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?!