative technique with literary fiction.

Once again, in this debate, many critics of both first and third person present, tended to think it was unusual or gimmicky or new, because of books like The Hunger Games (I've not read them) or because of WattPad.  However, seasoned readers of lit fic will know it's neither new nor unusual. The following authors have all used present tense in their books - many of them award-winning: Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Jessie Burton, Eimear McBride, Emma Donoghue, Jon McGregor, Hilary Mantel, Wyl Menmuir and many more.

If people don't like present tense, it's their prerogative, just as it's mine not to like Westerns or Paranormal or things with werewolves, as long as they know that it's purely subjective.  But to dismiss all present tense books out of hand, for this reason and this reason only, is a bit like dismissing all pop songs in third person past tense.  

Saturday 3 February 2018

RIP Mo Foster - A personal tribute to a very talented author, friend and unique character

We met you at Southampton Uni reading poetry at the women's group, over 30 years ago, even though you weren't at the uni, wasn't it typical of you to make yourself at home, the poem was a funny one about men and puddles which I have since learned from your friends on Facebook was called Boggerel. I remember when you read it, those fast words blurring into each other, which I later realised is what characterised your voice, especially when nervous or excited.

I don’t think we spoke to you then but you remembered us - my sister and me - for our colourful hair and punky clothes.

When we went to Bournemouth & Poole Women's Group late 80s you were a mutual friend of Chris, also sadly gone, in fact on the day we told you over the phone that she'd died, was the same day as you had a stroke in 2004, but you survived that and many TIAs. 

After you had your stroke you mentioned how the nurses thought that had caused your hard to understand speech! We did a mean impression of you which gave us confidence in tricky situations. The more animated you got or the more funny you find something the harder it was to follow what you were saying, especially on the phone, but in your presence when you laughed your eyes slitted and your cheek bones went even higher.

We saw you a lot in the 90s when we were in Boscombe and you were in Bournemouth for the weekend seeing your ex husband Sid. You'd come with your dog, Zipper, or Zit, as you called him, on your way to Hengistbury Head, one of your favourite places because you could walk Zit there. One of my favourite places too, those gorgeous beach huts like little houses. I went drumming there with you and your friends there once, Hazel, was it, who had a beach hut there or rented one and you were impatient with Ann for getting all depressed and upset over a shit of a bloke. Your poem Monopoly On Suffering by Mo Cuthbertson (classy - your birth mother’s name, I believe) was blue-tacked on our kitchen cupboard for ages until it curled and kept falling off.

You met our friend Elaine and were quite taken with her and her northern accent. One time we argued with each other on the head as you were annoyed about us wanting to leave Boscombe but we got all teary and huggy afterwards and I think you respected us for standing up to you! 

We once went drumming at Corfe Castle with you and we drummed for money! It worked! Within a few days our parents decided to give us some of our inheritance early towards the purchase of a house.

We went to a cafe in Swanage with you and many other things. Always we joked about the wall of backs at that Pagan Moot in a Charminster pub, how welcoming, not! Before we moved to Wimborne you took one of Ann's old painting which she was going to leave behind, it was the innards of an old Bakelite telephone which you put on your wall and some art dealer took an interest in it years later but you forgot his name (Ann swears you took a picture of a colander so maybe you took a couple).

We moved to Wimborne in 95 and you still came to visit us on your Bournemouth weekends. You lost your Irish ex Micky and were devastated. You met our special friend Carole when she was visiting us at Wimborne. You were enthralled by her Chesterfield accent and her wisdom and what she stood for, what she knew you felt was instinctive, and I lent you one of those long insightful missives she sent us regularly and is probably – possibily? – still somewhere among your stuff. I travelled by public transport to Soton to see a play of yours in a university room (was it?) doubling up as a prison cell because you were mainly a playwright in those days while you were teaching writing classes at Soton. You may have had your latest dog Saffie by now, a border terrier, who we finally met in 2010.

When Diana was killed you called her a dozy C and you said it was the queen who did it, haha! We always said happy birthmass because of your Crimbo birthday – bit of a bummer for you, we always thought.

We kept in touch with you after we moved to Devon in the late 90s. You nearly came to see us there once but it was a too hot July day and so we put you off. You kept in touch by phone and we exchanged writing news. I still have the copy of Diva magazine where you had a story published and in the Oldie you wrote one about Rillington Place and I asked if it was true and you said ‘nah, of course it isn’t’ or words to the effect. We both had short stories published in Skrev’s experimental fiction anthology and you supported my books, Fall Of The Flamingo Circus and Suckers n Scallies. You said you liked hanging out with the bad kids and how working class kids had a lot of physical contact with each other. I was so thrilled to have put you in touch with Pepper Books who later became Paper Books and the rest is history.  Your gritty novel A Blues For Shindig about your life in 1950s Soho was snapped up and a fabulous document of that time.  

You loved new people, outcasts, colourful people, people on the fringes of life, people who were well-read, people from different ethnic backgrounds. You questioned the meaning of life a lot, you went to Quaker meetings at one point, you were an avid listener to Radio 4 and you read the grain. 

We saw you last in 2010 when we went back for a catch up with friends on Bournemouth. We thought you wouldn't show but you did. You were usual blunt self by saying we looked older and fatter! Bint is a word I associate with you.  I think you’d met your Russian lover Albertine by then, in fact you did a piece in the graun about it and how happier you were and you went out to Russia and Cuba (I think) and you did seem generally less crotchety and more philosophical but not enough to use your biting edge and bolshie self. That never went. Because heaven forbid that we sanitise you. But your love pressed you to look for your birth mother. We remember you finding your voice after the meeting with your birth mother - which didn't quite go according to plan but another opportunity for a story.

You even found creativity in cancer and wrote your blog and called your tumour Tubby. You kept us all enthralled with your descriptions of the sky on each new day and your neighbour problems and your cat visitor. 

Here is one of those many funny lively gritty down to earth posts:

11th January 2018

Grey again & it was foggy earlier but no nice
foghorns. Can scarcely believe yesterday was
masquerading as lovely spring, fortunately it
is still working as a cheer up factor & it may yet
manifest later. I doubt it!
Reference to yesterday blog: I am not exceptional
in my response to cancer, the only thing that is
exceptional is my own self-absorption & the fact
that I write about the facts as I see them. I should
dislike being in hospital & to some degree this
solitary life suits me very well – chuck me lots of
nosh & the keyboard & I am fine, within limits,
I lack stimulus for sure. Miss the outside but my
tree is there & my foolish jasmine is blushing into
pink buds & next doors’ near continual smoke fest
intrigues my nosey heart – 4am today a lively
conversation was alive! I am fortunate to be able
to afford all I need which is not a lot so cheers

& thanks,

I dreamt of you the night following the news of your passing and you were playing chess, me and another ( a guy) were looking on while you imagined your invisible opponent’s moves but then you made up your own moves and were very excited, one piece was doing a sort of spin around another. That sort of summed you up, playing life by your own rules and rebelling! A friend of the family who passed last year used to say RIP meant rejoice in paradise but for you RIP surely means Rebel In Paradise.