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In 2010, the novelist Philip Hensher complained that half of that year’s Man Booker nominees were novels written in the present tense.He insulted the choice, dismissing it as only fashionable.But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense.
I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. Reading the Gass essay is like finding the source code for so many contemporary complaints about literature (dating, yes, to 28 years ago).
As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face—and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. As Laura Miller notes in that same coverage, William Gass wrote in 1987 on what seemed to him to be the alarming increase in the Present Tense suggesting it was in some way related to the increase in women writers. He begins with a deliberately bad story told stagily in the present tense—as if performing it badly is a way to prove it doesn’t work—then goes on to praise Katherine Anne Porter’s “Under the Flowering Judas Tree” as a good example.
* * * * In my experience, most conversations about the present tense go as follows: “the present tense” “complaint” “good point that some of the writing is good” “it’s really only good if people use it well” [awkward silence, no further discussion] As a part time professional ‘creative writing tutor’, I can say I only ever teach the present tense as one tool among many.
I do not urge it on my ‘sensitive and artistic storytellers’, or any of the insensitive ones either.
But both men acted as if its use should be, if not abolished, severely curtailed.
Laura Miller, covering the controversy for Salon, writes: What reason is it that writers give for opting for the present tense?
Hensher went so far as to write an op-ed—in the present tense—complaining the present tense was “everywhere, like Japanese Knotweed.” His complaint is at least among the most generous I’ve come across—it acknowledges some historical examples of the present tense like Dickens’s , as well as that it is used in both English lyric poetry and the vernacular, as well as in journalism and screenplay treatments.
Phillip Pullman did much the same, his op-ed citing the verb tense’s use in also, as well as, occasionally, in Jane Eyre.
But either way, this, along with the previous complaints, really begs this question: What exactly are writing professors teaching about the present tense?
* * * * I approached a number of authors who teach or have taught writing to students at a variety of levels and asked how they taught the present tense.