Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lunching and Present Tense

This being the mid-semester break and all, it was time for a literary lunch. A real literary lunch, not one of those ones where you pay $55 for a big plate with a little bit of food on it, a glass of wine and a famous writer who seems too bored to prepare an interesting talk and instead does a ten minute self-promo and then waits to sign a billion books (all right, I've only been to one of those but it was pretty disappointing, especially when the book was only available in hardback so I didn't buy it).
By a real literary lunch, I mean eating nice food, drinking champagne (to celebrate my new book) and then spending nearly three hours talking books, books, books and writing, writing, writing, and a little bit of other stuff for variety.
My friend G and I love to swap recommendations (today we had a great discussion about "We Need to Talk About Kevin") and I often come away with my notebook filled with titles and authors to find at the library or buy. I introduced her daughter to Louise Rennison, and G has just given me "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" - Jonathan Safran Foer. I had to take it to lunch with me to show her the internal layout of text and photos/illustrations as she had experienced the book as an audio book.
And we talked about this first person/present tense thing. Having recently read M.J. Hyland's novel that was shortlisted for the Man-Booker "Carry Me Down", G made a really good point about why she found the fp/pt in this novel so difficult to read. It's relentless. Everything has to happen in the now, and so everything has equal weight. Pouring a cup of tea is as important as demanding a divorce (as a quick example). The reader never gets a break from being "always in the now". Things go on and on.
Simple past tense seems to allow for more variation in pace and tension, and events are able to be given their proper importance in the scheme of things.
Now, of course there are writers who use fp/pt to great effect. Anything can be used to great effect if you understand what and why you're doing it. I think a lot of YA is written in fp/pt for exactly that reason - adolescent angst/rite of passage stuff can be portrayed extremely well in fp/pt. But not always. And it also tends to "disallow" genuine reflection by the main character or narrator. Instant analysis of current or just-past action tends to be fleeting or shallow - time and some distance is what allows us to think more deeply about meaning and consequence.
OK, this was a small topic in a lunch spanning many books and writing quandaries and challenges. G is off to find "The Red Shoe" by Ursula Dubosarsky, and I will be hunting down M.J. Hyland's first novel, "How the Light Gets In", which she did recommend.


Tracey said...

Hmm, your post is interesting because I've heard you talk about present tense before, but you've mentioned things here I've never heard you talk about. I must say up front that I like present tense as long as it's done consistently. That's my biggest bugbear in unpublished work: writers who skip in and out because they haven't got control of what they're doing. That drives me absolutely nuts.

I'm particularly interested in your comment about all things having equal weight, because I don't feel like that at all. For me, weighting is about how long the writer dwells on any particular thing, the details they do or don't include. I don't see this as being particularly different for present or past tense. True, the reader never gets a break from being in the now, but as a reader I don't feel like I need one. I think in past tense you're still in the "now" of the story -- it's just told at a later stage. You could even argue that there's more tension in present because the reader doesn't know how things will turn out, whereas in past tense, there's usually a sense that the character survived to tell the story.

As I've said, I like present tense, the immediacy of it. I don't notice simple past -- it's an invisible tense, and often that is what you want. You don't want to draw attention to the storytelling but rather let the reader experience the story.

I take your point about genuine reflection, though I think some people (reflective thinkers) are able to do this on the spot. I mean as writers we can only touch on genuine reflection anyway, because real reflection would take pages and pages and would be deadly reading. But I get what you're saying, and at least partially concede the point. Genuine understanding often comes later.

Sounds like a great lunch, anyway -- food for the writer's soul!

Sherryl said...

I agree with you about what present tense can achieve - but just because someone is published, that doesn't mean they've done a good job with using present tense. Yes, simple past feels invisible, but I don't think it's just because we're used to it. I think it's to do with sentence construction and how you use your verbs. And when someone is using present tense clumsily, where your attention is called to the writing rather than the story, it is usually because of the way they are using their verbs.
Also the whole thing about weighting is the same - if you are using pt well, then things are given their proper weight. I think G was talking about a book where that wasn't the case, where in fact making a cup of coffee WAS given the same amount of words as an important conflict. You could argue that literary fiction can do that, and the writing/style/language is what carries it. I would argue that that may be the reason a lot of people aren't reading much literary fiction anymore!
There have been many articles in the past couple of years debating about why lit fiction has dropped off in publication and readership here in Australia. Choosing style over substance may be one reason.

Tracey said...

I still reckon it's because most of the writing we've read is in past tense. I agree that because someone is published doesn't mean they can use present tense well -- but there's probably a good chance that if they don't have control over their tenses then they're going to use past tense badly as well. Maybe it's too much of the progressive (or continuous) tenses, but once you get into past, you get writers who love to reside in the conditional tense, and every second verb is "would". Good writing should be good writing irrespective of the tense. And poor writing is likely to be poor no matter what tense it's in, but in past tense, I think we're less likely to see the tense as being the problem, whereas present tense is so much more visible that it does draw attention to itself.

As far as the weighting issue, I wouldn't argue that literary fiction can or should do equal weighting successfully. I think the truly successful books don't do this, no matter what their genre or tense.