The fierce fight over the present tense - Laura Miller
There’s overstatement in all of these protests. No one could accuse “Wolf Hall” of lacking authority, and one of the books on this year’s short list, Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” is narrated by a 5-year-old — practically the definition of a present-tense mentality; it’s an artistically justifiable and successful choice. Furthermore, it’s unlikely, for example, that Suzanne Collins wrote her “Hunger Games” trilogy in the present tense in a bid to jump on some artsy, MFA-program bandwagon. The breathless, life-or-death action in her young-adult novels would lose much of its suspense if the first-person narrator, Katniss, was apparently relating the events at a later date.
So is this much ado about nothing? Not if you teach creative writing or judge literary contests. Whenever I find myself talking to people who have done either, I ask them if they’ve noticed any trends in subject matter or form. On three separate occasions recently, this has prompted long, exasperated rants about the present tense. “They can’t even say why they’re doing it,” remarked one writing teacher of his students. “They just see it a lot and start using it because it seems ‘literary’ to them. It’s a mannerism.” I judged a literary prize myself last year, and can testify that a preponderance of enervated, present-tense fiction made up the daily portion of entries I slogged through.