Sunday, August 05, 2007

Differing views

In the Review section of the Weekend Australian (4-5 Aug, 07) there is an article about an English writer, Scarlett Thomas, who writes what seems to be spec fiction with an experimental edge. She talks about receiving a letter from Phillip Pullman (of Dark Materials) which questioned why she was writing in the present tense, like "many young novelists".
To quote, Thomas said: "I wrote back and said the problem with narrating in the past tense is that you get a sense of somebody sitting comfortably in a rocking chair at the end of the narrative saying, 'Let me tell you a story'. You know, everyone's fine and they survived. There's a sense of a kind of after narrative, but I wanted a sense that there might not be an after. You're there in the present and everything could crumble at any moment."
Pullman responded again and said: "OK, I take your point about the rocking chair, but the present tense is like having the narrator talk breathlessly into a tape recorder while they're doing everything that they're doing..."
The article doesn't say if they agreed to disagree! But it does show that everyone has different ideas about past or present tense - I guess the main thing is to know why you're using one or the other, and be consistent. I see a lot of student work where the writer slips from past to present and vice versa, and doesn't realise they're doing it. We (as in teachers, two of whom teach editing where I work) talked about this the other day. You can teach how to use verbs, how to form each of the tenses, and practice them in sentences in class, then test correct usage. But that is doing it in isolation - how do you teach someone to recognise "slippage", or even to understand the effects of past or present tense on how the story is told, its tone, style or flow?
I think that, after you've done the classroom stuff, you have to read and see it in action. It always astounds me how few books many of our writing students read, and its one thing I try to weave into the classes throughout the year, especially in areas like children's and YA novels. If you want to write the things, surely you should be reading lots of what is out there at the moment? But also I try to get students to read like writers - to think about language and character and dialogue and all those other things that make up a story - enjoy the story first but then go back and read again to learn.
At the moment, I'm reading a few Jacqueline Wilson books. She has been out here recently for a short tour and I missed seeing her at the Reading Matters conference. She is hugely popular in the UK, and becoming more so overseas, so I thought I would read several books and think about what she is doing. (I read The Illustrated Mum a couple of years ago and didn't like it, but my writer's curiosity has sent me back.) I was quite surprised at the amount of what some editors would label telling. Yesterday I finished The Suitcase Kid, today I'm reading Dustbin Baby, and it's interesting how strongly these two books rely on a narrator to simply tell a story. There is plenty of action, but there is also a lot of the narrator's voice explaining. I'll read on, and think more about this, and how it works.

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