Present versus past tense

Laura Miller has an interesting article at The Salon (“The fierce fight over the present tense“).

Admittedly, I am a writer who hasn’t really thought about it that much.  Ok, that’s not entirely true; I do notice when books are written in the present tense, but I hadn’t really thought that it was a bad thing.  Sometimes the technique works, sometimes it doesn’t.  In my writing, I’m typically more worried about using passive voice.  It has been drilled in my head for as long as I can remember, but now that I’m writing academically, it is starting to slip back into my bag of tricks.

I’m inclined to think that present tense would be preferable to annoying passivity, but a carefully crafted past tense book can be sublime.  In any case, this debate has been going on forever (way before the ’80s, as Miller suggests).  In the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson famously wrote Pamela and Clarissa to the moment.  Fielding famously mocked the style in Shamela: “Mrs. Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come–Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door.  You see I write in the present tense, as Parsons Williams says.  Well, he is in Bed between us.”

Fielding’s point is that it is ridiculous to think that writers can convey energy without a distance of some time.  See the cranky judges who are upset with all the present tense literary stories coming out of MFA programs.  Yet Richardson’s book was enormously popular and the most influential book of the eighteenth century.  Think of Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize last year.

This is a return to an old debate that won’t be going away anytime soon.  I say, let the writers write how they feel their story would be told best.  Then put it in libraries and let the public decide.

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