Present tensed

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Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

I know it doesn’t bother many readers, as when for example I peruse reviews lauding to the skies certain novels written in this mode. And when I read passages in this tense I can often see literary worth in their poetry, in vivid turns of phrase, in their psychological insightfulness.

But it leaves me exhausted, that constant unfurling of thought and action as if in real time, and all too often in slo-mo, when the analysis of detail gives everything an apparent significance; it’s like the literary detective observing everything at a crime scene and filling their mental notebook with every minutest item of trivia, forever and anon — how do they remember it all?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for the historic present in a novel. Many classics wear it as a badge of honour, use it as a deliberate meditation on the meaning of life, stake their reputation on this express mannerism. And good for them — they clearly work or else they wouldn’t have attained the status they have; and I do truly admire the related literary approach, that termed stream-of-consciousness, which apes the nature of a flowing brook.

I also have to admit that in small doses the historic present doesn’t cause me unease. Short stories couched in the historic present can, in the hands of a proficient writer, maintain a pleasurable tension for just the right length of time, particularly when they lead to a concluding denouement, a moment of poetic justice, or a sting in the tail. (A couple of pieces in Salman Rushdie’s collection East, West — which I’m currently reading — display this approach.)

In a novel the historic present also works for me in concentrated bursts, giving a sense of immediacy but without a feeling that a moment is frozen forever in time. Sarah Perry’s Melmoth alternated incidents in simple past tense with others in the historic present to accentuate the intimate relationship of historical events with what was happening in the now of the story. At other times however it raises my ire, as in a fantasy by a well-known YA writer which described a character running across a courtyard, accompanied by bystanders’ lengthy ruminations — what would have taken a few seconds was spread out for most of a chapter. I gave up at that point; in my book such self-indulgence was sheer bad writing and shouldn’t have got past the editing stage.

Here’s my intellectual take on why I’m uncomfortable with the extended use of the historic present in long form narratives. The word ‘story’ ultimately comes down to us from the Greek historía, meaning learning through research, and also the narration of what is learnt. That process — researching, learning, then narrating — which comes through in its medieval sense of chronicling, identifies a sequence of things that must be accomplished before the next stage can happen. That is, one action precedes what follows: researching resulting in learning, leading to narrating, each stage intimately bound to another. The historic present therefore can only a contradiction in storytelling terms; and my grey matter simply abhors contradictions.

And yet, my mind can also accept the historic present in limited doses. How to explain this dichotomy? I think my patent unease has been exacerbated by present circumstances. Emotionally speaking, many of us, finding ourselves marooned in a limbo of uncertainty, are forced to maintain ourselves in a continuous state of heightened anxiety — you all know whereof I speak, do you not?

Certainty, therefore, in the form of past narratives, suggests that there can be an end to crises — historic ones if not necessarily current ones — but narratives solely told in the historic present reverberate painfully in my mental echo chambers, already sensitised by the combined traumas of politics, pandemic and impending climate catastrophe.

That may be why such stories fail to appeal to me: an enforced helplessness in current realities isn’t going to seek a similar state in fiction.

I fear I may be coming across as an intellectual conservative, a literary dinosaur in a sea of molten metaphor. What’s that you say? You’re asking me where I stand when it comes to narratives in the second person singular or plural. You really want to know?!

36 thoughts on “Present tensed

  1. Mmmm. I’ll have to think about this some more, preferably when reading a book that uses said tense.

    Interesting thoughts nonetheless, even if I can’t react immediately. Thanks, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart. I have three or more books on my bedside table, by very worthy authors, which I have stalled on for the very reasons given above. I hate giving up on books, especially if I admire the themes covered, descriptive passages or the characters conjured up, but… I think the historic present is often used in novels to create an atmosphere of mystery or suspense but I’m just not currently in sympathy with its sustained application.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested in your reactions if and when you do come across it, Cathy, whether it irritated you or if it flowed like the proverbial water off the waterfowl’s back!


  2. It does tend to get in the way doesn’t it. 😀 Of course I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, for me there are narratives that it works for, but I agree there are plenty more in which it is just exhausting. By contrast, I have however read a few excellent books written in first person plural which when done well is super (e.g. The Virgin Suicides and The Wives of Los Alamos). I do find the second person even harder to read though – Paul Auster’s Invisible worked its way through all the person varieties which was interesting, and his memoir Winter Journal is all in the second person and was brilliant – rarities though, probably thankfully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These points are really interesting, Annabel, thanks, especially about the Paul Aster. I really wanted to get on with Joanna Nadin’s The Queen of Bloody Everything as she was really engaging at a book fest talk, but the second person narrative (daughter Dido is addressing her mother) was very tiring after a few chapters. I shall get back to it, however!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I trained as a TESOL tutor the use of this tense was tricky to explain to students and I found your comments interesting. I’m going to dig out my files to remind myself of its regular usage. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples in children’s literature but am now going to be paying more attention.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s more YA, I guess, but V E Schwab’s The Near Witch uses this tense, also Zoë Gilbert’s fantasy Folk which I assume will appeal to teens as well. I started the first but have the second waiting.

      It’s interesting to come across other TESOL or TEFL tutors as bloggers: though I never had occasion to use my CELTA qualification it gave me — and I’m sure many others in the same position — a better insight into the practice of such a mongrel tongue and how its inconsistencies made it such an unlikely candidate as a world language.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I haven’t read those you mention, Chris.

        Although I only used my qualification for about a year to eighteen months the course itself gave me an insight into how inconsistent our language is. The content has helped me to view children’s books in particular through the eyes of pupils who are new to this country.


  4. I’m not a fan of the historic present at all, but I’m finding that it’s becoming difficult to avoid books written that way these days. I agree that it can occasionally be quite effective, but more often I just can’t see any good reason for using it and sometimes it pulls me out of the story and seems to hold me at a distance from the characters and events. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’vejust now had a notion that David Lodge may have produced a chapter on this usage and, if so, I must dig it out and see what he has to say about its pros and cons. That distancing is certainly a factor in making me feel uncomfortable. Do you know of any historical fiction that uses the historic present extensively?


      1. Yes, it has become quite common in historical fiction over the last few years. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is probably the best known example, but I don’t come across it very often in older books.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, I think that may be one of the reasons I didn’t get past a couple of pages of Wolf Hall: that, and the fact it started with a scene of violence. Knowing that the Tudor period wasn’t known for its nonviolent ways I felt I felt that I’d rather stick to the distancing effect historical studies of the period gave to Henry’s autocratic reign…


  5. Brent Stypczynski

    I’ve rarely come across it in use. However, I did once take on (informally) an editing job that turned out to be a very amateurish first draft of a novella that was meant to be a novel. It was written entirely in third person, present, omniscient, with randomly shifting narrators. After looking over a chapter, I returned it and passed on the job because I couldn’t go more than two pages before a headache kicked in

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thoroughly sympathise, Brent, I can see why this turned out to be a one-off experience for you! Randomly shifting narrators? Sounds thoroughly confusing, especially allied to the use of the historic present. Omniscient? I’ve heard of gods playing with human lives but this approach comes across as far too complicated for its own good.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the popularity does have to do with the success of Wolf Hall and its sequels. Since I have really liked them, I’ll offer you an alternative view: that when times are hard, it’s a relief for some of us to see and feel–viscerally feel–that other times were hard too, even harder. The reaction is that at least I don’t have to deal with THAT in my daily life. (Although my relief when I first read Wolf Hall has been tempered by subsequent events–I thought I didn’t have to jump according to the whims of a mercurial leader for fear of my life, but I was wrong.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have to think about this alternative, Jeanne, although I have to say that — although I accede to what you suggest as a possible explanation — it doesn’t work that way for me. It may be that because I’ve always taken an interest in history I can never quite distance myself from past events brought about by the whims of the sort of mercurial leaders you mention; which incidentally may be why I prefer epic fantasy to historical fiction, in which an alternative history can be rewritten with impunity!

      I stopped reading Sinclair Lewis’s classic uchronia It Can’t Happen Here (1935) when it became evident that Trump’s presidency was going from bad to worse, because life then seemed to be imitating art with a vengeance; now that some kind of line seems to have been drawn under that aberration (though it’s not over till it’s over) I’m tempted to return to it and pick up where I left off.


  7. The present tense is a particular pet peeve of mine, and YA seems particularly infested with it. Done well, or with a conscious purpose, rather than just doing it because it’s fashionable, it can be okay. For example, the only usage of the present tense that I genuinely admire and think is done brilliantly is Wolf Hall and its sequels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I quite liked Mantel’s Beyond Black, Debbie, but was daunted by her doorstopper of a novel about the French Revolution; the Wolf Hall trilogy then felt much too big a commitment, and anyway I was put off by the violence of the opening scene of Wolf Hall. I fear, magisterial historic present or no, I have already too much else to read without revisiting the Tudor period I studied in depth at school up to exam level. Sorry.


  8. Your posts really make me think! I had to look up what a “historic present” tense was and then go and read some examples! It is interesting though. I can see how such a tense could be good for a critical scene in a narrative where you really want the reader to feel a sense of immediacy perhaps, but I can also see how it it could be really irritating when maintained for a longer time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s it exactly, Jo, not just irritating but debilitating, because to maintain that sense of immediacy indefinitely can only be exhausting, like being under siege while expecting a new onslaught at any moment, a threat which may come when you least expect it. A bit like lockdown, really…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. With you all the way! I can take it in short bursts when it’s done well and for good reason, but so often it’s not – it’s simply used as a stylistic quirk and that drives me insane. I’ve become so annoyed with it now that I actively avoid present tense books if I know in advance. Quite possibly I miss out on a few good ones, but I’m certain I miss out on many more that would have me grinding my teeth…

    Liked by 1 person

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