Two British writers are up in arms about a new fad that’s become all the rage: the present tense. Three of the six finalists for the prestigious Man Booker Prize employ this stylistic device, a cheap trick that serious novelists would never resort to, writers Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher told The Daily Telegraph.
Today, Laura Miller argues in a Salon piece that the inferiority of the novels the two Philips are attacking is more due to their other deficiencies than simply their tenses.
Yes, young writers are prone to believing that techniques “calling attention to” the unreliability of storytelling itself are far more daring, innovative and interesting than they actually are. But like other carped-about trends (minimalism, incest as a plot point, short stories ending in an “epiphany,” etc.), the present tense is only one among any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers, usually because they’ve seen other, more talented writers use them to advantage.
But to Pullman, who wrote the ever-popular His Dark Materials children’s books, the present tense itself is enough to turn any novel, regardless of how decent it is, into nothing but an exercise in affectation and trend-stalking. “This wretched fad has been spreading more and more widely,” he tells The Telegraph. “I can’t see the appeal at all.”
This sentiment may be more than petty bickering for bickering’s sake. The Observer transposed the first sentences of a few famous works from the past tense to the present, and they just didn’t pack the same punch.
The Great Gatsby:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gives me some advice that I’m turning over in my mind ever since.
Mother dies today.
A Tale of Two Cities:
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times…
Perhaps these British writers are on to something! Let’s hope the Booker Prize doesn’t go to a novel written in that gauche, terrible present tense. A win for the past tense would be a win for the English language.