September 22, 2010

Unearthing The Bones

Yesterday, I came across a quick post on The Bark, the energetic blog of Willow Springs.  Kathryn Houghton posted briefly about Philip Pullman’s scathing response to the heavy usage of present tense narration in three of this year’s Man Booker’s Prize nominees.  Kathryn asked a pretty simple question: So what?

I started to write a response in the Comment section, realized I had to go to teach class, bolted, and have been chewing it over ever since.  Usage of the present tense can be found in literature going back to the Greeks; it’s not a brand new phenomenon that has recently been unearthed in the Nevada desert (though that would have been really cool).  But the present-tense has become more commonplace in short fiction over the last couple of decades and gained popularity in the novel.  If nothing else, it is certainly a trend, and when writing moves in a generally accepted direction, we should take notice.

In fact, others in the literary world already have.  Subtropics, the literary journal out of the University of Florida run by the writer David Leavitt, has this on their submission page:

A preponderance of the stories coming our way are written in first-person present tense; we are starting to grow weary of this perspective. Please keep this in mind.

That’s been up there for at least two years now.  Why do we see so many of these present tense stories, and why are they making magazine editors cautious?

Let’s first get this out: it does matter.  In literature, form and meaning are intertwined, and the choices a writer makes are significant.  Everything in a story is the writer’s decision; nothing is preordained.  A story’s setting, point of view, protagonist’s gender, narrative voice, and any number of other nuts and bolts (or bricks and mortars) of a strong story should be chosen with deliberate intent.  All of it matters.

So it would be nice to be able to safely assume that present-tense, then, is a choice.  But in the present-tense stories coming across my desk, it rarely feels that way.  Instead, it often feels like a short cut.

In the fiction writing classes I’ve taught, present tense seems to be the default when the story lacks narrative drive.  Present tense, my students say, creates immediacy, makes the action more visceral, keeps the reader in the moment, and add tension because the narrator does not know how her/his story will end.

All true perhaps, but more often than not, present tense feels gimmicky.  Take the last example of the narrator’s knowledge of the story’s events: the idea is irrelevant in the third person (the third person narrator of course knows how things end) and second person is often nothing more than first person weakly disguised.  In the first person point-of-view, a character that knows the outcome has an amazing strength to focus on things that seemed irrelevant in the moment, but with hindsight, are quite significant.  Great memoirs seem built, at least in part, on this idea.  Instead, a present tense story makes me feel as if I’m reading a play.  And, fiction isn’t a screenplay: writing for the stage or film is an entirely different form, one that is interpreted by the actors and director, with minimal prose other than stage direction.  Why would fiction want to replicate this?

Present-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made.  It flattens the story.  It flattens emotional and narrative distance and lacks the sense of shadowing, the illumination and darkening of a character’s world that strong narratives can create.  The narrative choice suggests that there is nothing to remember about the past (and the past, to badly paraphrase Faulkner, isn’t ever really in the past) and nothing to expect of the future.  There’s a smoothness to this flattening of time and distance that leaves whatever has transpired before page one of the story as wholly irrelevant.

Further, the present tense restricts the narration and, consequently, the writer.  This restriction is deliberate, I’d argue, constipation from tackling bigger and broader events by eliminating the possibility of there being anything else that the characters (and, consequently, the narrator or the writer) must be conscious of other than the Here and Now.  Opening up the story to the past takes courage and confidence, a writer’s willingness to chisel back into the past for the bones of the story.

Perhaps it’s indicative of our modern lives.  As Americans, we love saying “That’s history”, a ridiculous dismissal of knowledge and tradition because as an American, we know what we know, and don’t need all those books and all that schoolin’ (or something like that).  This modern age-ism also highlights what might be the biggest influence on writing: the silver screen, which might be one reason why the present tense has become the popular default.  Films taught us how to quick grasp shifts in time and place, leaping from one character to another, one era to another, experience non-linear events rapidly, and encouraged us to demand media to entertain us rather than engage us.

Can present-tense stories work?  Of course, they can.  The Missouri Review has published plenty of them.  Good editors can’t be dismissive of a story (or poem or essay) because of some preconceived notion of what stories should do or must do.  Breaking expectations is one of the aims of good art.  But when we choose a form, we must choose wisely.  Otherwise: well, here’s your silver screen moment.

(We really aren’t obsessed with Indiana Jones.  Honest!  We just dig his hat.)

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at

5 Responses to Unearthing The Bones

  1. Woody Lewis says:

    Consider the great present-tense set piece at the beginning of DeLillo’s Underworld: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” This is a line for the ages, describing a country and a culture in one sentence – in the present tense.

    Certainly, any tool can be misused by an unskilled laborer. I can understand the weariness on the part of editors, but I would point out that the immediacy of a skilled present tense narrative is singular. I’m at work on a novel that intersperses scenes written in the present tense along a past tense narrative. The effect is almost physical, meant to match the plot points. I would like to think that this won’t diminish my chances for publication.


  2. Michael says:

    @Woody: DeLillo’s book is a terrific example of how present-tense can work. Absolutely. Any time we take a stance and saying art can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, there are examples that will prove otherwise.

    As I wrote, we absolutely consider present-tense stories. They can certainly work. But I’d noticed a trend that needed some consideration, and I hope I pointed out a couple of (potentially) reasons why this might be the case.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. writerbug says:

    Micheal, I’m wondering if you could expound on this part of your essay a bit:
    “This restriction is deliberate, I’d argue, constipation from tackling bigger and broader events by eliminating the possibility of there being anything else that the characters (and, consequently, the narrator or the writer) must be conscious of other than the Here and Now. Opening up the story to the past takes courage and confidence, a writer’s willingness to chisel back into the past for the bones of the story.”

    I think a present tense story can be conscious of the past, and the future, not just the here and now–characters can think or talk about the past/future, and there can be flashbacks, so I’m not really sure what you mean.


  4. Patrick Lane says:

    Of course, there are also plenty of past-tense narrations that don’t really convey any sense of “pastness” or temporal distance. So why tell those stories in the past? Because it’s conventional. But is that really any better of a reason? I do sometimes worry that both as editors and teachers of craft we allow conventionality to claim a self-evident aesthetic “rightness” while demanding that the unconventional justify itself. But, really, the *conventional* can’t actually justify itself, either, other than through broad appeals to historical aesthetic fashion.

  5. Michael says:

    @writerbug: Happy to expound. My sense is that this use of the present-tense is a way for a writer to not be permitted to look beyond the present. It’s a restriction the writer puts on the story that, maybe, suggests an unwillingness to attempt something “bigger” in terms of time, memory, character.

    As for going into the past, knowing what to mine and what to leave out is difficult. I’m not completely and totally anti-flashback in short stories … but I’m pretty close. Flashback is very different from being non-linear, a distinction I want to be clear about. I think this gets to finding the significant details of the narrative, both in terms of description and scenes shown.

    @Patrick. Future-tense is out – the phrasing is clunky. So, we have past and present, generally speaking. Past tense has the possibility, the suggestion, of time and place that present tense denies (clunky transitions between past and present aside, which almost always seem to be the simple way of “showing” transitions in time).

    This is a tough conversation I’ve thrown out there: as I wrote to Woody, there’s always an example that works against what I’m saying – one of my students pointed out Updike’s Rabbit, Run as an example. Stories written in the past tense can probably achieve and suggest more than a story in present tense.