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.  

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