On Writing

Getting tense (about tense in fiction)

When did past simple tense become passé, I ask myself. Tekke/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Writers, over the last decade, have been waxing lyrical about the rise of the present tense in English fiction. But this morning I read something entirely new – for me, at least. I read a manuscript written almost uniformly in the continuous tense and I found myself getting – the pun is irresistible – tense. Rather than the much-vaunted vivifying effects attributed to present tense narration, this piece of formal trickery hinted at a qualitatively different thing – the potential flattening effect of mono-tense fiction.

Historically, English language fiction, for the most part, has been written in an unobtrusive past simple tense, sometimes called the narrative tense. Odes to the past simple do not exist in writer’s style or “how to” manuals, because, when it comes to fiction, at least, past simple is relatively invisible and it’s every other tense that stands out.

Of course, the danger is that the past simple fits the reader like a comfortable old shoe. In your average past tense narrative, everything already exists, so the argument goes, in a tidy and predetermined sequence. It provides a stable point of reference from which the reader looks safely back on the story.

For this reason, present tense narration is billed as the roar of late modernity. It is the tense of real time technologies, soundbites and satellite relays. It signals an inability to find a stable place from which to speak in a complicated world in which everything has an undetermined future.

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Vintage

Jay McInerney’s 1980s extravaganza Bright Light, Big City is often said to have entrenched the present tense craze among the fashionable affectations of the instant gratification generation – but this is perhaps because it calls attention to its present tense by shouting it out in the second person (“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning”).

Raymond Carver produced work in the present tense back in the psychedelic seventies (“I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.”), as did Malcolm Bradbury. Margaret Atwood produced Surfacing, followed by Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale.

More recently, present tense is a feature in DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. It is mobilised to brilliant effect in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, creating an edgy sort of atmosphere in which anything is possible (“He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant smelling and softly lit, and undresses”). In Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel uses it to pull the distant past over the threshold of the present, creating the present tense as the new tense du jour for the historical novel (“He turns his head sideways, his hair rests on his own vomit, the dog barks”).

In fact, it’s perfectly possible to find a surprising amount of present tense in the nineteenth century novel, including works by Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens (where it is used to create a sense that, as Inspector Bucket puts it in Bleak House, “You don’t know what I’m going to say and do, five minutes from this present time … ”).

It’s tempting to spot a steady diffusion of the present tense marking the era from the industrial revolution to the information age, and to equate this with a sense of the world speeding up. (Or alternatively, to equate the death of the author’s distant God-like omniscience with the rise of democracy.)

But there’s another way to see it, too. Any individual past-tense novel may well contain every one of the English language’s twelve tenses. In comparison, a present tense novel tends to contain only two or three.

Take Virginia Woolf, for example:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges. Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issed to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1964). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P

Here Woolf uses past simple to frame the sentence, followed by future tense for the reported speech. The next sentence is in the past perfect (“For Lucy had her work cut out for her.”) followed by the future tense (“The doors would be taken off their hinges.”) An internal dialogue bursts into life with two short exclamatory sentences (“What a lark! What a plunge!”) before returning once again to past perfect. Indeed, as Mrs Dalloway runs on, the tenses constantly shift, conjuring up a flux of emotions.

By way of contrast, the ubiquity of the continuous past tense (typified by the use of the word “was”) in the manuscript I read this morning makes the reader feel as if you are a long way off from the action, as you are no longer talking about specific actions or events, but generalised or ongoing actions, such as actions that occur everyday. It lacks specificity. The continuous tense is always begging to be interrupted.

For garden-variety writing, the rule probably holds true: “Jesus wept” is stronger than “Jesus was weeping”, while the passive form, “the weeping was done by Jesus”, is a little ridiculous. The other problem is that sentences (like my three preceding clauses) also get longer and less economical as you need to add in additional words, very often verbs and gerunds that aren’t really doing much.

Gertrude Stein had a particular fascination with the continuous present tense, and the continuous past is a feature in quite a few of William Faulkner’s long recursive sentences, which can yank together half a dozen different temporal zones. But this kind of recursion, like subordination, creates complexity, and requires formidable skill. At risk of sounding like a pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing literary Luddite, mono and duo-tense novels can begin to feel a little thin.