The other day I was browsing in a bookshop and picked up a crime novel that has been well reviewed. I opened it and it was written in the present tense. Back it went on the shelf. It was the same with the next one I looked at. Is it just me, or are more novels written in the present tense these days? I have a real prejudice against this. It isn’t that I absolutely won’t read one written in the present tense, but my heart sinks when I see it and it is a barrier to be overcome. It has put me off reading Wolf Hall – though eventually I may get round to it.
True, I have written in the present tense myself – but only in a couple of short stories. I quite like the present tense for a short story – though there too it can be overdone. For a novel the past tense comes more naturally to me. It seems more logical: the events of the story have happened in the past. They are not happening right now as they are being recounted and as one reads. This kind of immediacy is of course what is aimed at with the present tense and as with all fiction it is a matter of suspending one’s disbelief. I just find it harder with the present tense. I’d love to know what other readers – and writers – think.
Well, a branch of Blackwell’s, rather than the company itself. Last week I went into Broomhill in Sheffield as I do every six weeks or so to have my hair cut and signs were up in the windows of Blackwell’s announcing that everything was half-price because the shop was about to close. I don’t know why: just not making enough profit, I guess, or maybe the rent had gone up. We used to live in Broomhill and I have bought many a book there over the years (there used to be a particularly good section on travel and a lot of the guidebooks on my shelves came from there). And I had my one and only proper book launch there in 2006 when FOOTFALL came out. So I am sorry to see it go. I am sorry to see any bookshop go. Now if you want to buy a book in Broomhill you will have to go to one of the many charity shops. Oxfam has a particularly large selection and stocks almost as much crime fiction as Blackwell’s did. But you won’t be able to order books there, or have the staff recommend books or choose books that they’ve enjoyed themselves to put on display. Of course you can get pretty much everything on-line, but you won’t get the little extras that make book shops special places. And yes, I do buy books on Amazon, but I make a point of buying from book shops as well. Otherwise they won’t be there when I want them. Further to last week’s blog: my friend Jonathan pointed out that Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL is written in the present tense – and also the follow-up, BRING UP THE BODIES. I can see why that works. If you want to bring the past vividly to life, to write in present tense help the reader to understand that it hasn’t always been history. For the people living then it was life right now, immediate and unpredictable, and anything could have happened. Perhaps that was why I instinctively chose the present tense when I wrote a historical short story.